In God's Name

When leaders say they're pro-family and Christian, look for the devil in the details

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm, and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead.

--James 2:14-17

A couple of months ago I started work on a story about the growing popularity of big-box religion in suburbia. In an effort to give the phenomenon a face, I spent a month of Sundays at Grace Church in Eden Prairie, where, as in most "megachurches," the pastoral staff uses the aesthetics and language of corporate America to attract the upwardly mobile with promises of instant community and high-speed access to salvation. Besides being enormous (some 4,000 people attend Grace every Sunday), many megachurches advertise themselves as "nondenominational," which often means the doctrine is both evangelical and conservative.

Whenever I would introduce myself to members at Grace, they would ask whether I was a Christian. Initially I answered honestly. That would always lead to a follow-up question: When were you born again? At that point they would meet my polite, painstakingly nonconfrontational "I haven't been" with a blank stare or a suspicious scowl. Ultimately, in the name of expedience (and a looming deadline), I ended up avoiding the topic altogether. "I'm still sorting out the whole religion thing," I'd say sheepishly. People seemed to like that. It put me in the category of salvable.

The piece was anything but a hatchet job. In fact, after it ran I was asked to speak at a local Bible college, where one of the students, a former attendee at Grace, told me I was "way too nice." That said, even a casual reader would know my biases. The megachurch phenomenon struck me as a product of the times--self-consciously slick, overly simplistic, and fueled by fear. My prose betrayed a stoic cynicism. Most of the sources I quoted did the same.

The hate mail arrived right on schedule, as presumptuous as it was condescending. "Obviously, you are not a Christian," one e-mail began. "If you were, you would be able to more fairly evaluate what it means to have a close personal relationship with God." A number of missives expressed a similar sentiment. If only I were not so lost, so arrogant, so blind. If only I believed.

The thing is, I do believe. I spent my childhood running through the halls of my family's big old church. Mom taught Bible school, Dad directed the choir, and the minister who confirmed me is now a close friend--a rigorous philosophical sounding board and spiritual counselor. They made me the card-carrying bleeding heart I am.

The Jesus Christ they taught me about walked the earth in the name of justice, in the spirit of peace. That Christ was not a symbol on a cross, but a flesh-and-blood activist, first flawed like man, ultimately redeemed as a righteous spirit. That Christ would go unnoticed by today's pious pontificators. They would be banging the pulpit on close-circuit cable in Eden Prairie. He would be fighting for the medical benefits that--as Beth Hawkins and Leyla Kokmen report in this issue--are about to be taken off life support. They would be trying to intimidate women on their way to Planned Parenthood. He would be volunteering at an AIDS clinic. They would be blessing America as it marches toward Baghdad. He would be leading a march on Washington.

And while I will probably always be "sorting out the whole religion thing," I've become so weary of the close-minded pundits and moralizing politicos who claim a monopoly on Christianity, I've decided, deadlines be damned, to stop turning my back on the subject in the name of expedience.

 

In the current issue of the Minnesota Christian Chronicle, Bryan Malley--the publication's brand-new, 23-year-old editor--reports that this year's state legislature is "expected to be pro family." In this context, that oft-used and abused moniker means there's a good chance that a spate of backward-thinking House members are likely to push a number of initiatives through to the Senate. And, depending on the tenor of the accompanying media coverage, on to a sympathetic governor. At the top of their list: a requirement that sex ed in the public schools be focused on abstinence until marriage, despite indisputable studies proving that that method alone will not prevent unwanted pregnancies or life-threatening STDs; anti-abortion legislation designed to erode a woman's right to choose; the eradication and roughshod replacement of the Profile of Learning, which, behind the scenes, has been targeted by conservatives because of its allowance for diversity education; and the elimination of state-funded programs that "promote" abortion or homosexuality. (The primary villains in this last category are Planned Parenthood and the Minnesota AIDS Project, humanitarian organizations that exist to spread public health information and literally save lives.)

Oh yeah, they're also down with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's promise not to raise taxes, no matter who or what gets lost in the shuffle.

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