ERLC’s Land counters authors’ view that Christian right has
WASHINGTON (BP)--The Christian right has failed in its 20-year effort to reverse moral decline in the society and should try a more biblical strategy, columnist Cal Thomas and pastor Ed Dobson say in a new book -- to which Southern Baptist ethics leader Richard Land has countered that America would be much worse off were it not for the efforts of evangelicals in the public square.
Thomas and Dobson, one-time leaders in the now-defunct Moral Majority, contend in their book, “Blinded by Might,” the involvement since the late 1970s of conservative Christians in the political process has been a failure.
While he says the work of the Moral Majority was not a complete waste, "a casual observation of the current moral climate suggests that despite all the time, money, and energy -- despite the political power -- we failed," Dobson writes. "Things have not gotten better; they have gotten worse."
The Christian right has "won nothing" in the battle against abortion or other social evils, Thomas says.
Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Thomas and Dobson make a "false and misleading comparison" when they "compare the situation as it was in the 1970s with the situation as it is today."
"A more realistic comparison would be to compare America's moral situation in the 1970s with what America's moral situation would be in the 1990s if evangelical Christians had remained on the sidelines and uninvolved in public policy," Land said. "It is likely that Jimmy Carter would have been reelected in 1980, and Walter Mondale would have succeeded him in 1984, with disastrous consequences for the unborn, for the Supreme Court and for freedom in the world.
"How much more bleak would America and the world look without the leadership provided by Ronald Reagan, who was elected largely on the backs of evangelical voters? Had America continued the moral drift of the '70s unchallenged, Christians would surely be an alien band in a strange land.
"In fact, I would count myself among those who believe not only that public policy is a long ball game but that we are winning the struggle for the heart and soul of this nation," Land said.
In their book Thomas and Dobson say conservative Christians not only have failed in their efforts, but they have acted unscripturally and unwisely in seeking to bring change through the political process. The results of such an emphasis on politics and public policy have included compromise by the church and politicization of the gospel of Christ, they say.
"We stand in wholehearted agreement with conservative leaders who decry the condition of this country," Thomas writes. "We just think it's time to admit that because we are using the wrong weapons, we are losing the battle. Instead of modeling the message of Jesus, we model the message of political parties and interest groups and compete for a share of the power. The louder voice usually prevails, and we just aren't loud enough."
Conservative Christians "have attempted to achieve success by shortcuts through the dark and deep political jungle and have gotten lost on the journey because they are in unfamiliar territory and lack the necessary survival skills," Thomas and Dobson write.
They still believe the same things they believed when they worked for Moral Majority's founder, Jerry Falwell, and they still respect him, Thomas and Dobson say.
"What has changed is that we no longer believe that our individual or collective problems can be altered exclusively, or even mainly, through the political process," writes Thomas, whose column appears in 500 newspapers.
They are "emphatically not calling for retreat or surrender by conservative Christians," the authors say. Christians should remain involved in politics and public policy but not at the expense of ministry and sharing the gospel, they say.
Dobson writes that he reexamined his ministry after becoming pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., 11 years ago. He decided political activity would hinder his ministry as a pastor and his opportunity to proclaim the gospel. He would focus on teaching the Bible verse by verse, declaring what it says on moral issues as he reached those portions in Scripture.
"No debating. No television talk shows. No marches. No voter registrations. No public comments on politics," writes Dobson, whose church also does not permit the distribution of petitions or voter guides.
Land said he thinks Thomas and Dobson, having been deeply involved in Moral Majority, "are now overreacting to the legitimate role that people of faith can and should play in public policy."
"As individuals, we should be involved, but we should not restrict ourselves to individual involvement. There is strength in numbers, particularly in a participatory, representative government like the United States,” Land said.
"I am particularly grateful that the various religiously identified abolitionist groups did not heed the advice of this book and that the religiously dominated civil rights groups that peacefully protested segregation didn't heed the advice of this book.
"I think to the extent that people put too much trust in organized, political involvement their criticism is certainly a cautionary tale," Land said. "To understand the limits of what political reform can do does not mean that we should or can legitimately abandon the political expression of our values, beliefs and concerns. America certainly will not change significantly for the better unless there is a spiritual awakening, but let's not forget spiritual awakening divorced from an understanding of the political responsibility to bring about reform led the first and second Great Awakenings to allow the evil of slavery to continue."
The authors provide numerous anecdotes and examples of Christian right and other religious leaders and organizations they say have abused their power, compromised the gospel or misused God's name in their relations with officeholders, candidates or political parties. Among them are Jesse Jackson, the National Council of Churches, Billy Graham, the Christian Coalition and Falwell.
Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., said in a written statement he had not read the book but understood it is critical of him.
Thomas and Dobson "certainly have the right to change their minds about Christian involvement in the political process, though they were both actively involved in the leadership of this movement," Falwell said. It has been his policy not to battle with other evangelicals, he said, "so I will not publicly debate the authors about this book or on this issue."
In a chapter titled, "Focus on the Family, Not on Politics," Thomas criticizes some recent efforts by James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family. Dobson is guilty of "increasing zealotry" for his harsh criticism of Republican leaders' failures to advance the causes of social conservatives and for his threats to pull his support for and take away as many people as possible from the GOP, Thomas says.
"Politics and faith are irreconcilable. The former cannot tolerate zealotry; the latter cannot tolerate compromise," Thomas writes.
Paul Hetrick, Focus on the Family's vice president of public relations, said he believes Thomas' criticism is "based on unnecessary misunderstandings."
When James Dobson criticized the GOP in his 1998 speech, "he did so as a private citizen, not as president of Focus on the Family," Hetrick said. The tape of that speech distributed by Dobson independently "was never aired on Focus on the Family radio, and it never would be, yet it seemed to be the major event in the last couple of years that caused Cal to want to make an example" of it.
"Focus on the Family has never focused on politics beyond the rather strict limits placed on us by the IRS. In other words, 95 percent of our activities must be nonpolitical," said Hetrick, who said he had read only the chapter on James Dobson in the book.
"There's no one here at Focus on the Family that sees the government as our salvation, nor a candidate nor a party as the source of salvation.
"There are many millions of Christians who know that their ultimate hope is not in the United States government to bring about the changes they seek, but nevertheless they are not going to relinquish their right" to influence the government, Hetrick said.
"It's not a question of wanting to turn this into a Christian nation. It's a matter of wanting to stand up for what is true and right when those truths are under attack. Who is going to defend the unborn if Christians and pro-life people do not do it?"