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The Perils of Parables

Today's post is from Frederick S. Lane, author of The Court and the Cross: The Religious Right's Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court. Lane is an expert witness, lecturer, and author who has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, the BBC, and MSNBC. His next book will be People in Glass Houses: American Law, Technology, and the Right to Privacy (Beacon 2009). For additional information, please visit

Lane It is no secret that the evangelical wing of the Republican Party has some strong reservations about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain. The "agents of intolerance" charge that McCain leveled at Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell during the 2000 primary, for instance, has not been forgotten. Nor were evangelicals pleased when McCain so quickly disavowed two prominent evangelical preachers, the Rev. John Hagee and the Rev. Rod Parsley, for making controversial statements about Islam, Hitler, and the Holocaust.

The coolness of evangelical voters towards Senator McCain is so pronounced that his opponent, presumptive Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama, senses a rare political opportunity. Despite some profound policy differences, the Obama campaign believes that it can make some inroads in the evangelical community. Senator Obama has a lot of room for growth: a recent Calvin College poll gave Senator McCain a 57%-25% edge among evangelicals.

Two separate initiatives are under way to help Senator Obama narrow the evangelical gap. A couple of weeks ago, David Brody of the Christian Broadcast Network (home of Pat Robertson's The 700 Club) announced that the Obama campaign was planning to launch a grassroots initiative dubbed "The Joshua Generation" to target young evangelicals and Catholics. The phrase hearkens back to the Bible's Book of Joshua, in which the Lord spoke to Joshua and said "Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel."

In a speech at Selma in March 2007, Senator Obama referenced that story and said, "The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way. They took us 90% of the way there. We still got that 10% in order to cross over to the other side. So the question, I guess, that I have today is what's called of us in this Joshua generation? What do we do in order to fulfill that legacy; to fulfill the obligations and the debt that we owe to those who allowed us to be here today?"

But Senator Obama's efforts to reach to Christian conservatives may have already hit a snag. His use of the phrase "Joshua Generation" prompted a critical response from Michael Farris, the founder, chairman, and chief legal counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), an organization that advocates on behalf of Christian evangelical home-schoolers. In 2003, HSLDA established a program called "Generation Joshua," which is designed to provide "Christian youth between the ages of 11 and 19" with opportunities for civic and political involvement; the program, which later trademarked the phrase "Generation Joshua," is now a 501(c)(4) organization.

So-called GenJ youth teams have worked on the political campaigns of approximately 30 conservative Republicans (but so far, 0 Democrats).

In 2005, Farris authored a book called "The Joshua Generation: Restoring the Heritage of Christian Leadership," in which he touted the program and its potential for training future politicians and lawyers who will bring a "Christian worldview" to their professional careers. So far, there has been no public response by the Obama campaign to Farris's complaint.

Senator Obama is not the only one to see an opportunity in the evangelical disaffection for Senator McCain. Mara Vanderslice, the former Director of Religious Outreach for the 2004 Kerry-Edwards campaign, has launched the "Matthew 25 Network," a political action committee aimed at reaching out to diverse Christian communities. The group's name is drawn from Matthew 25:35-40, which admonishes Christians to remember: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink... 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brethren, you did for me.'"

Although the group is still working on its website, the Matthew 25 Network has already endorsed Obama for "his vision for America and his leadership that brings people together from across different political and faith spectrums."

The Matthew 25 Network's invocation of the parable of Christian charity fits nicely with the Obama campaign's message of hope and societal change. But other portions of Matthew make it a somewhat curious choice. The passage opens, for instance, with the parable of the ten virgins, "which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom." Five of the virgins were foolish, and brought lamps but no oil; the remainder wisely brought both. When the bridegroom arrived at midnight, the five foolish virgins were sent to buy oil for their lamps; but the five "that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut." When the five foolish virgins returned, they were barred from the marriage chamber and admonished to "Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh."

Matthew 25 also contains a parable about the man who gave money to his servants before leaving on a trip. The first received five talents (a large sum), the second received two talents, and the last just one.

While the master was away, the first two servants used their money to invest and trade. When the master returned, each had doubled their money and received the praise of their lord: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

But the servant who had received a single talent did not invest his money, but instead put it in a no-yield account (i.e., buried it in the dirt). When his master returned, he was angry to learn that his servant had not used his money to trade: "Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury." The servant's lone talent was taken from him and divided between the two more prosperous servants.

"For unto every one that hath shall be given," the master proclaimed, "and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath."

The lesson of this particular parable is evocative of the so-called "prosperity gospel," the belief that acceptance of Jesus as someone's personal savior leads not only to eternal salvation but also worldly wealth. It is an evangelical movement known as the "Word of Faith," and it is espoused by, among others, the Revs. Hagee and Parsley.

While Senator McCain may have been uncomfortable with some of their political pronouncements, there is no indication that his campaign is troubled by the idea of a "prosperity gospel," or the somewhat chilling message of Matthew that "them that has, gets."

The mixed themes of Matthew 25 (polygamy, orgies, usery, penury, faith, and charity), as well as the Obama campaign's trademark issues with "Generation Joshua," illustrate the perils of mixing politics and religion. Both of these initiatives, as appealing and tempting as they may be for Democrats, also run counter to the more fundamental idea that we should be moving away from identity politics as the guiding principle of our campaigns. It is an inherently divisive approach, one that cripples our ability to reasonably discuss and decide on the policies needed to address this nation's increasingly urgent problems.