News from the Tennessee Valley Religion

Rev. Robert Sparkman

My views of faith and politics

It was a nice lunch my wife and I were having when I told her I was going to write about faith and politics.

Debbi put her head in her hands and said, "Robert, why do you want to bring up something controversial? Write about something spiritual so people can have devotional time with it."

Well, read on and see if I get myself into or out of trouble.

No political system or party has a corner on truth or a monopoly on God. This seems so obvious, but saying this simple truth does not exhaust the subject.

Christians can see things so differently. In my own United Methodist church over the years, the seminaries, national boards and many of the preachers have been closer to a liberal worldview. Some of the preachers and the majority of the laypersons, according to a study in the 1990s, have been directly opposite. With so many within the same denomination disagreeing, how can we expect there not to be disagreements between Christians from dissimilar religious, educational or social backgrounds?

In my opinion, the liberal wing of the Christian church started trying to impact the secular political system first. The National Council of Churches and the dominant mainline denominations of the 1930s through the 1960s, for example, lobbied for government solutions to poverty, racism and the nuclear arms race. When evangelicals later were enraged by Supreme Court decisions, they got active. They probably have been a little more up front in local churches with their political activity, with abortion and school prayer among their issues.

Whoever started it and whoever has been more effective about it, churches got political. Debates in all denominations today are more likely to be about a social issue than a doctrinal or biblical disagreement.

And the tone of the debate is so bad. Some new books explore the impact of evangelical political involvement, including "American Theocracy" by Kevin Phillips. One review of his book includes this: "In his section on radicalized religion, he warns of 'the pitfalls of imperial Christian overreach from Rome to Britain.' " Another book is "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" by Ann Coulter, which just by its title sets a destructive tone. Do sides have to disagree in such uncivil ways that divide the culture more and more?

The job of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. We help people find faith and salvation. We help them find God in prayer and worship, a God who nourishes them in their daily lives. We try to get them to study the Bible. They are, hopefully, shaped to become more like Christ.

When they become disciples, some see one set of needs and problems to work on, and they vote accordingly. Another person becomes a disciple and sees the problems from a different biblical perspective and works and votes in another way. They are all disciples of Christ who are acting out their Christian values in their lives.

How can we handle this paradox of Christians believing and voting in opposite ways because of their faith? Is one segment wrong about everything and the other always right? Can there be a coming together or a synthesizing of views so that we get a perspective on the truth of "What would Jesus do?"

Here is my thought: Christians vote for different reasons, but the moral foundation of their votes makes the difference. With all Christians voting their faith, God's will for us will be more perfectly done.

Some are liberal for a secular reason and others because of the conviction that Jesus would want the government to help the poor. Some are conservative for a worldly reason, while others are led to the stance by a conviction that only a good job and a changed life can really help all the people.

So how do we make sense of this paradox? Two things may help:

1. Christians' votes may be similar to their "worldly" neighbors, but the different motivation should be felt by the whole culture. The people they elect should feel the religious and moral foundation of their support and represent them accordingly.

2. One set of Christians may be right at one time, and another at another time in our history. Both sides are Christian and both vote their Christian convictions.

Over the broad sweep of time, I think God's purposes will be worked out in the most perfect way in this imperfect world. I believe there is an absolute truth, and maybe the interplay of all the disciples of Christ is the clearest way for us to see it in this world.

Having Christians arguing these issues out in the political debate shows not the weakness of Christianity but its strength. We are not just swallowing what we were taught but are trying to work our faith out in the world and in our voting. What does not help is the tone of the debate in our culture, which cannot accept honest differences of conviction according to religious principles.

The Rev. Robert Sparkman, senior pastor of Hartselle First United Methodist Church, is one of several local ministers writing religion columns for THE DAILY. For more information, call Melanie Smith on Tuesdays or Wednesdays at 340-2468.

Rev. Robert Sparkman Rev. Robert Sparkman

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