We had an election on Tuesday last week. I paid my dues.
What was interesting for me were some the mailers and adverts being sent out to local pastors in an attempt to encourage the vote. (Side rant: Just after taking a full time call in the Midwest, I was shocked and awed at the amount of mail that comes through a pastor’s inbox, assuming that the pastor and/or church will serve as a bully pulpit or free advertising for nearly any cause under the sun. /rant) What was surprising was the ideological content of the mailers versus the support and foundation they were built on.
I received one such advertisement urging conservative Christians to vote (presumably for neo-conservative policies in the Republican platform), and to spur them on five historic heroes were pictured with accompanying quotes. Each of the quotes spoke to the urgency and necessity of voting. However, what struck me was that none of the names on the list were particularly conservative in their faith or their politics. Here’s the list:
- James Garfield – liberal Christian and radical who (imho) gave too much power to the executive branch, and made education a federal expense
- Francis James Grimké – liberal Presbyterian known more for affirmative action and social gospel than conservative politics or theology
- John Jay – a fantastic patriot and founding father, but an Episcopal Christian who favored a strong, centralized government
- Frederick Douglass – love the man, love his story, but a terrible example for others to follow (either politically or in matters of faith)
- Charles Finney – most people think he’s an evangelistic hero; I think he was a terrible heretic, that (humanly speaking) sent more people to hell than heaven.
So why this list? Is the neo-con, conservative Christian pool really so small and shallow that there are not better qualified figures to invoke?
Now to be fair, everyone quotes from people that do not completely line up with their own views. Conservatives occasionally cite liberals and vice versa. A Reformed pastor may cite NT Wright on the resurrection where he wouldn’t when discussing justification. A neo-foundationalist may cite a postmodernist in their critique of modernity. So the problem isn’t merely citing an thinker/quote you do not agree with 100% of the time. The bigger question is, why did this NPO go to this list for galvanizing the Christian vote?
I could not say for sure, but I suspect one of the main reasons was the content of the quotes. I won’t list all of them, but most of the quotes taken from the above men invoked God/faith/Christianity and “voting” as keywords. Unfortunately, for many evangelicals these buzzwords are enough to register as support for their cause.
But for thinking Christians, this will not be the case. Buzzwords are as slippery as they are useful, as Gregg Frazer reminds us in his new book The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders:
A matter of language that is critically important is to determine what they meant by certain terms. Too often, for example, Christian America advocates simply cite quotes in which founders refer to “Christianity” or “Christian” and leave the false impression with Christian readers/listeners that those words meant the same thing to the founders as they do to them. But key founders such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin meant something very different by those words.
I would argue that different understandings of keywords didn’t end with the founders, but continues through to the list of five names above. How their spirituality and patriotism worked itself out is quite different from the target demographic of evangelical voters today.
Conservative Christians should go to the polls, and they should vote their consciences (worldviews!) as they have opportunity. I do not think all conservative Christians will see issues the same way, but it would help clarify their thinking as well as NPOs to have support their views with theology and political ideology that matches each other.