I am fascinated this year by how some of the religious dynamics of recent electoral cycles have been turned on their head. Public faith ceased to be the sole domain of Republicans at the very outset of this presidential campaign. And now that we are down to three candidates, the contrast with 2000 and 2004 could not be more stark. The Republican nominee-to-be, John McCain, is reticent about his faith, we are told. Yet the two Democrats in the race are more than willing to speak about religion as formative and important in their lives and in their vision of societal health. Recent religion-oriented controversies don't alter this basic, striking fact. So where are the Evangelicals who so dominated U.S. electoral politics for the better part of the last 30 years, and who were largely credited with bringing our current Republican president to the White House — twice? Opinion polls find them all over the map, with gaps between generations but no real clarity on what will determine their choices in voting booths in November. Some journalists report "debate" and "dissension" in Evangelical ranks. The New York Times Magazine devoted a lengthy article to what it called "the Evangelical Crackup." As our listeners (or readers of this newsletter) will know, we began talking in 2006 about what we called — more aptly, I believe — "the evolution of American Evangelicalism" in an interview with Richard Cizik, the vice president of governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals. That process continues, as we find vividly embodied in this week's three-way discussion between Chuck Colson, Greg Boyd, and Shane Claiborne. Colson, the elder statesman and most traditionally conservative voice in this group, might not use the word "evolution" to describe what is happening. But he does speak of a process of maturation. "I think we've gotten out of that adolescent stage of being a power bloc or a special interest vying for power," Colson says near the beginning of this conversation. "We're taking a much more sophisticated look at what it means to be a Christian in public life today." Chuck Colson reminds us also that the entry of Evangelicals into electoral politics was, in itself, a diversion from most of the 20th century. He, Boyd, and Claiborne reflect, interestingly enough, very differently on what they've learned from being and watching Evangelicals who've been engaged in public life in recent years. And they retrace some ancient debates: What did Jesus mean when he said, "Render unto Caesar's what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's"? How does one walk the line between the realities of politics and society — which the New Testament calls the "kingdoms of this world" — and the values of the "Kingdom of God"? As you'll hear, these three are formulating very different real-world responses to these questions. Greg Boyd, for example, believes that a biblical faith offers no special wisdom on politics per se and that Christian entanglement with American patriotism has warped faith at its core. For him, the sole calling is to live in community in a new way, to model "the Kingdom." That means not agitating against abortion by way of law but caring comprehensively and pragmatically when there is an unwanted pregnancy in his congregation. Shane Claiborne speaks of his generation's revulsion at the "meanness" that has marked the politics/religion intersection in recent years and his resolve to chart a different path. This discussion does not suggest that a retreat is in the works, a circle back to early 20th-century pietism. It does suggest that a wide and diverse palette of viewpoints and activities will define Evangelical civic and political engagement in the years to come. The broadened agenda of Richard Cizik's NAE seems imbedded in this diverse Evangelical imagination — holding concern for the morality of war and the plight of the poor and imprisoned alongside and within a "pro-life" orientation. This nuanced discussion has potential resonance far beyond the internal concerns of American Evangelicalism. The question of the proper role of religion in politics and nation-building is one of great challenges of the contemporary world. It will be fascinating, indeed, if Evangelical self-reflection and "evolution" or "maturation" might serve as a kind of model as people of other traditions wrestle with the hard places in life, both individual and public, where transcendent ideals meet earthly realities.
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SoundSeen: Video "Three Degrees of Separation"
Khakis, blue jeans, and dungarees graced the stage at this public event in San Diego. The generational differences seemed obvious. But this lively conversation revealed a shared theology that guides these three men as they interpret and live out their values in varying ways.