Analyzing the salt

Have evangelicals lost their savor?

Issue: "Pilgrims' progress," Nov. 28, 1998

An insightful friend of mine-a WORLD subscriber, of course-reminded me last week how easy it is to spend time congratulating ourselves when we ought instead to be engaged in deep self-examination.

Specifically, this fellow told me of his own heavy investment of time, money, and energy in the recent election cycle. And then he spoke of his disappointment in the results. Why, Lord, he asked, couldn't you have given me just a little more encouragement here or there? Don't you see how important it is, Lord, for us to get one of our people into office here or at least over there?

It was then that he remembered that the God to whom he was complaining didn't need even one of the so-called "good" candidates elected to office to accomplish his purpose. Least of all did God need great companies of self-righteous people crying out all across the land that simply because they now had lost even more political clout, all was going down the drain.

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What God really needed was for those same people to exhibit two other qualities: First, they needed to demonstrate unmistakably that they trusted in God, no matter what. They needed to show that they were not depending on any other means for their survival and their influence-not even the political process. And second, they needed to demonstrate that they, as God's people, really were different from the rest of the population.

But clearly, my friend observed, Christians in North America meet neither of those tests. Even evangelical Christians fail both those tests. It is far too easy right now, with all the "Christian right" organizations licking their wounds and rationalizing their losses, to put the blame on technical issues. We just haven't learned yet, we explain, how to get the salt out of the salt shaker to influence this awful society.

My friend suggests the problem is different: The salt, as Jesus said so bluntly, has lost its savor. It gets out of the salt shaker, all right, but it is just as flavorless as that which it is supposed to be flavoring. Nobody can tell the difference.

It is easy, and a little too convenient anymore, to complain that conservative Christians were lulled to sleep and just didn't get out the vote the way the radical liberals did. The problem, of course, is that exit polls suggest that even among conservative Christians who did go to the polls, their votes on several telling issues were only marginally different from the population at large.

And why should they vote that much differently? Poll after poll shows that even on critical matters evangelical Christians don't believe that much differently from their so-called secular counterparts. Do you believe in absolute truth? Do you believe there's such a thing as right and wrong? In many of these respects, evangelical pollster George Barna says, the differences between "evangelicals" and the rest of the population are becoming less and less distinguishable. So we are silly and deceived if we think it's just a matter of getting these indistinguishable people to the polls-or anywhere else where they will fall flat on their faces trying to make a difference about issues they don't even care about.

Evangelical Christians have these habits partly because their leaders teach and train them to have such habits. Perhaps your mailbox was cluttered just before the election, as mine was, with highly deceitful fundraising appeals from conservative Christian organizations. Purposely designed to look like expensive Federal Express and Express Mail packages, these were in fact bulk-mail pieces. But they carried labels like "Airbill" and included absolutely phony bar codes and identification numbers.

When I expressed my concern privately to several of the people responsible for these mailings-even the heads of the organizations that mailed them-the responses I got back were distressing. "You've got to understand," I was told, "how wonderfully effective for good these methods have proven to be."

One respected leader told me, late on the Tuesday afternoon of Election Day, that such mailings had doubled his organization's response rate. "We've been able to pass on millions of dollars to good candidates," he said enthusiastically, "and I can almost guarantee you that by the end of this day, we will have elected enough new good people to the Senate to overturn the partial-birth abortion veto."

I told him God doesn't need our gimmicks to win his battles. I don't know what my friend thought by midnight-when we had lost both on the electoral and the ethical fronts.

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