Chapter OneTake Back the Faith
Co-opted by the Right, Dismissed by the Left
Many of us feel that our faith has been stolen, and it's time to take it
back. In particular, an enormous public misrepresentation of Christianity
has taken place. And because of an almost uniform media misperception,
many people around the world now think Christian faith stands for
political commitments that are almost the opposite of its true meaning.
How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and only
pro-American? What has happened here? And how do we get back to a
historic, biblical, and genuinely evangelical faith rescued from its
contemporary distortions? That rescue operation is even more crucial
today, in the face of a deepening social crisis that cries out for more
Of course, nobody can steal your personal faith; that's between you and
God. The problem is in the political arena, where strident voices claim to
represent Christians when they clearly don't speak for most of us. It's
time to take back our faith in the public square, especially in a time
when a more authentic social witness is desperately needed.
The religious and political Right gets the public meaning of religion
mostly wrong - preferring to focus only on sexual and cultural issues
while ignoring the weightier matters of justice. And the secular Left
doesn't seem to get the meaning and promise of faith for politics at
all-mistakenly dismissing spirituality as irrelevant to social change. I
actually happen to be conservative on issues of personal responsibility,
the sacredness of human life, the reality of evil in our world, and the
critical importance of individual character, parenting, and strong "family
values." But the popular presentations of religion in our time (especially
in the media) almost completely ignore the biblical vision of social
justice and, even worse, dismiss such concerns as merely "left wing."
It is indeed time to take back our faith.
Take back our faith from whom? To be honest, the confusion comes from many
sources. From religious right-wingers who claim to know God's political
views on every issue, then ignore the subjects that God seems to care the
most about. From pedophile priests and cover-up bishops who destroy lives
and shame the church. From television preachers whose extravagant
lifestyles and crass fund-raising tactics embarrass more Christians than
they know. From liberal secularists who want to banish faith from public
life and deny spiritual values to the soul of politics. And even from
liberal theologians whose cultural conformity and creedal modernity serve
to erode the foundations of historic biblical faith. From New Age
philosophers who want to make Jesus into a nonthreatening spiritual guru.
And from politicians who love to say how religious they are but utterly
fail to apply the values of faith to their public leadership and political
It's time to reassert and reclaim the gospel faith - especially in our
public life. When we do, we discover that faith challenges the powers that
be to do justice for the poor, instead of preaching a "prosperity gospel"
and supporting politicians who further enrich the wealthy We remember that
faith hates violence and tries to reduce it and exerts a fundamental
presumption against war, instead of justifying it in God's name. We see
that faith creates community from racial, class, and gender divisions and
prefers international community over nationalist religion, and we see that
"God bless America" is found nowhere in the Bible. And we are reminded
that faith regards matters such as the sacredness of life and family bonds
as so important that they should never be used as ideological symbols or
mere political pawns in partisan warfare.
The media like to say, "Oh, then you must be the religious Left?" No, not
at all, and the very question is the problem. Just because a religious
Right has fashioned itself for political power in one utterly predictable
ideological guise does not mean that those who question this political
seduction must be their opposite political counterpart. The best public
contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable
or a loyal partisan. To always raise the moral issues of human rights, for
example, will challenge both left and right-wing governments that put
power above principles. Religious action is rooted in a much deeper place
than "rights" - that place being the image of God in every human being.
Similarly, when the poor are defended on moral or religious grounds, it is
certainly not "class warfare," as the rich often charge, but rather a
direct response to the overwhelming focus on the poor in the Scriptures,
which claim they are regularly neglected, exploited, and oppressed by
wealthy elites, political rulers, and indifferent affluent populations.
Those Scriptures don't simply endorse the social programs of the liberals
or the conservatives, but they make it clear that poverty is indeed a
religious issue, and the failure of political leaders to help uplift the
poor will be judged a moral failing.
It is precisely because religion takes the problem of evil so seriously
that it must always be suspicious of too much concentrated power - politically
and economically - either in totalitarian regimes or in huge
multinational corporations that now have more wealth and power than many
governments. It is indeed our theology of evil that makes us strong
proponents of both political and economic democracy - not because people
are so good, but because they often are not and need clear safeguards and
strong systems of checks and balances to avoid the dangerous accumulations
of power and wealth.
It's why we doubt the goodness of all superpowers and the righteousness of
empires in any era, especially when their claims of inspiration and
success invoke theology and the name of God. Given the human tendencies of
military and political power for self-delusion and deception, is it any
wonder that hardly a religious body in the world regards the ethics of
unilateral and preemptive war as "just"?