HIJACKED: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide. By Mike Slaughter and Charles E. Gutenson with Robert P. Jones. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012. Xix + 134 pages.
Has the church in American been drawn into and divided by partisan conflict? The obvious answer is yes. In a country that’s become polarized along political, cultural, and social lines, it would be difficult, though not impossible for the church to resist these pressures. Although partisanship isn’t a new phenomenon, there seem to be more ways in which partisans can divide those they consider “sheep from the goats.” This spirit has found receptiveness within our churches, so that politics has become for many the arbiter of theological correctness.
In Hijacked, a Methodist megachurch pastor, Mike Slaughter, and a former seminary professor and Sojourner’s staff member, address the issue of partisan conflict in the church. It’s an important topic and we are beneficiaries of their analysis and engagement with it. It’s a brief and very readable book that is written with the lay person in mind. Although they are members of a Mainline Protestant denomination (United Methodist) and the publisher is Methodist, the target audience is evangelicals.
The book is divided into three parts, with the authors dividing up the chapters between them, with demographer Robert Jones providing an opening discussion of demographic shifts and changes that give a context for the ensuring conversation.
Part I, which begins with Jones’ chapter that explores the political shifts within the country and evangelical churches, seeks to define the problem of this partisan infection, especially among evangelicals. Building on the demographic information provided by Jones, information that demonstrates the political drift to the right among evangelicals and the increasing skepticism of such a direction by younger adults, Mike Slaughter takes up the question of the politicization of the evangelical movement in chapter 2. The author makes it clear that while his theology is doctrinally orthodox, he also believes that the biblical message includes a concern for justice (making reference to Glen Beck’s challenge to his followers to leave churches preaching justice). Although committed to social justice, he seeks to separate this commitment from the political process. This led to problems in his church, especially after the Beck tirade. When he wouldn’t embrace a particular party platform he lost a number of members. This is the problem that the authors seek to address – the possibility that political parties become definitive for faithfulness to the gospel, and not the other way around.
These opening chapters set the tone for the book, which seeks to primarily address an evangelical audience. The authors want to distinguish between allegiance to the gospel and allegiance to either nation or political ideology.
In part 2 of the book, the authors move to offer theological and sociological analyses of the issues at hand. Chapters three and four, both of which are written by Chuck Gutenson, ask the question of essentials. In doing so Gutenson wants to make sure that the reader is able to distinguish between foundational theological positions and political ones. In laying this out, Gutenson points to the famous adage attributed to a variety of persons, but most likely the Lutheran leader Rupert Meldenius: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” This statement, Gutenson believes (I think rightly) should guide the way the church defines itself. Christ, not partisan politics should define our faith identity, but how does this work? Too often we read Jesus in light of our partisan commitments, rather than our theological reflections. Now, Gutenson admits that agreeing on what is essential isn’t easy, and as a reader I struggle with his essentials. As a pastor within a non-creedal church, I’m not sure that I would draw the line at the Nicene Creed and Chalcedonian Definitions (even if I’m not opposed to them as such) – besides neither the Copts nor the would find Chalcedon especially attractive. Acknowledging this difficulty, however, Gutenson ends up with what he admits to be a tribal definition. Although such a definition might build bridges within congregations and denominations, it does little to bridge gaps across denominational lines. Still, whatever we think about Nicea, political ideology shouldn’t be among the essentials. There’s no definitive Christian policy regarding taxes (other than paying them) or the Second Amendment. So in the absence of a lengthy list of essentials, love appears to be the foundational premise of church life.
Personally, I wish that Gutenson had let the conversation about essentials stand with chapter three and had left out large parts of chapter four. The logic lesson that is provided here didn’t seem helpful to me, and I was disappointed in the discussion of essentials. In this regard, the author contrasts an essential (Trinity) with an opinion (pacifism). Now I’m a Trinitarian and I’m not a pacifist (at least not a consistent one), but I was troubled by the way in which the arguments were laid out. Although Athanasius won the debate over the Trinity, the New Testament foundations for this doctrine are ambiguous at best and don’t get fully developed until Nicaea (if then). Arius may have lost, but he did marshal considerable biblical support for his position. On the other hand, it seems clear that Jesus had pacifist tendencies, and you don’t find a clear defense of Christians taking up arms until after Constantine’s conversion. So does the Creed trump the biblical witness? Non-creedal Christians might not agree with such an assessment.
Gutenson is, however, on stronger ground when he discusses the problem of conflating theology and ideology. That said, I was disappointed with the way he laid out the discussion of homosexuality. As one who has come to a position affirming gay marriage, I found his description of the defense of this admittedly controversial issue, to be very much a caricature of this position, while the description of the opposition position is cast in largely positive light, except for the Right’s suggestion that this is reason for embracing the Republican Party.
Chapter five, which forms the final chapter in part two, is essentially a guide to broadening the sources of information that we use to discern our path forward. The advice to not restrict one’s news sources to Fox or MSNBC is wise, as is the word to the wise about ignoring the experts or letting anecdotes overwhelm statistics. So yes, we would be well served by escaping our ideological bubbles so that we can hear the other side. It’s not easy, but the church would be better off if we would do this!
When we reach part three, we’ve had the problem defined and the resources for reflecting on the question defined. Thus, we are ready to consider a different path forward, one that is less defined by political ideology. As a pastor, Slaughter is concerned about how the church is present in public. My reading of the book suggests that he and Gutenson would be most comfortable with the position that Mark Toulouse defines as the Public Christian. Christians should be active in public life, but the church should be much more cautious about how it is present in public life. Slaughter has reasons for his decision, for his congregation has significant political diversity. Although the area is highly Republican – John Boehner represents the district – about 30% of the congregation seems to be Democrat, and a sizable portion see itself as Independent. His point is, when the church is focused on Christ and not political ideology, there can be Christian unity amidst political diversity. Of course, his is a mainline Protestant congregation, which most surveys show to be more diverse politically than most evangelical ones. Anecdotally, I can acknowledge that while I’m pretty liberal, and my congregation as a whole is probably left of center, there are significant pockets of conservative politics present in the congregation. By and large this hasn’t been divisive – as long as we keep the politics to a minimum (though we have a strong commitment to social justice ministry). Unity, however, is possible only one commitment to the mission of Jesus and the command to love trump politics.
In the final chapter of the book (there’s a conclusion still to come), the authors introduce us to two people, one a former Congressman -- Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and the other the Director of the Ohio Department of Health, Dr. Ted Wymyslo (R). Both men make it clear that their faith comes first, and this has not always set them in good stead with their political parties. In fact, Hall notes that although strongly pro-life, his voting with the Democrats on such issues as taxation and budgetary matters led to the Moral Majority to question his Christian faith. Both of these persons bemoan the way in which the Christian faith has been increasingly politicized. Taking into consideration these responses, the authors lay out a statement of principles for the church: Christ is the foundation for the church, the Christian faith calls for addressing social issues, biblical faith calls the church to stand in prophetic tension with earthly political systems, and finally, biblical faith should inform our politics. That is, we start with theology and not political ideology, for the realm of God is our goal, not the supremacy of the nation. I should note my pleasure at reading their discomfort with the presence of the American flag in the church. It has been present in all the churches I’ve served, and I’ve always been uncomfortable with it there (unless, of course we want to include the flags of all the nations, for surely God is the God of all the nations).
All in all, this is a helpful and important book. I have my issues, but I think that the conversation it engenders is essential. As a mainline Protestant pastor, whose theology and politics is left of center, I would have liked the authors to have broadened the conversation to be more inclusive of the positions and concerns of those to their left. I understand that they see themselves as evangelicals, but they are also members of and one is a pastor of a United Methodist Church. And the publisher is mainline. So, at times I had to wonder whether I was part of the target audience, since the authors rarely address those of us who are either no longer part of the evangelical subgroup or never were part of it.
In the end, however, I wonder if the issue is as much about the partisan commitments of church members or the polarization of the populace, as it is the failure of the church to heed the call of Jesus to love one’s neighbor. If we were to follow this injunction, then surely the destructive nature of partisan politics would fade away. At least, I would hope this to be true. So, in spite of my questions, I think the book does offer a helpful contribution to an important issue that faces the church today.