Chuck Colson makes a right turn

LIKE MOST change worth having, cultural and political transformation in Christianity is a torturously slow process. Fearful of deception and suspicious of wordly wisdom, rank-and-file members of the current evangelical community are unlikely to be persuaded to change their ways without strong statements from leaders they deeply trust. In fact, some of them frequently denounce this magazine for its alleged lack of concern for what mature Christians think. But in an atmosphere of entrenched cultural reflexes and glacial moral progress, it is more than a bit encouraging to see a venerated pillar of an old order holding his hand aloft to suggest a new direction.

Ladies and gentlemen, Chuck Colson.

In an interview in this week’s issue of Time, the disgraced Nixon advisor turned religious leader looks back regretfully on the politicization of Christian values that began thirty years ago. “We made a big mistake in the ‘80s by politicizing the Gospel,” Colson said. “We ought to be engaged in politics, we ought to be good citizens, we ought to care about justice. But we have to be careful not to get into partisan alignment. We [thought] that we could solve the deteriorating moral state of our culture by electing good guys. That's nonsense.”

Nonsense is a strong word for something that thousands of Christian and men and women still believe and practice with a devoted fervor. It’s also a strong word from a man who holds to deeply conservative views on most theological and cultural issues, from the origins of the universe to the legislation of moral issues. But in this brief questionnaire, Colson speaks up unequivocally for ideas that many evangelicals find repulsive: that a Christian could vote for a Democrat, or that fixing American culture is not primarily a political undertaking. “Jesus would have seen the Republican and Democratic parties like the money changers in the temple,” Colson says. “You can’t fix politics or culture unless you fix the church. What we’re seeing in society today is a direct consequence of the church failing to be the church.”

It didn't take Colson saying so to make it true that the politicization of Christianity has left the church in a shambles. The ugly signs are everywhere—sometimes literally. The event in Washington, D.C. on September 12 echoed with Christian rallying cries, questioning Obama's faith and suggesting that he will end religious freedom. The Texas Board of Education's partisan wrangling over science continues to cast believers as anti-intellectual. But for all the political fervor, public opinion on the religious right's sacred issues keeps on shifting the other way. The number of Americans identifying as non-believers has been rising steadily for some time. Fifty-six percent of Americans think evangelicals spend too much time complaining and not enough time solving problems; fifty-two percent believe Christians only care about abortion and homosexuality. By so ungracefully drawing inordinate attention to what it opposes, the Christian political movement has obscured the church's positive mission to bring healing to the broken, redemption to the outcast, and protection for the downtrodden.

Calls to repair the church and lamentations for its reduced effectiveness in American culture are nothing new to evangelicals. Colson could just be reiterating a clichéd evangelical talking point. But calling the religious right’s political ambitions “nonsense” is sure to stop a good number in their tracks. And considering Colson’s power in Christian thought—the thousands of Christians who fed off horror stories of secularization and immorality on his radio program BreakPoint, for example—a few might be willing to listen. We encourage Colson to repeat this message early and often, in as many evangelical forums as will have him. (Time being part of the liberal media and all, some Christians might miss it otherwise.) To hear Colson distance himself from partisan politics and even explicitly embrace the Other Side—“Democrats do a lot of very good things that we should be supporting,” he says—would relieve the wingnuts of their final excuse not to grow up. Suddenly, it wouldn’t be just a few kids writing on the internet.

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