Pastor speaks against politicizing religion

July 30, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. -- Like most pastors who lead thriving evangelical megachurches, the Rev. Gregory A. Boyd was asked frequently to give his blessing - and the church's - to conservative political candidates and causes.

The requests came from church members and visitors alike: Would he please announce a rally against gay marriage during services? Would he introduce a politician from the pulpit? Could members set up a table in the lobby promoting their anti-abortion work? Would the church distribute "voters' guides" that all but endorsed Republican candidates? And with the country at war, please couldn't the church hang an American flag in the sanctuary?

After refusing each time, Boyd finally became fed up, he said. Before the last presidential election, he preached six sermons called "The Cross and the Sword" in which he said the church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a "Christian nation" and stop glorifying American military campaigns.

"When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses," Boyd preached. "When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross."

Boyd says he is no liberal. He is opposed to abortion and thinks homosexuality is not God's ideal. The response from his congregation at Woodland Hills Church in suburban St. Paul - packed mostly with politically and theologically conservative, middle-class evangelicals - was passionate. Some members walked out of a sermon and never returned. By the time the dust had settled, Woodland Hills, which Boyd founded in 1992, had lost about 1,000 of its 5,000 members.

But there were also congregants who thanked Boyd, telling him they were moved to tears to hear him voice concerns they had been too afraid to share.

"Most of my friends are believers," said Shannon Staiger, a psychotherapist and church member, "and they think if you're a believer, you'll vote for Bush. And it's scary to go against that."

Sermons like Boyd's are hardly typical in today's evangelical churches. But the upheaval at Woodland Hills is an example of the internal debates going on in some evangelical colleges, magazines and churches. A common concern is that the Christian message is being compromised by the tendency to tie evangelical Christianity to the Republican Party and American nationalism, especially through the war in Iraq.

At least six books on the theme have been published recently, some by Christian publishing houses.

Boyd has a new book out, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church, which is based on his sermons.

"There is a lot of discontent brewing," said Brian D. McLaren, the founding pastor at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Gaithersburg, Md., and a leader in the evangelical movement known as the "emerging church," which is challenging the more politicized evangelical establishment.

"More and more people are saying this has gone too far - the dominance of the evangelical identity by the religious right," McLaren said.

Boyd said he never intended his sermons to be taken as merely a critique of the Republican Party or the religious right. He refuses to share his party affiliation, or say whether he has one, for that reason. He said there were Christians on both the left and the right who had turned politics and patriotism into "idolatry."

In his six sermons, Boyd laid out a broad argument that the role of Christians was not to seek "power over" others - by controlling governments, passing legislation or fighting wars. Christians should instead seek to have "power under" others - "winning people's hearts" by sacrificing for those in need, as Jesus did, Boyd said.

"America wasn't founded as a theocracy," he said. "America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn't bloody and barbaric. That's why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.

"I am sorry to tell you," he continued, "that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ."

Boyd lambasted the "hypocrisy and pettiness" of Christians who focus on "sexual issues" like homosexuality or Janet Jackson's breast-revealing performance at the Super Bowl half-time show. He said Christians these days were constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith.

"Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act," he said. "And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed."

Boyd now says of the upheaval: "I don't regret any aspect of it at all. It was a defining moment for us. We let go of something we were never called to be. We just didn't know the price we were going to pay for doing it."

His congregation of about 4,000 is still digesting his message. Boyd arranged a forum recently to enable members to sound off on his new book. The reception was warm, but many of the 56 questions submitted in writing were pointed: Isn't abortion an evil that Christians should prevent? Are you saying Christians should not join the military? How can Christians possibly have "power under" Osama bin Laden? Didn't the church play an enormously positive role in the civil rights movement?

One woman asked: "So why NOT us? If we contain the wisdom and grace and love and creativity of Jesus, why shouldn't we be the ones involved in politics and setting laws?"

Boyd responded: "I don't think there's a particular angle we have on society that others lack. All good, decent people want good and order and justice. Just don't slap the label `Christian' on it."

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