“Do you suppose Rev. Wright prayed for George Bush?” a friend asked after the service at our Lutheran church last Sunday – a service that as usual invoked God's blessings and guidance on behalf of President Obama and other political leaders.
I suspect the question was rhetorical: Jeremiah Wright of Chicago, who served as the president's pastor for many years, is an especially flamboyant practitioner of the black liberation theology that once induced him to seek God's wrath upon America for its sins, real or perceived.
Even so, it's a question that should be pondered by anyone offended by this week's announcement that more than 130 local priests and pastors or various denominations have joined to promote life, traditional marriage and religious liberty.
In fact, “Shepherds United” is not offensive at all, but defensive – a response to the erosion of values firmly rooted in both Scripture and the American cultural and political tradition. It's one thing to question the group's agenda or interpretation of Scripture or the Constitution; quite another to suggest, as some surely will, that it has no business injecting church into matters of state. This is a battle members did not start and, I am sure, would rather not have to fight.
Unlike some churches on either political fringe, most of the denominations represented at this week's news conference – mostly Catholics and Missouri-Synod Lutherans but others too – do not regularly mix worship and politics, at least not in a partisan sense. And when my pastor does mention abortion, same-sex marriage or other contemporary social issues in a sermon, it's usually in the context of that day's Scripture readings.
That's because Christ created the church primarily not to make this a better world but to proclaim the Gospel of forgiveness and eternal life – the very thing I suspect all of the clergy members gathered in the Courthouse rotunda this week would have preferred to be doing.
But the church also exists to call people to repentance and to urge Christians to put their faith into action for the benefit of others. Shepherds United is perfectly consistent with both those missions.
The group is equally consistent with centuries of American tradition, from the rights granted by the Creator acknowledged in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence to the role of the church in ending slavery, Jim Crow and the war on poverty.
In the past several decades, however, the state and even many Christian denominations have led or acquiesced in the move away from traditional – Shepherds United would argue biblical and constitutional – values. The Supreme Court legalized abortion 40 years ago, same-sex marriage is gaining advocates and, now, federal health-care laws give religious institutions the unacceptable and unconstitutional choice of violating their consciences, paying huge fines or simply shutting down.
Unlike the federal government, the church cannot compel anybody to do anything. That's why the First Amendment protected the church from the government while assuring individuals the right to worship – or not – as they please. Christ did indeed instruct us to give Caesar his due, but nothing in Scripture or the Constitution prohibits believers from exercising their full rights as citizens.
Although theological differences can be important and should not be papered over for the sake of harmony or politics, too many churches have for too long allowed doctrinal disputes to overshadow the beliefs that unite them. In part because of the ineffectiveness created by that fragmentation, those beliefs are too often in retreat.
In that context, a failure to respond would represent not only an abdication of citizenship, but would border on theological malpractice.
So the shepherds have united and issued a passionate, well-reasoned and very pastoral statement. That's nice. But the group's momentary news value will fade quickly if not followed up with a long-term strategy of communication and action with each other, their members and the public. And even then, there's no guarantee anybody will listen.
It is, after all, a free country. For now.
But members of Shepherds United also know they can't serve two masters, and this week they restated their commitment to serve the only one who has the authority and grace to reject Wright's hoped-for damnation and, despite its faults, continue to bless America.