The Stranger in the Pulpit
In February of 2003, shortly before the U.S. declared war on Iraq, I asked my pastor if I could make a one-minute announcement from the pulpit about a letter I wrote to President Bush opposing the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq, giving congregants the opportunity to respond. As a Christian, I opposed the war on many grounds, and was concerned with the reflexive response of many of my fellow Christians to stand with President Bush and the current administration without critically thinking through what a Christian response might look like. My motivation was to give those in my local church the opportunity to sign the letter if they wished, to begin thinking soberly about their specific response, with the promise of sending it on to Washington the next day.
My request was flatly denied, despite having preached many times from this same pulpit (thirteen times in all!). A year earlier, a complete stranger had been granted unquestioned access to this same pulpit to make a lengthy announcement promoting a "God and Country" rally shortly after the tragic events of September 11th. One of the concerns the pastor and elders had with my peace-promoting announcement was that our particular church had no policy or stance on the topic of war. Is this to suggest that if they did have a policy, it might read, "No member of this congregation shall promote peace from the pulpit"? Furthermore, why was I not afforded at least equal access as the stranger who was permitted to speak for nearly 10 minutes on the merits of wedding God with country? I've discovered three reasons why my pro-peace announcement was so unpopular. Ironically, one of these reasons was revealed by the stranger who was permitted unbridled access to the pulpit that day to promote God and Country.
I've discovered many strangers in the pulpits of evangelical churches in this post-9/11 era. Some of the names of these strangers are nationalism, populism, corporatism, and patriotism. Many of these strangers are given unquestioned access to American pulpits. These strangers aren't required to submit their sermons for review, won't appear in the church bulletin, on church marquees, or in the Saturday church section of your local newspaper. These strangers don't request the pulpit to make one-minute announcements, paid-political advertisements, or special guest appearances. Instead, they receive unrestricted, voluntary, and unexamined access to America's pulpits. Why?
Many Christians in the American evangelical church have made a practice of defaulting to the right-wing political position that Republican politics provides. In recent decades, the evangelical church has become a spawning ground for a popular, pervasive, and unexamined Christian nationalism, despite plentiful biblical evidence opposing that position. This is nothing new. This penchant for power has been alive throughout the history of the church. Since Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century, the Catholic Church has made an art form of being on the power side of politics, from the inquisitions to the reformation age, and more recently during the Nazi era from 1930 to 1945. During the early 1940s the Nazis were fond of saying, "Deutschland uber alles!" which translated means "Germany over all!" There is a striking similarity of this popular Nazi chant and the desire that many evangelicals possess today to make the rest of American culture conform to their moral template of success for America. This reflexive posture is promulgated by many prominent Christian television and radio personalities and largely disseminated to the culture through the pulpits of America's local evangelical churches.
After the stranger had finished his unabashed promotion of church and state, I had the opportunity to approach him and ask him what biblical basis existed for uniting God and country. He had no response to this, choosing instead to launch into a rant about the dangers of abortion. Many evangelicals, like this man, have a deep-seated desire to impact the political process through legislating their own beliefs on the country. As a Christian, I oppose abortion too, but ironically, making abortion a crime again won't make America a more "Christian" country. What it will do, however, is broadcast to the culture at large that Christians in general and evangelicals in particular are more interested in law than grace. Civil laws may change behavior, but only God can truly change people's desire, their motivation, or why they believe what they believe. Most Christians are very comfortable with their pro-life position, but they are often guilty of making it the ONLY issue. They are not unlike single-issue politicians. Since Roe v. Wade was enacted in 1973, an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy, and manpower has gone into overturning this political mandate (it is still law, by the way). The opportunity costs, that is, what could have been done with that same time, money, energy, and manpower, have been nothing short of astronomical. All other issues, including the death penalty and war (issues which also involve death) have taken a very deep backseat to the issue of abortion. The culture knows where evangelicals stand on the abortion issue, but it sees them taking a stand for little else. Like one-issue candidates, they are seen as unworthy of serious reflection and consideration. This was the problem with the stranger in the pulpit. His agenda was not really wedding God with country for its own sake (as unbiblical as that is). His real goal, and that of many evangelical Christians, is to attain a Christian majority and overthrow Roe v. Wade once and for all. The question that begs to be asked if this ultimately became reality is: In what would Christians invest their time, money, talents, and energy next?
While a Christian majority might seem like a desirable goal (especially if you are a Christian), it reveals a fundamental flaw in the thinking and theology of evangelicals. Often, their thoughts and subsequent actions reveal a God who is too small. Isaiah 50:2 contrasts the disobedient young nation of Israel with the true servant. Isaiah asks, "Is my hand so short that it cannot ransom (save)? Or have I no power to deliver?" The big flaw in the American evangelical church is that it erroneously believes it must be a majority to impact the culture. God's arm is already plenty long enough without a Christian majority to change people's lives. Indeed, history confirms the power and potential of minority groups and their life-altering character. Several pivotal historical events over the past five centuries testify to this truth. From the Reformation in 1533, to the founding of this country in 1776, to civil rights gains in the 1960s, the power and potential of minority groups have been clearly demonstrated. Clearly, Christianity works better as a minority movement than a monolithic majority. Biblical history is replete with the underdog rising up and overwhelming the powerful majority. The story of Israel rising up over the Egyptians, David defeating Goliath, the vindication of the prophets' message, the incarnation of Christ and his ultimate victory at the Cross, and the spread of Christianity across the globe all demonstrate the power and potential of minority movements overcoming the entrenched majority.
Finally, and the reason why I was not allowed to make a one-minute announcement about promoting peace on the eve of war is that many evangelical Christians have little appreciation for disagreement of any kind. Like the stranger in the pulpit, many evangelical Christians have a very narrow tolerance for dissent as well as dissonance. Dissent can simply be defined as disagreement with the majority opinion. By dissonance, I'm referring to the level at which dialogue of an issue quickly reaches a harsh, discordant, and disharmonic pitch. Unresolved dissonance prevents us from reaching out in tangible ways to others who may be hurting, extending grace to the needy, clarifying differences, moving toward the middle to gain perspective, consciously becoming vulnerable, or offering forgiveness or confession. My dissent (on the war) created a level of dissonance (bolstered by the currently popular political position) that was not easily overcome. Because many evangelicals believe that they must be a majority to impact the culture, they have not thought through what life as a minority might look or feel like. Nor have they given serious consideration to the impact they might have on issues other than abortion. Perhaps this is one reason why my church had no policy on war. Not only was it a convenient first-line excuse, sadly it was true. There are many more questions the American evangelical church must ask itself and work through if it wishes to impact its culture in a way which creates curiosity rather than confusion, intrigue rather than interrogation, dialogue rather than dissonance, and leaves in its wake grace rather than legalism.
If evangelical Christians in America want to have a voice in the culture, they must accept their minority role and accept and work through the dissent and dissonance (even amongst their own) that naturally result when wrestling with issues that matter. Lastly, they must do this by resisting the temptation to default to the popular majority political position (be it Democratic or Republican). This reflexive default to power will not gain them a wide hearing, but will render their message more difficult to hear and relegate them further to the margins of American society. And that just might be a fate worse than hell for most American evangelical Christians.
S. J. Ross is a freelance writer who lives in central Ohio. He is a doctoral student at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, OH. His thesis attempts to impact evangelical churches toward considering an anti-war position.