Sunday, January 22, 2012


The Kingdom of Heaven is Like unto the Leaven
Hidden in the Lump, Yelena Cherkasova, Russia
Listening to the radio while organizing boxes in my basement, I was intrigued at the way discussion of a new book, You Lost Me, about young Christians leaving the church, segued into discussion of evangelicals and right wing politics in the North Carolina primary. Minutes later, the broadcast turned to the recent debate in which Newt Gingrich was asked about his alleged request to his second wife for an open marriage.

George Barna, respected Christian leader and founder of the Barna Group, announced this week that “After a lot of study, soul searching, and prayer,” he is endorsing Newt Gingrich for president, and has agreed to lead Gingrich’s “Faith Leaders Coalition,” the Gingrich campaign’s outreach to the Christian community.
You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church ... and Rethinking Faith, describing the departure from the church of more than half of those in their twenties, is by David Kinneman, Barna’s successor at the Barna Group. The new book, and a previous work by Kinneman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks of Christianity ... And Why It Matters, make use of a three-year Barna study of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds. The results of that study demonstrated, with painful clarity, that the majority in that demographic view Christians with hostility and disdain.

Here’s the critique:

* antihomosexual 91%
* judgmental 87%
* hypocritical 85%
* old-fashioned 78%
* too political 75%
* out of touch with reality 72%
* insensitive to others 70%
* boring 68%

Surely George Barna has at least heard of Kinneman’s books? Knows at least a little of their content?

The overwhelming grief for me, in this season of angry partisan rhetoric, mudslinging and attack ads, is that the sorry reputation of the Christian church is pulled through the mud along with the candidates. And that Christian leaders, pretending that there is one, correct, “faith leaders” point of view, hurry that process along.

“Are outsiders asking us to stay out of politics?” Kinneman asks in unChristian in a chapter titled “Too Political.”  “According to our research, not exactly. Many outsiders clarified that they believe Christians have a right (even an obligation) to pursue political involvement, but they disagree with our methods and our attitudes. They say we seem to be pursuing an agenda that benefits only ourselves; they assert that we expect too much out of politics; they question whether we are motivated by our economic status rather than faith perspectives when we support conservative politics; they claim we act and say things in an unChristian manner; they wonder whether Jesus would use political power as we do; and they are concerned that we overpower the voices of other groups.” (165)

Kinneman quotes one young man, Brandon, an agnostic, active in the Republican party: “I believe that American Christians have become tools of the Republican election machine—at the expense of their own image and message.” (166)

He quotes another young adult raised in the church who “became disillusioned with his church and eventually his faith because he started to question the heavy-handed political involvement that seemed to be a requirement. His comment: ‘A lot of times the church would take a conservative Republican stance, and anyone who did not fit into that mold was judged as not as good a Christian as everyone else.’”  (166)

As Kinnemann makes very clear, there is no one, unanimous “Christian” presence in politics, despite the rhetoric of groups like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition, or the new "Faith Leaders Coalition": “among the evangelical segment, only a slight majority are registered Republicans (59 percent). That’s a high proportion, but far removed from the monolithic levels one might expect based on media pronouncements or the expectations of Christian leaders.”  (161)

Last fall Christianity Today published an article with this headline: “Survey: Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal." In the article, Aaron B. Franzen summarized conclusions from a recent poll by LifeWay Research:    
  • For each increased level of Bible-reading frequency, support for the Patriot Act decreased by about 13 percent.
  • Support for abolishing the death penalty increased by about 45 percent for each increase on the five-point scale measuring Bible-reading frequency.
  • The more someone reads the Bible, the more likely he or she is to believe science and religion are compatible. (For each increase on the five-point scale, the odds that they see religion and science as incompatible decrease by 22 percent.)
  • "How important is it," the survey asked, "to actively seek social and economic justice in order to be a good person?" Again, as would be expected, those with more liberal political leanings were more likely to say it's very or somewhat important. And those who read the Bible more often were more likely to agree. Indeed, they were almost 35 percent more likely to agree at each point on Baylor's five-point scale.  
  • The survey asked whether one must consume or use fewer goods in order to be a good person. Political liberals and frequent Bible readers are more likely to say yes.  
Just last week, Abington Press released a new book called Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide, by Mike Slaughter and Charles Gutenson. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but the problem it addresses is a real one, and growing worse by the day.

In his own blog, Slaughter writes “As Christians we have too often allowed worldly political ideologies to become determining factors for our theology rather than grounding ourselves in sound biblical theology for determining our politic. Some well-meaning believers have become more passionate about engaging in the heat of partisan political debate than they have been in sharing the good news about Jesus. Left and right, blue and red are but imperfect systems that are passing away. These systems, by their very nature, create barriers of division. The way of the cross is eternal and tears down the dividing walls that stand between us. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

George Barna and other Christian leaders are free to vote as they wish. They are free to endorse the candidates of their choice. But when they include the word Christian or faith in their endorsement, they hijack, once again, the name of Christ, and the community of believers, for their own less than perfect causes. As a follower of Christ, I pray for our disillusioned generations, and encourage our leaders to reconsider their allegiance and their misuse of influence. As Christ's people, we are called to be agents of reconciliation - to God and to each other - not agents of one political agenda.

I'd love to hear what you think on this. Your comments and questions, as always, are welcome. And I've been working on moving to an easier commenting platform - but not sure it's an improvement. I'd welcome your thoughts on that as well.