Saturday, November 10, 2007

Evangelical leaders + politics = Bad religion

(Originally published 11/10/07)


That was my reaction to the news that Christian televangelist Pat Robertson was endorsing Rudy Giuliani in the Republican race for president.

What’s a pro-life, Christian conservative leader doing endorsing a pro-choice candidate who has contributed to Planned Parenthood, arguably the largest abortion provider in the world?

Excuse the double entendre, but politics really does make for strange bedfellows.

“I just believe that I needed to make a statement … that Rudy Giuliani is without question an acceptable candidate,” the New York Times quoted Robertson as saying.

Why settle for an “acceptable” candidate? Social conservatives would seem to have a sure thing in former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is also a Baptist minister. If it was about the issues, why wouldn’t their leaders get behind him instead of threatening to run a third-party candidate?

The answer: For evangelical leaders, the presidential contest has become more about winning than advancing their values, and they don’t think Huckabee can win. Robertson as much as said so.

“I know how the game is played. I think we do want a front-runner from the Republican Party who can win the general election,” Robertson said.

In other words: Sell. Out. Forget values; beat Hillary.

But what’s the point of victory if there’s no difference between the winner and the loser?

For years, Democrats have complained that evangelicals’ near-exclusive support of Republicans was more about power than principle. It seems they may be right, at least when it comes to evangelical leaders.

So GOP presidential candidates are falling all over each other to curry favor with the Pat Robertsons of America. Remember that Saturday Night Live skit, “Who’s More Grizzled?” The Republican presidential primary is starting to look like “Who’s More Religious:”

  • Giuliani told Robertson’s audiences in September that he believes in God and prays to Jesus for “guidance and help.” He wanted to be a priest when he was younger, he added.
  • Mitt Romney has courted evangelicals for months, working to convince them that his Mormonism is essentially the mirror of Christianity, at least when it comes to social policy.
  • John McCain is trying to rebuild bridges with Christian conservatives after dubbing Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance” during his 2000 campaign.

Evangelical leaders aren’t backing away from their self-appointed position in quality control. From their figurative thrones, they are like Roman emperors in the Colosseum, passing judgment on candidates’ religious fitness and giving congregants the thumbs up or down. Robertson is the just the latest to do so. Earlier this year, Focus on the Family guru James Dobson told US News & World Report that he didn’t think Fred Thompson was a Christian at all; he also told a Dallas radio audience, “I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances … I pray that we won’t get stuck with him.”

Don’t get me wrong. Understanding a candidate’s personal values, on religion among others, is crucial to voters’ ability to know what is at that person’s core.

But Jesus taught his followers not to grandstand in the sight and for the praise of man. Christianity isn’t meant to be a public display of religion. Instead, it is a private, personal relationship between Heavenly Father and child, publicly displayed by the fruits of the Spirit.

Social conservatives can diffuse the religious competition the GOP primary has become by consciously committing themselves to considering who best reflects their own personal convictions – religious and otherwise – and taking that knowledge, in faith, to the voting booth.

And the proof of the health and strength of America’s Christian conservative constituency will be when the political endorsements of their leaders don’t matter after all.

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