Theological Panic Underlies Election Rhetoric


The Southern Baptist Convention's IVoteValues.com voter-registration drive targeted potential voters presumed sympathetic to Bush.
Why are so many white, evangelical Christian clergy expressing such hyper-statements about the 2004 presidential election?

At one extreme is the threat of Christian insurrection if Republicans lose at the ballot box. At the other extreme is the claim that God has already chosen President Bush. In between are the redundant voices that pitch the election as the most critical contest in 50 years.

 

"I think we have more reasons to start a revolution than they did in 1776," said Bob Russell, senior pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky.

 

"They had taxation without representation; we have imposed morality without representation," he said. "I don't see how you can be a dedicated Christian and remain neutral."

 

According to a Columbus Dispatch news story, Russell warned of anarchy because of the lack of moral conscience.

 

Russell's church sponsors the Christian Soldiers Network, which provided e-mail updates to activate Christian voters.

 

Across the aisle from Russell is Pat Robertson, who predicted in January, "I think George Bush is going to win in a walk."

 

Speaking on "The 700 Club," Robertson said, "I really believe I'm hearing from the Lord it's going to be like a blowout election in 2004."

 

Robertson said, "It doesn't make any difference what he does, good or bad, God picks him up because he's a man of prayer and God's blessing him."

 

By mid-October, Robertson had flip-flopped on his prediction. "I think it's razor thin now," he said. "But the president, in my opinion, in the next couple of weeks … is going to pull ahead of Kerry and I think he will have a substantial Electoral College victory when it's over."

 

Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., and head of the National Association of Evangelicals, did not claim divine revelation about the election. But he did predict conditional victory based on what Christians did.

 

"If evangelicals vote, then Bush will win. If they don't vote, then Kerry could win. I think this election will be a referendum on liberalism."

 

Between the threat of revolution and the prediction of victory are the right-wing evangelicals and fundamentalists who talk about the election with an anxious shortness of breath.

 

"Tuesday, Nov. 2, will be the most important election day U.S. citizens have faced in 50 years," said Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

 

In a thinly veiled endorsement of Bush, Warren said: "If the members of our congregations fail to vote on Tuesday, we are actually surrendering our responsibilities to choose the direction of our country. If we do not vote, we have no right to criticize or complain when unbiblical decisions are made by the courts in the decades ahead."

 

Warren identified five "non-negotiable" issues, none of which included the dominant biblical imperatives of justice, peacemaking, racial reconciliation, equality for women and environmental stewardship.

 

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, told the New York Times last week that God wanted him deeply invested in support of Bush, even though Dobson had felt that caution was needed when one was involved in partisan politics.

 

"I felt he [God] wanted me this time to pour myself into this, no matter how much pain or stress or physical inconvenience, to try to influence this election," said Dobson.

 

The day before the election, Dobson told his radio audience that "it's all on the line tomorrow." He said that they had a "duty" to God to vote.

 

"There is a spiritual battle going on…. And we simply must let our voices be heard."

 

For nine months, white evangelical and fundamentalist clergy have been on the verge of a theological panic attack about the presidential election. They have demonstrated profound anxiety while reassuring themselves obsessively that God's in control.

 

Why are they so panicked?

 

One answer is that they know that their preaching is too anemic and the church is too weak as an agent of redemption.  

 

Since their own churches are marked by widespread divorce, child abuse, substance abuse, greed, infidelity, hypocrisy, abortion and homosexuality, they know that the church lacks a transforming power about which they preach weekly. They see larger social forces overwhelming the church and contend that only a theocratic government is powerful enough to bring about moral revival. They fear that Bush is their last hope for a renewed America.

 

Another answer is that they have been manipulating into believing a political lie. They believe that they are both responsible for the nation's mean-spiritedness and saving the nation's soul from further division.

 

Carl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, has spun a tale that 4 million evangelicals did not vote in 2000. By implication, had evangelical leaders gotten their members to vote for Bush, he would be a president with legitimacy, instead of a president who lost the popular vote and was selected by the courts, an institution which the religious right has demonized for decades. Therefore, this argument goes, evangelical leaders deserve the blame for the country's division and can now redeem themselves by activating their congregants in 2004.

 

These anxious clergy have misread the nature of the church and gotten too close to political power. They have lost their prophetic voice.

 

What is needed when the last vote is counted is a council of wise clergy who keep their distance from partisan political leaders and have the courage of compromise for the sake of the welfare of the nation.

 

Robert Parham is executive director of EthicsDaily.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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