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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

September 19, 2012 at 7:00 AM

In search of American evangelicalism and politics

Washington, D.C. — We walked in silence in the mid-morning hush that hovered over the National Mall. It was Sunday, three days ago, and I was in town covering the Values Voter Summit, a conservative gathering that mixes faith, politics, and policy. A friend and I were on our way to church service at Capitol Hill Baptist.

It’s a site frequented by politicos, civil servants and students, heirs of a robust intellectual tradition within Christianity. I’ve been wanting to hear the pastor, Mark Dever, since I heard him talk at the University of Cambridge a few years ago.

Walking past the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court on the way to church is a fascinating experience. It’s here that our nation’s laws get made, and fought over.

Part of the U.S. Supreme Court’s granite facade was being renovated. From Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. (Will Mari / UW Election Eye)

And now we found ourselves at an intersection lined with sleepy trees and charming brownstones.

A woman approached us.

“Are you two here for the ‘weekender’?” she asked.

“The what?,” we wondered aloud, thinking she had meant to inquire if we were in town for the weekend, “sure.”

“Then follow me,” she said, “I’m going to CHB.”

On the way, we figured out what she had meant. The “Weekender” was a quarterly gathering of ministers of American and international ministers.

She had thought we were pastors. I suppose wearing a blazer and bearing Bibles and notepads might have encouraged that perception. My press badge was tucked away, in more than one sense.

It turns out that the woman’s husband is a professor, and that they share a research interest in religion, business and government. At the summit I had been covering, I had been thinking plenty about the role evangelicals of various theological inclinations play in our public sphere, as Americans.

As a graduate student and reporter, I’ve written about religion for the past eight months for Election Eye.  I also have an academic interest in this subject, since I study the religious roots of modern journalism. And as a person of faith, I also have a personal interest in how faith is expressed in places outside of mosques, synagogues and churches, in the messy madness that is politics.

Parishioners gather at Capitol Hill Baptist, in Washington, D.C., for church service on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. (Will Mari / UW Election Eye)

So when I’ve gone on Election Eye trips, I’ve often gone to church, dragging colleagues along. From a pair of megachurches  in Columbia, S.C. — one white, one black — to Ted Haggard’s new church in Colorado Springs, to Gov.  Scott  Walker’s low-key church in the suburbs of Milwaukee, we’ve encountered the ways evangelical Americans express their beliefs.

These experiences, and other encounters with faith-motivated voters in coffee shops, political rallies and everywhere else in between, have shown the complexity and unappreciated nuance with which people defy easy categorization.

My visit to Capitol Hill Baptist on Sunday fit this reality well.

During the service, we were asked to pray for our leaders, including the president, and the congregation confessed that it had “let our contentment follow the polls,” too often.

The sermon revolved around Jesus’s first public miracle (his first entrance on the public stage), at the wedding at Cana, an account found in the second chapter of the book of John. That chapter also includes the story of Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple in Jerusalem —  a city that’s gotten itself into the platforms of both major U.S. political parties, curiously.

Jesus opposed religion for its own sake, and wanted belief to be tied to action, Dever said.

“[He] isn’t looking for religion,” Dever concluded. “He’s looking for faith.”

The only political commentary of the message then followed.

Dever was concerned about what he called the “mild persecution” that was coming from “government lawyers” that want to reduce “our freedom of religion to one hour a week.”

He was more than likely referring to the HHS mandate.

It’s a complicated subject, but basically it involves requiring all health insurers, including those that cover faith-based organizations and non-profits, including colleges and charity groups (not insurers that cover churches, more narrowly), to pay for contraception, including the “morning-after pill.” Failure to comply will lead to punitive fines.

Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups have opposed the measure, arguing that it damages the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. President Obama has offered a partial compromise, but these same groups are worried that it isn’t robust enough. Ultimately, there’s concern that faith-based groups will have to withdraw from the public sphere, or  perhaps shut down.

This was an issue repeatedly raised by the speakers at the Summit. But to hear it at Capitol Hill Baptist felt different, possibly because it was discussed in a church, by a pastor, and not by a political pundit.

Later, I wondered, too, if the people there  (and the people I’ve run into across the country, in South Carolina, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Washington state) better represent American evangelicalism than the speakers at the Values Voters summit. I suspect so.

Journalists (like myself) can do a better job reporting on religion, especially during election years. I hope to keep writing about this topic, in the future, as Christians and other religious people struggle to figure out how best to engage in (and with) our broader society.

“It’ s not an easy thing to follow Jesus,” as Dever said.

Comments | More in Culture, National | Topics: Capital Hill Baptist Church, Christians, D.C.

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