Sunday, July 30, 2006

Church refuses theocratic temptation. Republicans walk out.

The New York Times has run a fascinating story about one of the evangelical megachurches. Gregory Boyd has been pastor of the church for 12 years. When he founded the church it had 40 members and he built it up to over 5,000 members. But Boyd did something that most evangelicals didn’t do. He resisted the urge to jump into the Republican Party and advocate “taking over America for Jesus”.

The newspaper says he was constantly approached. “Would he please announce a rally against gay marriage during services? Would he introduce a politician from the pulpit? Could members set up a table in the lobby promoting their anti-abortion work? Would the church distribute “voters’ guides” that all but endorsed Republican candidates? And with the country at war, please couldn’t the church hang an American flag in the sanctuary?”

And each time he refused. Then he preached a series of sermons outlining his positions. It wasn’t that he advocated abortion or even supported gay marriage. He argued that the church was losing it’s message and being turned into an arm of a political party instead. Whether one supports the church’s message or not you can’t argue that the American evangelical church has been turned into an arm of the Republican Party. Or perhaps the Republican Party is now an arm of the evangelical church. It is hard to distinguish who controls whom.

Boyd’s message was simple: “When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses. When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.” The idea of putting religion ahead of political power did not sit well with his congregation. Even as he preached theocrats in the congregation got up and walked out. All in all some 1,000 people decided to go somewhere where the pastor was promising them political power. Mary van Sickle works for the church and says she lost 20 volunteers from the Sunday School because of the sermons: “They said, ‘You’re not doing what the church is supposed to be doing, which is supporting the Republican way.’”

Boyd has just published a new book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church to explain his position. And Boyd is not alone. Pastor Brian McLaren of the Cedar Ridge Community Church says the “dominance of the evangelical identity by the religious right” has gone too far. “You cannot say the world ‘Jesus’ in 2006 without having an awful lot of baggage going along with it. You can’t say the world ‘Christian’ and you certainly can’t say the world ‘evangelical’ without it now raising connotations and a certain cringe factor in people. Because people think, ‘Oh no, what is going to come next is homosexual bashing, or pro war rhetoric, or complaining about ‘activist judges.’”

In his sermons Boyd “laid out a broad argument that the role of Christians was not to seek ‘power over’ others—by controlling governments, passing legislation or fighting wars.” He said “America wasn’t founded as a theocracy” but was founded “by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.”

Boyd’s church is affiliated with one of the Baptist denominations. Yet is is often forgot that Baptists once stood for separation of church and state. One of the most prominent Baptists in American history was John Leland, an ally of Thomas Jefferson. And he frequently spoke out with a message similar to Boyd’s. Here are some quotes from Leland. You will see his consistent support for freedom. Something most evangelicals today don’t do.

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever...Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians."

“Disdain mean suspicion, but cherish manly jealousy; be always jealous of your liberty, your rights. Nip the first bud of intrusion on your constitution. Be not devoted to men; let measures be your object, and estimate men according to the measures they pursue. Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion; it is spiritual tyranny--the worst of despotism. It is turnpiking the way to heaven by human law, in order to establish ministerial gates to collect toll. It converts religion into a principle of state policy, and the gospel into merchandise. Heaven forbids the bans of marriage between church and state; their embraces therefore, must be unlawful. Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, in choosing representatives. It is electioneering. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes. If pure religion is the criterion to denominate candidates, those who make a noise about it must be rejected; for their wrangle about it, proves that they are void of it. Let honesty, talents and quick despatch, characterise the men of your choice. Such men will have a sympathy with their constituents, and will be willing to come to the light, that their deeds may be examined. . . .”

“The work of the legislature is to make laws for the security of life, liberty and property, and leave religion to the consciences of individuals .”

“Christianity... has suffered more injury by its pretended friends, who have undertaken to regulate it by law, than it has from all its enemies.”

“What leads legislators into this error, is confounding sins and crimes together -- making no difference between moral evil and state rebellion: not considering that a man may be infected with moral evil, and yet be guilty of no crime, punishable by law. If a man worships one God, three Gods, twenty Gods, or no God -- if he pays adoration one day in a week, seven days or no day -- wherein does he injure the life, liberty or property of another? Let any or all these actions be supposed to be religious evils of an enormous size, yet they are not crimes to be punished by laws of state, which extend no further, in justice, than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”

For those so inclined you can listen to Boyd’s sermons that so offended the theocratic Republicans. They are:

Taking America Back for God
The Difference Between the Two Kingdoms
Abortion: A Kingdom of God Approach
Is the Church the Guardian of Social Morality?
Be Thou My Vision
In But Not of the World