Culture At Large

Two approaches to politics and the church

Paul Vander Klay

Most weeks I watch "This Week" on ABC. For Easter, they had a group of "people of faith" to discuss a variety of things. The marquee interviews were with Tim Keller and Franklin Graham. I think the two men and their interviews are instructive for seeing contrasting approaches for conservative Christians speaking in the public space.

One challenge to comparing the two interviews is the fact that Christiane Amanpour approaches them with two very different sets of questions. What this does speak to, however, is the fact that both men have developed different themes through which they wish to address the broader culture.

Franklin Graham, it seems, has been following the political, culture-war path. He begins the interview by talking about Good Friday and saying nothing about Easter. Within a few minutes he hits hot button words like "anti-Christ," "secularism" and soon moves over to blaming the government for incapacitating churches from doing relief work for the poor. His work in relief and development becomes a segue to an end times discussion. When Amanpour asks if he believes in these end-times pronouncements, he responds, "I believe the Bible, Christiane, absolutely, cover to cover, word for word I believe the Bible." From there he will talk about every eye seeing Jesus through social networking. He'll then go into Islam, his thoughts on President Obama's faith and his preference for Republican candidates, even wandering into the "birther" debate.

Keller's interview is markedly different. You might notice that he never utters the words "Jesus" or "the Bible" once in the interview. The interview focused on issues of greed, idolatry, politics and religion. If you knew nothing about Keller other than this interview, could you locate him or label him within the constellation of churches in American culture? You could say, "Well, the questions were different." But if you do know Keller's work you would know that Amanpour had done her research and was asking questions on subjects that Keller emphasizes in his books.

The subject of the interview is not just the decision of the interviewer. It also reflects the shaping and the agenda of the subject. One large irony is that here you have a Reformed minister cautioning about political speech in the church while speaking from a tradition that has valued Christian involvement in politics. In contrast, you have the evangelist's son from a tradition of fundamentalism that early in the 20th century saw politics as suspect engaging in a very overtly political "crusade" (the word the piece used).

Now which interview does the church a greater service? How you answer that question likely says a lot about who you are and what you imagine the United States needs and how it should get it. Does the nation need a rather sectarian scolding and warning? Does the nation need a re-introduction to a church that focuses more on some of the felt needs and personal issues that people are dealing with? Is there a possible combination of the two?

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