As an observer of evangelicalism in general and this years election in particular, it has been very interesting to see how each of the candidates have made their appeals to evangelical voters. Ever since 2006, the Religious Left has felt a surge of confidence in wooing the evangelical voting block comparing their perceived success to a revival. After 2004, a plethora of books were published to offer an analysis of religious values and how they might relate to political thought on both of the Left and Right ends of the spectrum. Talk of a “purple” theology, division between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world, God’s politics, “irresistible revolutions,” and voting for Jesus as President found their voices in second and third generations of evangelical leaders. First generation spokesmen like the seasoned Chuck Colson were considered dinosaurs. Even popular leaders like Rick Warren were perceived as abandoning the one issue politics of Jerry Falwell and James Dobson to keep up with the times.
Preceeding the time when these political voices started being raised, was the fertile time when the “emerging church” movement began making inroads into evangelical thought. Between 1999 and 2003 no church or Christian institution could not ignore the growing interest in the “cultural shift” from modernism to postmodernism. Ministry methods and messages were being “re-imagined” on a scale that matched the growth of the blogosphere. When the 2004 elections came and went these discussions became more concerned with politics as the old specter of the Religious Right and its aberrant influence were considered to be a relic of modernity. According to these emergent thinkers it was high time that “everything must change” and the discussion shifted from theological to political concerns.
Enter 2008 with Barack Obama, a winsome and likable candidate who is comfortable with talking about his faith and how it informs his political beliefs. Never in their wildest dreams could the emergent thinkers find such a match for their left-leaning interests. In much the same way, Obama is to emergents as George W. Bush was to evangelicals in the wake of the scandal-ridden Clinton administration: a candidate motivated by shared religious convictions that offers something different from what has been served up the last eight years. Every emergent thinker worth his or her salt has thrown their hat in with the Democratic messiah and his one-word slogans of “hope” and “change.” John McCain is portrayed as an old Washington-style politician of a bygone era that has been tried and found wanting. Not surprisingly, the media has made much of the younger evangelical vote being undecided.
But then Rick Warren entered the picture. Whether it was lime light opportunism or keen cultural insight, Warren seized on the political moment and invited both candidates to his church to discuss questions of central importance to this year’s evangelical voter. The result of the hour-long interviews of each of the candidates being asked the same questions revealed a stark difference that marks a significant and stubborn problem for the Religious Left: there is still a Religious Right.
Warren’s questions were direct and on target, and the answers he got cut through the fog. All the talk about “purple politics” and transcending the left-right divide was made hogwash in the wake of the Saddleback Forum. For the emerging Religious Left this was a disaster, because the difference was not found in an abstract philosophy of morally equivalent religious values being weighed against one another. Rather, what emerged was a difference of leadership styles that put the role of government on trial. Is it the role of government leaders to weigh in on when human rights apply to babies or not? To define marriage? To define who is and who is not “rich?” To redistribute wealth? To take military action on behalf of the weak? These questions go beyond a mere panel discussion of ethical positions and where they fall on a hierarchy of values (which is weighty in of and itself) to a rubber-meets-the-road, what must be done strategy that will affect the lives of millions. Crusty old John McCain surprisingly had a more definitive take on things than the hesitant Obama.
Interestingly enough, this seems to have been Rick Warren’s goal. The role of government in addressing these issues was on trial rather than the candidate’s faith. And the fact that the emergent Christians have wed themselves to a Democratic political platform and made voting for Obama nothing short of a litmus test for being “a new kind of Christian” shows that their movement has peaked. No longer can they be seen as agents of change and innovation. They are more of the same and offer no new answers to old questions.
Consider the “emerging church” emerged.