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Divide or Expand?

Recently I was asked to speak to an interfaith discussion group. On that particular day they were discussing the moral and political positions of Christianity. After a presentation by an Orthodox believer and one from a Roman Catholic, I was supposed to give the Protestant presentation. Imagine trying to sum up in about twenty minutes how Protestants approach moral and political issues!

I did a quick historical survey (and I do mean quick) and then tried to show the incredible diversity within Protestantism. “Main line” Protestants, Liberal Christianity, the Religious Right, the Emerging Church – talk about diversity! Before a time of Q & A I summed up my presentation with two points. First of all, I believe Protestantism (particularly Evangelicalism) is going to go through a time of great upheaval when it comes to moral, political and theological issues. (It’s already begun and I think it will continue for a number of years – even decades.) Second, I’m optimistic about the future.

Take a look at two perspectives. Recently James Dobson spoke to the National Religious Broadcasters convention. He expressed his concern about the future. Realizing his own age and the passing of conservative icons like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, he said, “It causes me to wonder who will be left to carry the banner when this generation of leaders is gone.” The Associated Press quoted him as saying, “The question is, will the younger generation heed the call? Who will defend the unborn child in the years to come? Who will plead for the Terri Schiavos of the world? Who's going to fight for the institution of marriage, which is on the ropes today?” He continued, “Who in the next generation will be willing to take the heat, when it's so much safer and more comfortable to avoid controversial subjects. What will be the impact on the conservative Christian church when the patriarchs have passed?”

Good questions. And very revealing. What stands out to many of us is the range of issues embraced by the leaders of the Religious Right. It’s a small range. Abortion, same-sex marriage and…uh…well…uh…that about sums it up. I’m being a little facetious, but you get my point. When the Religious Right talks about the “moral issues” of the day they’re not talking about genocide in Darfur, third world indebtedness, the AIDS epidemic, human trafficking, hunger in America, or war. War! Wouldn’t you think that war is a moral issue?

So I think that the answer to Dr. Dobson’s question is, no one. I don’t think the next generation will see the rise of leaders who confine themselves to the issues of the Religious Right.

Take a look at these comments from Brian McLaren…

Now, I’m not arguing with the passion of Dr. Dobson or his commitment to the unborn. Jesus taught us to watch out for the weak and vulnerable. I can’t imagine anyone more vulnerable than a child in the womb who is facing a violent abortion. I applaud those who speak out in defense of the unborn. We must continue to do that. I believe it is what Jesus requires. But there are some problems with the pro-life movement that need corrected.

One of the problems is with alliances. When you become a one or two-issue Christian movement you tend to embrace those who agree with you on that issue and overlook the un-Christian stances of your allies. Many in the Religious Right so aligned themselves (and the movement) to the Republican Party that Americans began to think that “Christianity” and “conservatism” are synonymous. They're not. Even though groups like The Christian Coalition actually co-opted the name of our Savior for conservative political ends.

But perhaps the greatest problem has been this belief that every other issue is merely a distraction. Recently Richard Cizik spoke out about Christians' responsibility to the environment - creation care - and he was hammered by leaders of the Religious Right who said that he was watering down the political influence of Evangelicals. They even called for him to be fired from his post at the National Association of Evangelicals.

So why am I optimistic? I’m optimistic because, in spite of this, I see the conscience of the church expanding. I see a younger generation who want their faith to confront everything that would hinder the coming of His Kingdom. And while I'm 51 years old I feel a kinship to this generation and an optimism about what they - we - can accomplish by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

But we have to be careful. We must make sure that we don’t try to replace the Christian Right with a Christian Left. (Jesus transcends right and left.) Instead we must consistently watch out for “the least of these.” That means we can’t have a list of moral values that forgets about the unborn.

I suggest we look to expansion instead of division. Let’s expand our hearts instead of drawing distinctions. Some will be called to champion the rights of the unborn. Some will work toward the alleviation of poverty. Some will be outspoken against unjust war. Some will work toward the cessation of human trafficking. Some will speak out on environmental concerns. All of these – and more – are Kingdom work. 

If you’re someone who has identified with the Christian Right or if you’re a middle-of-the-road Evangelical, don’t be afraid of the Emerging Church. Every movement of God is led by fallible people who make mistakes. The Christian Right has made its share of mistakes and so has Evangelicalism as a whole and so will the Emerging Church. Don’t base your politics or your theology on fear. The Church of Jesus Christ is growing and expanding. It will be tumultuous, but it will be worth it as we prepare for Him to make all things new.

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