O.K. So, I am driving home from my nightly workout at the gym Thursday night (I walk 3-5 miles on the treadmill) and I hear on the radio the breaking news that Rev. Ted Haggard has resigned as the President of the National Association of Evangelicals and temporarily stepped aside as pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. To give you an idea of how powerful this man was in the Evangelical community, the NAE boasts a membership of more than 30 million Evangelical Christians. His church alone has a membership of 14,000. And, Evangelical Christians have been the centerpiece of Karl Rove's strategy to win elections on behalf of George Bush ever since Bush first ran for Governor in Texas. Haggard himself had regular contact with the White House and for the last several elections, the Rove-Bush political machine could always count on millions of Evangelical Christian voters to turn out on election day. They pushed Bush over the top in 2000 and again in 2004.
I cannot predict what will happen on Tuesday in the election. But, I think Evangelicals need to do some serious thinking and reevaluation of their true allegiances. Evangelicalism is a movement which can trace its beginning back to the 19th century in America. It gets its name from the Greek word for "good news." Though it encompasses a variety of different Christian traditions, everything from Fundamentalists to Pentecostals, it has two central ideas shared by all: the importance of a personal conversion experience with Jesus Christ and supreme devotion to the Bible as the only source of authority for a Christian.
Evangelical leaders such as James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, became enamoured with secular political power back in the 1970s as a way to foster change in America. And that is where I would argue the movement needs correction. Randall Balmer, a professor of American Religious History at Barnard College in Columbia University, who grew up in the Evangelical tradition and still identifies with it, has written a new book that I recommend. It is called Thy Kingdom Come, an Evangelical's Lament: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. The first sentences in the Introduction of the book is hard-hitting:
"I write as a jilted lover. The evangelical faith that nurtured me as a child and sustains me as an adult has been hijacked by right-wing zealots who have distorted the gospel of Jesus Christ, defaulted on the noble legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activism, and failed to appreciate the genius of the First Amendment."
Which brings me back to Rev. Haggard. When the male prostitute who claims to have had a sexual relationship with Haggard for three years and provided a contact for drugs went public with the story Thursday night, Haggard was interviewed and he denied everything. He denied evening knowing the man. But Then, yesterday he admitted that he had gone to the man for a "massage" and had purchased methamphetamine once, but he "threw it away." Does anyone think that sounds a bit like Bill Clinton's assertion that he tried marijuana once but he didn't inhale? Who believes that? And besides, why would he call a male prostitute and go meet him in a motel for massage? There are plenty of legitimate massage therapists (reputable) out there.
The reason that Rev. Haggard is news is that he has taken such a strong stand on gay marriage and homosexuality. And so, what do I think Evangelicals need to do? Well, I certainly don't think they need to give up their crusade for better morals in America. One of the bedrock principles of the Gospel is that when a person meets Christ, that person's life will change. We are to become more like Jesus. And, in doing so, we experience transformation. The old life passes away and all things become new. I believe that Evangelicals should continue to speak out in favor of life. Of course, I would broaden the anti-abortion rhetoric to include anti-war and anti-death penalty. And, I also believe Evangelicals should work for better ecological principles to be practiced by large corporations. And, I believe Evangelicals should continue to encourage stronger families. So, although I disagree with Evangelicals on some of the issues for which they strive, I do not want them to stop.
What Evangelicals need to do, however, is get out of bed with the state. They need to completely reevaluate their priorities and realize that ultimately the things they seek can only come through changed hearts and lives and not through secular politics. Jesus eschewed the secular politicians of his day. Evangelicals should concentrate on preaching the Gospel and let God change the lives, not the government.