Unbelieving politicians

Culture | Bradley rejects his old evangelicalism, Ventura thinks he's too strong for faith, and others pay lip service

Issue: "More clay than Potter," Oct. 30, 1999

The choice is simple," the tract reads. "It is between the eternal and the passing, between the strong and the weak ... between Jesus Christ and the world." The author goes on to give his testimony. "I knew I had been giving my life to the wrong goals," he confessed. "I knew then that I wanted to give my life to Jesus Christ and His service." Finally, he concludes: "I've made my choice. I love Jesus Christ and I try to serve Him to the best of my ability. How about you?"

The tract, I've Made My Choice, published by the American Tract Society in the 1960s, was by a basketball star with the New York Knicks, active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

That was then.

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Now, Bill Bradley, one-time celebrity evangelist and current contender for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, repudiates his old evangelical convictions.

In his autobiography, Time Present, Time Past, he describes his religious pilgrimage in psychological terms. He was brought up in Presbyterianism: "The Westminster Confession deconstructed the mysteries of grace, faith, and predestination" (p. 419). While it is odd to consider the Confession a postmodernist document, Mr. Bradley describes his religious upbringing in terms of arid intellectualism. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes introduced him to a more emotional brand of evangelicalism, which he describes as giving him the subjective release he needed. (The tract's "I've made my choice" emphasis shows that his rebellion against Calvinism was theological, as well as temperamental.)

As he became more a part of the evangelical subculture-going so far as to preach at a Billy Graham rally-his misgivings grew. He became bothered by the exclusive truth claims of "fundamentalism," he says. His involvement in the civil-rights movement, he says, brought him face to face with the racism he found among evangelicals, and that changed his faith-which is odd because most of the black preachers active in the movement would have told him that distrust of man should not lead to distrust of God.

In his tract the young jock for Jesus did not exhibit much understanding of the gospel; rather than pointing to the grace of God and the work of Christ, Mr. Bradley emphasized his good resolutions and his choice. His next choice was to leave evangelicalism.

While he says that atheists are just as smug and certain as fundamentalists, and while he says he still considers himself a Presbyterian, he has formulated a much more liberal creed. "People everywhere in the world seem more than ever to yearn for an inner peace, a oneness with themselves and their world. Christianity offers one way to achieve it; Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism offer others," he writes. "Increasingly, I resist the exclusivity of 'true believers.' Isn't it better to remain open, so that you may learn from another's truth?" He concludes, "I seek my own individual faith" (pp. 422-423).

Maybe this is New Age theology. Maybe it is just mainline liberal Protestantism. Ironically, Mr. Bradley still articulates his theology in terms that echo his tract. The primal, pre-dogmatic experience of "faith," he says, "constitutes a partnership of judgment and love. It is in the dynamic between the two that you encounter the terrifying excitement of choice. If you choose faith, then you move beyond ritual to a search for your own individual path. You become engaged in a process of remaking yourself" (p. 423). Maybe he hasn't changed much after all. What we have here is a postmodernist evangelicalism. An evangelicalism without the gospel.

Another popular politician, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, made public his scorn for "organized religion," which he thinks is merely a sham for weak minds. His remarks in an interview with Playboy caused an uproar, but the governor pleaded that he was just being honest and real-unusual, coming from a former professional wrestler. If religion is a sham to make money, what about the WWF? After his confession of no-faith, Mr. Ventura's popularity plunged 20 points in his state, but he still enjoys a 54 percent approval rating.

Most political leaders still pay at least lip service to "organized religion," but many don't let it stand in their way. President Clinton, despite his sexual adventures, is a Southern Baptist. Vice President Gore has impeccable Bible Belt affiliations, but he buys into the worldview of environmentalist Gaia-worshipping extremists.

Both men support abortion, as do a great many congressional members of pro-life churches. Many Catholic lawmakers are stalwart defenders of abortion, despite the strong opposition of their church. The same is true of certain members of Protestant evangelical churches, of both parties.


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