The new wrinkle in evangelical politics? Knowing it’s not all about politics

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA TODAY, March 26, 2012

Judging from the Republican presidential race and news media story lines, it’s the same old, same old in 2012: GOP candidates courting the evangelicals. Analysts offering their latest conjecture about whether “the evangelical vote” will swing to Candidate X or Y. Evangelical kingmakers gathering on a ranch in Texas to anoint the official evangelical choice to defeat the despised Democrat.

But not far below the surface, change is afoot in the ranks of a once-reliable GOP voting bloc and around a term, “evangelical,” that was once synonymous with conservative politics. As has been widely reported, more evangelicals are breaking formation and tackling social problems like human trafficking that weren’t on the evangelical political agenda a decade or two ago. Even more seismic, though, is a challenge being mounted against the notion that electoral politics is the way to do God’s work in America’s public life.

In a refreshing departure from the culture war mind-set that has come to characterize this and other recent elections, some of evangelicalism’s leading thinkers and spokespeople are trumpeting an important insight: Christians too fixated on politics are bound to end up frustrated and tarnished. And politics is not the only way to create positive change.

Politics played like sports

It’s good to find so many Americans interested in elections. But while following the big contests of recent years — the bruising rhetoric, the breathless 24/7 news media and Internet coverage, the “just win” mentality — one gets the sense that it’s often not the right kind of interest. Many of us seem to engage in politics the same way we follow sports: What strategy will it take for my team to stick it to the opponent on Sunday? Who’s moving up and who’s moving down in the playoff race? Who’s dissing whom on Twitter?

Seeing many of Christianity’s most ardent and visible followers caught up in the mean-spirited, truth-demolishing aspects of this is one of the more discomforting features of today’s politics. What a relief it is to see a growing community of evangelical thinkers and leaders restoring sanity and taking corrective action to free their faith from politics’ damaging grip.

Consider Jonathan Merritt. A one-time GOP precinct leader and the son of a Baptist pastor from Georgia, Merritt, 29, has become one of the most persuasive articulators and exemplars of a revised form of evangelical engagement with politics. Despite the impression one gets from the political rhetoric of late — a “war” on Christians, a “war” on women, a “war” on contraception (and a “war,” evidently, on measured language) — Merritt is convinced that the culture wars’ days are numbered.

Merritt, author of the forthcoming book A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus beyond the Culture Wars, put it this way in an e-mail exchange with me: “Americans are tired of the incivility and the partisan divisiveness on both sides. Regardless of how much longer the culture wars are going to continue, Christians need to transcend the polemical, partisan, power-hungry battles that stymie the common good. If my intuition is wrong and the culture wars continue to rage on, my hope and prayer is that Christians will take a higher road as they seek to be faithful in the public square.”

A new kind of thinking

When it comes to evangelical engagement with politics, Merritt’s prescribed stance might be described as one foot in, one foot out. Politics is a responsibility of all citizens and too important to leave alone, argues Merritt, now an independent. Yet he calls on his fellow Jesus followers to stay out of the ideological trenches and avoid being reduced to partisan hacks. “Christians cannot join the ranks of the politically apathetic,” he says. “But we aren’t forced to choose a human-formed party with a systemized divide-and-conquer agenda, either. We can stand in the gap and claim loyalty only to Jesus.”

Leave it to the Christian in his 20s to capture something all of us would do well to realize — young, old, religious, agnostic, conservative, or liberal. As recently conceded by Louise Trubek, a fighter for women’s reproductive rights, “Maybe it is time to recognize that law alone is not enough to effect social change.” Indeed it is time, just as it’s time to recognize that politics alone are unlikely to forge the positive social transformation that political actors claim to want.

Political victories often prove temporary at best. Any sugar high we get from “our side” winning ought to be tempered by the sure knowledge that a galvanized opposition is mobilizing for the counterpunch even as we celebrate. Unless elections and laws are reflective of deeper social change, they are built on foundations of sand, likely to be washed away by the next shift in the fickle tides of public opinion. Better to expend energy moving hearts and changing minds than plotting tactics for short-term wins. Merritt is right. It’s not all about politics. And “the gap” is a great place for sincere Christians to stand, as well as common-good advocates of any (or no) religious persuasion.

Not that you’ll see much evidence of it in the latest news from the campaign trail, but there seems to be more of a crowd forming in that gap that Merritt describes. May it grow.

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is finishing a book on the emerging new faces of evangelicalism in politics and culture.