We Wish for…Evangelical Unity Founded on the Gospel Rather than on a Power Base

Diana S. Frazier
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Jan/Feb 2000

In a recent conversation with a national Christian media executive, I was reminded that we often shoot one another within the evan-gelical community rather than work together against the enemy. On the surface, that's a valid observation. I have felt the pain from attacks within our circles. And I'm sure I've lobbed a few finely honed barbs of my own. But I am concerned about an insistence upon unity for the sake of the Gospel that is increasingly focused on the unity and not on the Gospel itself. The standard rationale given is that we need to stand together to fight "the opposition"-by which one usually means the continuing decline of our culture. If you don't go along with the mainstream of evangelical thought and take up the crusade against the current villain, you are considered a malcontent, a troublemaker.

This tension comes to the forefront because of the recent book, Blinded by Might, by Cal Thomas and Edward Dobson. Church historian Bruce Shelley characterizes the book as "part other-worldly prophetic vision, part camp meeting invitation to evangelical political junkies to surrender all, and in small part, mea culpa." (1) Thomas and Dobson clearly have changed their earlier views and no longer believe that Christians can change the moral climate through politics. And while they don't advocate a wholesale abandonment of participation, they do worry that the past two decades of activism have further distanced unbelievers from listening to the Gospel message.

There is a sense in which this may be true. The boom in the Christian media industry since the late 1970s, combined with recent technological leaps in the speed of communication, have made it possible for a power base to be formed and activated fairly quickly. Christian programmers like James Dobson, Beverly LaHaye, Jay Sekulow, and Oliver North have become celebrities of sorts and regularly call their listeners to action for one cause or another.

On a recent Focus on the Family program, James Dobson appealed to listeners to call Mellon Bank and voice opposition to the bank's decision not to do business with Focus. (2) The predictable result was that the switchboard at Mellon Bank's Pittsburgh office lit up. At the crux of the embroglio was what Mellon perceived to be a conflict between Focus' mission statement and Mellon's nondiscrimination policy, namely not to discriminate based on race, creed or sexual orientation. The bank was afraid that conducting further business with Focus might be a step toward having this organization tell them that they couldn't do business with certain other groups or hire certain people. But here's the irony: in an attempt to avoid becoming the potential target of a Disney-like boycott, Mellon set off the exact thing they hoped to avoid. Only now instead of being boycotted for following standard anti-discriminatory practices in not considering sexual orientation in hiring decisions, they'd opened themselves to attack for refusal to do business based on the religious mission of a potential client.

But my real question is why is James Dobson telling his listeners all of this anyway? Not only is the story of the dealings with the bank not germane to the central purpose of their program, it generated an incredible expenditure of time and energy by his constituents, by Mellon employees, and certainly by those of us on the sidelines watching. Dobson has deviated from both the professed intent of Christian radio-proclamation of the Gospel and edification of the body-and from his own program's focus on family values.

Historical Precedents

Allow me to offer some personal experience which may shed light on this situation. My upbringing was American secular religion. I became a Christian when being "born again" was making headlines. Jimmy Carter was president and the religious right was becoming a political force to be reckoned with. I was attending a small Christian liberal arts college when Ronald Reagan was elected President. Our campus had posters and pamphlets on "voting right," most frequently using the abortion issue as a litmus test for candidates. As a Democrat who came from outside the Christian culture, I frankly didn't get it. There was a lot of talk about morality, but what was really central was wielding power-or so it seemed.

The presence of a strong evangelical lobby such as the Moral Majority in the 1980s or James Dobson's radio listeners in the 1990s is not a new phenomenon in American history. There are historical precedents for political maneuvering by a religious group throughout the twentieth century. The Anti-Saloon League led the prohibition movement. (3) With the pulpit as its base, the League became the church in action and functioned as the political arm of the Protestant churches. Permanent staff, volunteer speakers, and field agents reached about 50,000 during the final stages of the campaign. Ninety percent of the funds came from small pledges of a few dollars. Funding underwrote a formidable operation of publishing, lobbying, election of sympathetic legislators, and pushing the passage of legislation. The combined circulation of League publications exceeded 15,000,000. But the ultimate co-option the League pulled off was harnessing the prohibition movement to patriotism in support of the Great War effort. In a call for sacrifice of men and materials, grain was steered from the breweries to food production. And the coup de grace was a linking of the German-American Alliance to the breweries themselves, thus making the consumption of alcohol a suspect act. Thousands of hours and dollars later, this effort to legislate personal morality ultimately failed to stand the test of the American governmental system and pluralistic society. And today it represents a symbol of a "Christian" society, where everyone is forced to swallow the taboos of a certain power base.

Later in the 1960s and 1970s, Carl McIntire used the same techniques to push his particular blend of Gospel proclamation and anti-communist rhetoric. Capitalizing on the Cold War paranoia, McIntire built an operation base that included the "20th Century Reformation Hour" radio broadcast, the Christian Beacon newspaper, Faith Seminary, Shelton College, and the Bible Presbyterian denomination. Once his "enemy" diminished, so did his movement. It's now a small collection of churches, including several run-down properties in Collingswood, New Jersey.

In early 1998, I was present at a meeting presided over by Charles Colson to discuss the then new Evangelical-Catholic document called "The Gift of Salvation." In the course of the meeting Bill Bright, president of Campus Crusade for Christ, stood and suggested the document was needed so that the Gospel could go forth in Third World countries. Colson chimed in that it was necessary for Prison Fellowship's work as well. Both implied that the Gospel is not sufficient; agreement on political matters is apparently necessary as well.

Distinguishing the Church and Individual Christians

Ultimately I think this syncretism is at the root of these movements. We see a world broken by sin. People we know and love are sucked into the muck and mire of our culture. We want to help. But our most natural inclination is to respond with the Gospel and something. It's wrongheaded. Our culture may never be transformed. That is not the Church's calling-although Christians are, of course, called also to be citizens, parents, etc.

But the Church's calling is to preach Christ crucified, dead, buried, and risen again. The result of that proclamation will be a transformation of individuals-who will then assemble as the Church. The purpose of the Church is worship, service, and proclamation of the Gospel. As the Church grows, culture changes. But if the Church takes her eyes off of her real calling (proclamation), she has failed.

As noted New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen said nearly eighty years ago: "For if one thing is plain it is that Christianity refuses to be regarded as a means to a higher end…. Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in this world, but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity." (4) The problem is when we allow causes that are compatible to Christian teaching to become central. Eventually the tail wags the dog. What we need to do is be the Church. Perhaps that's what we should spend the better part of this new century learning to do.

1 [ Back ] Bruce L. Shelley, "An On-Again, Off-Again Love Affair," Christianity Today, vol. 43, no. 10 (1999), 54.
2 [ Back ] See Focus on the Family program aired on August 17, 1999 or go to the web site at and search on Mellon Bank.
3 [ Back ] For a full accounting of the activities of The Anti-Saloon League, see Wayne B. Wheeler's series "The Inside Story of Prohibition's Adoption," printed in the New York Times, March 28-April 2, 1926.
4 [ Back ] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 151-52.
Thursday, July 5th 2007

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