Clementa Pinckney stood tall for liberty and justice for all before his brutal murder at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina. State Senator/Reverend Pinckney was both a passionate pastor and a passionate politician.
Martin Luther King changed America. His stirring sermons stirred the pot for revival that spilled out of churches and eventually swayed a nation. Voting rights. Workers rights. Civil rights. Equal rights. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was both a Baptist minister and a political game changer.
William Barber is challenging North Carolina. His leadership within the NAACP and his Moral Mondays campaigns are gathering thousands upon thousands of protesters, most recently calling for the fortification of voting rights. Reverend Barber is both a zealous pastor and a political activist.
In an era when we frequently discuss and debate what it means for America to function within the parameters of the First Amendment, many religious people continue to strike a healthy balance as they live out their faith in the public arena. In a time when our divided society argues about the separation of Church and State, many religious Americans, motivated by their faith, continue to make significant contributions to the shape and meaning of our national politics.
However, as much as I admire the pastors I name here, there is another religious-political-pastors’ movement afoot that makes me very uncomfortable.
For years, David Lane has been quite successful at motivating social and religious conservatives to become more active in politics. His latest effort is a series of well-funded training sessions for conservative pastors recruiting them and equipping them to run for office. Lane’s goal is to muster an “army” of “politicized pastors.” The director of faith engagement for the Republican National Committee, Chad Connelly, was quoted in a recent NPR article as saying: “[With] 5 percent more Christian evangelical people who are serious about the word of God and voting biblical values, we change the nation. We change the nation forever.”
I can’t justly criticize David Lane’s process since I applaud Rev. Pinckney for his political involvement; since I support Rev. Barber’s efforts to influence North Carolina and the nation; since I praise the prophetic voice of Rev. King. Every American has a right to choose their belief system and to live accordingly. Every citizen has a right to speak their mind and to argue their position in the public conversation. Just about any American has the right to run for city council or state school board or president of the United States. Religious people are not excluded from these freedoms and responsibilities.
But the part that makes me uncomfortable about Lane and Connelly and others is their presumption that it is only their values that are the quintessential “biblical values.” One, I disagree that their values are appropriate biblical values and Two, I disagree that their values ought to be the values of our nation.
I too am a Christian, a pastor, a serious student of the Bible. I too am one whose political views have been shaped by my understanding of Scripture. I too am one whose current “ministry” is blogging and speaking my mind from my own Christian faith into the larger public conversation. I too am taking advantage of the political process by writing my monthly letters to Senator Cruz and trying to influence his positions. (Yeah Yeah; I know; you don’t need to say it.)
David Lane and Chad Connelly and Ted Cruz and so many others in the conservative camp are motivated by the values of conservation and preservation of the traditions of a people. They believe that America’s strength lies in going back to an imagined halcyon way of being society together. They argue that America’s hope lies in remaining faithful to original visions. (I’m trying to state their position fairly and not argue a straw man here.) And yes, conservative religious people can argue their position from the Bible because there are definite strands of traditional, culture-bound, conservative thinking in Scripture.
But I see something different in that same Bible – a different, more appropriate way to envision what it means to be faithful people living together as a society of humans. I find in this Bible something that has created within me very different “biblical values” from the ones motivating Lane and Cruz.
Instead of a sectarian, exclusivist, judgmental reading; instead of going backwards, I emphasize Scripture’s prophetic vision of Shalom – where the lion lies down with the lamb; where all people live together in peace; where the widow and orphan are honored and the stranger among us is welcomed. It is because of my grounding in Scripture that I must emphasize Grace – where redemption and reconciliation trump revenge and retaliation. It is because of my biblical values that I am compelled not to seek my own good and the privilege of a few but rather the well being of the whole community.
Religious Conservatives emphasize individuality.
Religious Progressives emphasize community.
I listen to my conservative Christian friends and I hear the language of individuality: a “personal relationship with Jesus,” personal piety and personal responsibility. It is logical, therefore, that people who hold these kinds of religious values will hold comparable political values that emphasize individual freedoms, individual rights and private charity. (That is, of course, unless we are talking about personal decisions made by a woman with her doctor or the personal decision of a gay couple to marry. Yeah Yeah; I know; the topic for another blog another time.)
I listen to my progressive Christian friends and I hear the language of community: seeking unity within our diversity, not just tolerating but celebrating our differences, protecting the vulnerable, standing with the oppressed, advocating on behalf of “the least of these” (Jesus’ words). These are the “biblical values” that have motivated King and Pinckney and Barber and so many others to work tirelessly for the good of all. These are the values I hope will change the nation; change the nation forever.
David Lane knows his army of politicized pastors will probably begin locally: school boards and city councils and county commissioners courts. Since our laws protect against religious tests of elected officials, these pastors have every right to run for public office.
And the rest of us have the right – and more importantly the responsibility – to critique the values and motivations of candidates and elected representatives within our states and communities. Let us be alert, aware and active. Let us test the candidates, not for their religious associations, but rather for their values that will surely shape their positions and policies. Let us ask bold questions, challenge self-centered attitudes and advocate for the principles that can create among us gracious, welcoming, caring American communities.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She frequently shares her thoughts with Coffee Party USA as a regular volunteer.