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Wrong formula for evangelicals

Vail Daily, Vail Colorado COMy New Year’s wish is that evangelical Christians will reject an equation to which they have subscribed when Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush II have been in office. What’s the equation? Evangelical piety (i.e., faith shaping public policy) + strong presidential endorsement of the evangelical agenda = guaranteed political power. Evangelicals aim to restore our nation to its Christian roots. Working in tandem, the White House and evangelical power brokers press God’s way into the mold of the American way. Their formula for success is simple: PIETY + POLITICAL CLOUT = POWER.Three Republican presidents have brokered this deal with evangelicals over the past four decades. And three times the evangelical formula for success hasn’t added up. Evangelicals lost big time. Under Nixon, we may believe evangelicals erred as political rookies do. Under Reagan, after evangelical thirst for power ran dry, we may excuse them as gullible. But when their equation doesn’t add up to success in George W. Bush’s presidency, we understand how selling their souls for political power is stupid. Those who deny the Psalmist’s caution to “put not thy trust in princes [or presidents]” (Psalm 118: 9) fall fast, fall often and fall far from power.Jefferson, in the election of 1800, triumphed over the Federalist Party where most evangelicals Christians found a home. They feared Jefferson would transport from overseas the atheistic French Revolution’s immorality. What’s the danger of evangelicals putting their eggs in one political basket, as they did with the Federalists? What if God, acting like the biblical metaphor of a mother hen, vacates the nest? Federalist evangelical Christians banked on their formula for success. But it didn’t add up. Jefferson eked out a presidential win. They lost, both in the voting booth and in credibility. Evangelical pundit Cal Thomas reveals why his spiritual cronies believe PIETY + POLITICAL CLOUT = POWER is invincible. Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush II offered frequent photo opps guaranteeing power to push through their political agenda, evangelicals assumed. “Christians are human, too,” confesses Thomas. “They like to be paid attention to; they like to have their picture taken with the president.”In 1959 I felt the seductive power emanating from the Oval Office. Our Grand Rapids, Mich., 5th District congressman, Gerald R. Ford, set up a meeting of our family with President Eisenhower. My dad believed in the American dream. He told friends over many years that someday he would meet Ike in the Oval Office.The story runs too long to tell, but Fidel Castro kicked up a Communist fuss, so Eisenhower had to cut Cuban sugar quotas. He couldn’t meet our family. Instead, we received a private White House tour. I sat in the president’s chair, put my elbows on his desk, putted into a device that kicked back his golf balls and gazed out on the Rose Garden. Wow! Did I think I had arrived! Visiting in the Oval Office, even without the president there, acts like an aphrodisiac mesmerizing visitors with phantom power.Nixon and his conniving confidante Charles Colson realized how power lures clergy. Colson arranged for White House worship services led by Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale and other celebrated preachers. Peale confessed that the biggest blunder in his career occurred by getting hooked on White House bait. He liked having his picture taken with Nixon. The president, who choked up describing his Quaker mother’s faith but made the air blue by cussing and swearing in private, manipulated Christian clergy. Sermons with a White House imprint seemed to earn Nixon God’s sign of approval.Ronald Reagan lavished evangelicals with photo opps. Rice University’s William Martin, author of “With God on Our Side: the Rise of the Religious Right in America,” shows how Reagan promised far more than he delivered to evangelicals. “People long accustomed to hearing the gospel proclaimed in plain words and with deep conviction responded warmly,” Martin reminds us, “to his (Reagan’s) staunch anti-communism; his strong and essentially upbeat emphasis on family, personal morality, and individual responsibility; and his simple trusting faith in God and ordinary Americans.”Evangelicals rallied to Reagan’s supply-side economics that didn’t filter down into the president’s charitable giving. His 1979 tax return showed Reagan gave less than 1 percent of his adjusted gross income to charitable and religious causes. This divorced Hollywood actor whose children gave him low grades as a parent became the evangelical darling. He promised them the sun, moon and stars of their political agenda but launched little into orbit. He loved photo opps with conservatives and their clergy. How easy to sacrifice what’s sensible and right when the president’s arm is on our shoulder as cameras flash.George W. Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” in 2000. He won because evangelicals feared the Democratic Party had sold its soul to secularism.Once inaugurated, Bush retired the “compassionate conservative” rhetoric as the centerpiece of his stump speeches. Then John DiIulio threw in the towel after only seven months heading Bush’s faith-based initiative, routing federal money through religious organizations to help the poor. Few evangelicals took seriously DiIulio’s warning that so much of the faith-based talk amounted to religious chatter. The Bush administration mastered this patter to keep conservative Christians in line. Now David Kuo, who served from 2001-03 as the No. 2 person in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, writes how Bush staffers didn’t deliver on idle promises and mocked evangelical leaders as religious rubes. Much talk. Little faith-based action. When will evangelicals learn that their formula for success is bogus? When will they admit that Oval Office photo opps will not bring the Kingdom of God to our nation? The Rev.Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is an ordained Presbyterian minister who heads Creative Growth Ministries, which aims to enhance Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. His book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.


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