A Religious Right “Mea Culpa” (“I’m sorry”)
With Serious Ramifications for the Religious Left
I read Blinded by Might (Zondervan 1999) in the run-up to last November’s Presidential election as part of a Sunday evening topical Bible Study on “God and Politics” at the church I serve. Written by Cal Thomas (raised a “Disciple”) and the late Ed Dobson, two of the strategic leaders in the early days of the Religious Right movement with Jerry Falwell and his “Moral Majority” at its forefront, this book was their “mea cupula” (a Latin phrase that means “through my fault” and is an acknowledgement of having done wrong).
Now, some of you hear that and probably think, “Well, what took you so long?” You learn that two of the highest profile early leaders of the Religious Right have publically recanted their commitments to that Movement, and have openly voiced regret over their part in helping to bring it about, and you feel a certain political vindication. And odds are that if you feel like this, it’s because your own political proclivities are with the Religious Left, and you wrongly assume that in their abandonment of the Religious Right, that Cal and Ed switched teams and joined your side. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ed and Cal didn’t abandon the Religious Right for the Religions Left, no, what the abandoned was the illusion of might that had blinded them into thinking that the Kingdom could come through the acquisition and application of political power. They said that they abandoned the Religious Right so that the Church could be the Church. As the Dutch theologian H.M. Kuitert put it – “the dead are not raised by politics… our personal salvation and the forgiveness of sins do not and did not come by political decree… our very best political efforts will not reconcile us to the Father.”
After hitching their faith and values wagon to the Reagan Revolution and the platform of the Republican Party, thinking that its victory in the political arena would serve their own particular understanding of righteousness, both Cal and Ed eventually had to reassess the confidence that they had placed in what they believed partisan political power could actually achieve. While they both remained cultural, social and even political conservatives, neither of them continued to believe that “our individual or collective cultural problems could be altered exclusively, or even mainly, through the political process” (15), because, “politics and government cannot reach the soul” (9).
Cal and Ed both continued to believe that politics and government have a role to play in the creation of a just social order and in the promotion of the conditions that make for human thriving. Neither of them argued for a complete withdrawal from politics after they left the Religious Right. They both continued to exercise their rights as citizens and to give voice to their moral vision as Christians. But they no longer confused the aims and goals of their own political and social conservativism with the aims and goals of the Gospel.
On the eve of last November’s Presidential election, Theologian Scot McKnight wrote a blog about “Our Hope and Our Politics” (http://www.patheos.com) that echoed the reasons why Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas would up abandoning the Religious Right.
Somewhere overnight or this morning the eschatology [The Doctrine of “Last Things” – God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven] of American Christians may become clear. If a Republican wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian has an eschatology of politics. Or, alternatively, if a Democrat wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian too has an eschatology of politics… Where does my hope turn when I think of war or poverty or education or racism? Does it focus on my political party? Does it gain its energy from thinking that if we get the right candidate elected our problems will be dissolved? If so, I submit that our eschatology has become empire-shaped, Constantinian, and political. And it doesn’t matter to me if it is a right-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Republican wins, or a left-wing progressive wringing her fingers in hope that a Democrat wins. Each has a misguided eschatology… Participation in our election dare not be seen as the lever that turns the eschatological designs God has for this world.
In Blinded by Might Ed Dobson told about a meeting that Jerry Falwell convened in 1979 comprised of the ministerial staff of his church and the faculty of his Bible Institute to tell them of his decision to get involved in politics “in order to reverse the moral decline in American culture.”
Harold Wilmington, the Dean of the Bible Institute established by the Thomas Road Baptist Church, begged Jerry not to get involved. Wilmington argued with passion that this new endeavor was a significant step away from preaching the Gospel and might in the process contaminate the Gospel. Harold was the only contrary voice that day. Jerry listened to him politely… thanked Harold for his concerns and added that he was going forward. (16)
Several years later it was a chance encounter with Harold Wilmington at an airport where they were both changing planes that pulled Ed Dobson up short and forced him to start rethinking the investment of his life in politics. Harold asked Ed where he’d been, and Ed told Harold about all of the important meetings he’d attended and about all of the influential people that he’d been with on that trip, including an appearance on the Phil Donahue show! Harold listened to Ed quietly, and then when Ed was finished talking, Harold looked Ed in the eye and reminded him that God had originally called him to be a preacher, and that it is the Gospel and not politics that had the power to change people’s lives Romans 1:16-17). It was that conversation that triggered something of a crisis in Ed’s soul. He began to feel a growing tension between his original call to preach the Gospel and the all-consuming task of political involvement that had come to occupy his every waking hour. “I knew that God had called me to preach,” Ed wrote. “I had been ordained to the Christian ministry.” It was after a year of daily prayer in a chapel near his office during his lunch hour that Ed finally recommitted himself to a life of preaching the Gospel and teaching the Scriptures. He resigned his position with the Moral Majority, accepted a call to pastor a local church in Michigan, and made four commitments that he kept until his dying day in 2015 from ALS –
- He said that he would avoid the public spotlight in order to go about the work of being a pastor quietly.
- He said that he would avoid all political entanglements. He explained –
I would not attend either Republican or Democrat events. I would not march for or against anything. I was convinced that as a pastor I was called to reach Republicans and Democrats and Independents with the Gospel. I was called to reach pro-life people and pro-choice people. I was called to reach pro-gay and anti-gay people. (And) if I engaged in public political activities, I ran the risk of alienating the very people I was called to reach (before even getting to the Gospel).
3. He said that he had decided to focus on teaching the Bible. He explained that he would not get off on tangents but would consistently teach the Bible verse-by-verse.
4. And he said that he had decided that he was going to love people unconditionally just as God has loved us in Christ. He said that he longed to be known again as one who preaches a message of love and forgiveness, and not a message of hate, division and condemnation. (152)
R. Scott Clark, the Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (California), wrote his blog “Let the Church be the Church” (https://heidelblog.net/2016/11/let-the-church-be-the-church/) after seeing Secretary Clinton in the pulpit of a church on a Sunday morning “preaching’ during last fall’s campaign. It disturbed him, and he guessed that it disturbed many of his readers as well. But Professor Clark asked them –
Would you have been offended to see Marco Rubio, Gary Johnson, or Donald Trump behind a pulpit? If you answer no, then I think that we do not agree on principle. If your objection to seeing Secretary Clinton in a pulpit was based on your objection to her political philosophy and policy aims, then I suspect that we do not agree about the nature and mission of the visible, institutional church.
And then, after exploring the way that the church has consistently confused what Caesar’s legitimate God-given assignment is, and what it is that Jesus Christ specifically came to do (Matthew 22:15-22), Professor Clark concluded his blog by writing –
Let Christians resist the impulse to draft the visible, institutional church for a social agenda, however laudatory and beneficial it may be. Let Christians energetically engage God’s world as citizens of a twofold kingdom. We do not have to choose between social engagement and a spiritual institutional church. We can and should have both, for the benefit of the earthly city and for the purity and peace of the embassy of the kingdom of heaven.
It was the loss of this understanding of the two kingdoms that led Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas into the Religious Right, and it’s rediscovery that eventually led them out of the Religious Right. And their book Blinded by Might is a cautionary tale for any Christian, leader on the right or on the left, who feels the very real temptation to bow down to any political candidate, party or platform thinking that by doing so you will gain all the kingdoms of the world and their glory (Matthew 4:8-10). That’s not how the Kingdom comes. DBS +