Sunday, June 18, 2006

Well, isn't this interesting

"Some people," Leonard added, "are tired of just fighting liberals. You need a reason to be a Southern Baptist other than just fighting liberals in the culture or in the church."
Bill Leonard, the dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School, commenting on the election of the Rev. Frank Page as President of the Southern Baptist Convention. No, Page is not a "liberal" Baptist. As he says of himself: "I believe in the word of God," Page said. "I'm just not mad about it."

I spent the afternoon yesterday looking through publisher's catalogues. What I noticed was how many current affairs books are coming out this fall about the effect of evangelical, and especially fundamentalist, Christian churches on American politics. Most of the books saw this as a dire change in American life, a sea change, a "tipping point." And as I looked at them I thought that, just like the books praising the "genius" and "fortitude" of George W. Bush which were being announced even as I watched Bush's poll numbers tank 7 months ago, these books were already obsolete.

Do I base that on this one report about the Southern Baptists? No, but that is, as E.J. Dionne says, a significant change, another sign that "new breezes are blowing through the broader evangelical Christian world." Why? Because I've seen this movie before; I know how it ends. And ultimately, Dean Leonard is right: people need another reason to be in a group other than just fighting a defined enemy. Even a fight against a real enemy, gets tiresome; which is why 53% of Americans are ready to leave Iraq. And that poll is not an outlier. We are not, at heart, warriors. And Christians, even fundamentalist Christians, do not want to be soldiers for Christ for ever and ever, world without end, amen. It isn't enough to build a church on; it isn't enough to build a political movement on; it isn't enough reason to stay angry and "motivated."

E.J. Dionne concludes:

Religious movements stay vibrant thanks to the complicated interaction of fidelity, reflection and reform. The evangelical world is going through a quiet evolution as believers reflect on the perils of partisanship and ideology and their reasons for being Christian. This will probably affect the nation's political life, but it will certainly affect the country's spiritual direction.
He's exactly right: it's entirely a question of identity. "Who do you say I am?," Jesus famously asked his disciples. It's a question Christians have to constantly ask, of themselves: who do we say we are? If that definition is solely in the negative, sooner or later you realize you have ceded all authority over your self, your identity, to the enemy you have created. This, of course, is one more reason Christianity teaches: "Love your enemy; bless those who curse you; do good to those who hate you." Paul taught it; Jesus taught it. That is the central identity of Christianity: to love your enemies.

And when you do that, how is it that you have enemies?

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