It would be foolish to claim that evangelicals are not politically engaged in society. However, there are a number of drawbacks to the ways in which many evangelicals approach issues of social importance. Evangelicals tend towards a fairly pragmatic view of political engagement. This is because the primary concern is not the political engagement but rather the ability to witness. It is impressive how readily polarized evangelical groups can be when the issues are framed in terms of their witness and their perceived ability to witness.1 The classic example of this is the work of the Christian Right in the US. I find that Canadians tend to be less animated (more forgiving and flexible) in how they express their commitments, but these political commitments should not be underestimated (I believe that this is part of the reason the Conservatives have made it this far in our Country). This propensity for polarization reveals that what is lacking is an ability for individuals to sustain a reflection on political engagement. What suffers most is the very thing that is believed to be preserved - witness.
The witness of any religion is always tied to the ability of that religion to foster political engagement. The kind of political engagement that prophetically stands up in the face of injustice. While Christianity is not alone in its capacity to evoke the prophetic spirit, it is surely a rich part of Christianity's own formation. But what has been traded for the political prophetic voice is an apocalyptic and ecstatic spirit that deems overt political involvement as participation in a world which has no lasting hope. Pat Robertson's recent racist remarks about Haiti prove this point. What is unfortunate is that this is what passes as prophetic in much of evangelical culture. That is the prophetic is an ability for enforcing a deep apathy towards critical political issues. The church has become the state church preserving the state's status quo at all costs. What cost you might ask? The cost is the witness.
In Power Evangelism John Wimber claims that a faulty gospel message can at best create weak Christians. His claim comes in the midst of a discussion of the Kingdom message as the kerygma of Jesus' own gospel proclamation. I think he hits something important. The gospel that many North American evangelicals have bought into often has no reference to such political notions as the Kingdom of God. In fact Kingdom is only mentioned as an afterward as if saying the sinners prayer somehow transports one into the Kingdom. This could not be further from the message of Jesus. The Kingdom isn't something we can usher people into, a veritable holding place where we can plug up our eyes and ears and await the great yanking away. No. The Kingdom was central and its direction was always incarnational not escape. Sometimes I'm convinced that our gospel messages have more to do with our own personal comfort than with anything we read in the four gospels.
This weakness is already hurting evangelical witness. There is a growing awareness that the issues of our day demand a profound and prophetic response. And with none coming from our churches and ministries it should not surprise us that our numbers are dwindling. The plea of this argument is not to water down our gospel - I think we've done that enough. But to reflect on how our gospel actually might have the prophetic capacity to be, once again, a force for good in our world. This won't happen while we happily clap in our pews. It happens when we follow Jesus into the highways and byways and become like a certain famous Baptist who prepared the way for the Kingdom to come in the person of Jesus Christ.
1. By witness, I am referring to the active sharing of ones own faith in hopes of leading other individuals into a similar religious orientation.