Rethinking moral leadership in America
By Michael Postlethwait, November 7, 2011
Okay, I’ll admit it upfront. I was on the wrong side of last night’s election results. My guy lost and I was quite disappointed. The reason that I am not disheartened in spite of it all has little to do with politics. I don’t like losing, but I will be a gentleman and verbally shake hands with the winners.
If you are tired of anything related to politics, please read on, because you will soon discover, I have a totally different agenda here. However, for the purpose to become clear yesterday’s election serves as an excellent backdrop to explaining something that happened over three decades earlier.
In the fall of 1979, I started living with a family in Hawaii for one year while my parents completed a job contract in Dubai. I was grateful for the opportunity to stay within the United States so that I did not have to go with my parents and convert my high school credits over to the European system of education. This was a very painful year for me in retrospect. The family I lived with struggled financially and outside of church and school, we rarely left the house. Almost immediately, I felt like a theological enemy because I didn’t realize that their particular brand of “Baptist” theology despised anything resembling Pentecostalism. I had been baptized in the Holy Spirit just two years earlier. I did absolutely nothing to challenge their theology. In spite of all my attempts to be very discreet regarding my views and respectful of theirs at the same time, as fate would have it, I soon found myself feeling like a young man who had been marked and isolated and disrespected.
At that time of my life, my eschatology, (views on the Second Coming Last Days etc), was quite different from my current beliefs on the subject. Ironically, I found that I could connect more with the family, (especially the father) through our common interest in eschatology. So, despite the theological chasm that existed between us on so many other issues, our common interest in current events and our love for the daily nightly newscast seemed at least somewhat successful in bridging the gap that normally existed between us for at least one half hour a day. As we would hear the latest Middle East news, we acted like armchair experts acting like we somehow had insight into the biblical significance of modern events!
It was in this context that I got my first introduction to what would become known as the “Moral Majority.” One of the co-founders of this political movement, Jerry Falwell, had been college roommates at Baptist Bible College in Springfield with the church pastor in Hawaii, Don Stone. They were very good friends, and talked quite regularly via phone, now two decades later. I was quite familiar with the preaching of Falwell from his church broadcast that had been being broadcast nationally for several years before Falwell became known for his politics. In those pre-Moral Majority days, Falwell was not known for his politics, but his intense evangelistic efforts. Like Falwell, Pastor Stone was not initially known for his political commentary behind the pulpit. However, as Election Day drew near, I noticed a subtle change to a greater emphasis on moral issues and the need for better leadership nationally.
I must admit the change made me quite uncomfortable at first. Until then, I never heard moral issues being directly addressed from the pulpit. The people I lived with were huge Reagan supporters, and with my limited knowledge of politics at the time, I thought I would probably vote for Carter based more on personality than anything else. (At the very last minute I switched to Reagan simply because Carter seemed to have no plan for freeing the American hostages).
In retrospect, it would become apparent that the 1980 election represented a much larger change than simply who occupied the White House. Social issues started becoming politicized. In the old days, revival was the way churches typically fought to make a difference in the society. In stronger churches, prayer, intercession repentance and evangelism were considered the tools of the moral trade. Today it seems like people are much more concerned about who wins political office rather than winning the hearts of lost individuals. While most ministers haven’t stopped preaching an evangelistic message, now it seems as if evangelism and politics are forever linked. The problem with this approach is that suddenly the very people God has called us to reach out to, have for all practical purposes become “enemies” rather than lost individuals God deeply loves. Sadly, to this day if people discover you are an evangelical Christian, they probably know more (or at least presume to know more) about our politics than they really know about what we believe theologically. The same can be said about Christians toward liberals.
I believe it is important for Christians to exercise their right to vote, simply because it is an act of good stewardship. However while conservatism may have flourished from time to time in the last nine election cycles, Christianity has not. The truth is, what little we have gained politically, has come at a high spiritual cost. We have traded spiritual authority for political clout. If we are honest about the last 32 years since the rise of the Moral Majority, we have very little to show for our well-intended, but our largely misguided efforts.
Jesus made it clear that his followers should not expect to be the most popular group on the block. When we make a decision to follow Jesus, we do it with an understanding that we typically pay a price in popularity. Therefore, it should come as no surprise when we are unfairly demonized by our opponents even when we haven’t done something to deserve it.
Christians will not always be liked, but they should always live in such a way to be worthy of respect, even when it isn’t offered. . My question is this: Have we accepted the invitation of Saul to wear his armor to defeat Goliath. Today our Goliath is not the people who hold secular views contrary to the Christian faith. Rather, our enemies are the views themselves and, in particular, the Evil One who makes them appealing to others — much as he did the forbidden fruit in the Garden. Evangelical Christians who really care about the moral decline of our nation need seriously to consider whether it is in their long-term interest to continue to focus on political outcomes.
It seems to me that after the seemingly failed 32-year experiment that began in force with the Regan election, we need to consider rejecting once and for all, the still-unproven assumption that electing the “right’ candidates will necessarily lead to a new embrace of Judeo-Christian values in this country. Is it possible that modern political activism is our modern “forbidden fruit?” God does not call most of us to be political candidates or even activists, but he does call all of us to be witnesses for him (Acts 1:8). Have we become more focused on how to mastermind outcomes we desire than on how to be an effective light for Jesus in a dark world? I do not ask these questions because I am being a sore-head loser. I ask them because my generation is the first generation to have no evidence of long-term spiritual awakening or revival. Perhaps it is time to exchange our political strategies for old-fashioned spiritual ones that reach out to those who hate us with love. Perhaps prayer and fasting needs to replace our get-out-to vote campaigns. Perhaps the true and lasting comfort needs to replace the temporal encouragement many find in talk radio.
Jesus said we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. (Matt 5:13). His disciples took this role seriously. As a result, they totally changed the face of the known earth in less than three centuries. This they did without the assistance of political structures or even the right to vote. Perhaps it is time to learn from their example.