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One of the major players in what came to be known as the "Religious Right" in the 1980s has shut its doors. The Center for Reclaiming America, based in Ft. Lauderdale, part of Dr. D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, has decided to close. It will also shut its Washington, D.C., office known as the Center for Christian Statesmanship.
Kennedy, who is 76 years old and recovering from a heart attack he suffered in December, is one of the best educated and most compelling of all the cultural conservatives who sought to use the political process to reverse the "moral slide" in America. Most of Kennedy's televised messages in recent years have strayed from traditional preaching and focused primarily on politics and social issues.
Brian Fisher, executive vice president of Coral Ridge Ministries, told the Miami Herald, "We believe that by streamlining the operations we will be able to return to our core focus." One hopes that will be preaching the unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ, unencumbered by the allures of the political kingdoms of this world, because that is where the greatest power lies to transform lives and ultimately nations. It does not lie in the Republican Party, with which Kennedy's organization was almost exclusively associated.
Politics is about compromise. The message of the church is about Truth. One has to look no further than the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons -- who long ago gave up speaking of another kingdom and another King (if they ever did) in favor of faith in the Democratic Party -- to see how quickly the church and its primary message can be blurred when it enters into a shotgun marriage with politics. Jim Naugle, the mayor of Ft. Lauderdale, told the Herald that the last election persuaded candidates to package themselves "in the middle, rather than to the right."
Nearly 30 years after religious conservatives decided to re-enter the political arena -- after abandoning it as "dirty" and leading to compromise -- what do they have to show for it? The country remains sharply divided and the reconciling message they used to preach has been obscured by the crass pursuit of the golden ring of political power. In the end, they got neither the power, nor the Kingdom; only the glory and even that is now fading, as these older leaders pass from the scene.
This is not to say there is no role for conservative Christians in the civic life of their nation. There is. But Christians must first understand that the issues they most care about -- abortion, same-sex marriage and cultural rot -- are not caused by bad politics, but are matters of the heart and soul. Some evangelicals wish to broaden the political agenda beyond these issues to poverty, social justice and the environment. Politics can never completely cure the ills of any of these, but the message Christians bring about salvation and redemption can. Besides, they can never "convert" people to their point of view.
Too many conservative Christians have focused on the "seen" rather than the "unseen," thinking appearances at the White House, or on "Meet the Press," is evidence that they are making a difference. And too much attention has been paid to individual personalities, rather than to the One these preachers had originally been called to exalt.
Nothing in the Bible commands believers to reform or redeem society through government and politics alone, or even mainly. Neither is there any expectation that non-Christians will be converted to the Christian point of view, which can vary on some topics, through politics.
Corwin Smidt, executive director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., told the Herald that evangelical groups that are built around a single charismatic leader often struggle when the leader is gone. "These televangelists are able to generate a fair amount of money," he said, "but in terms of their institutional longevity, it's really at risk."
To paraphrase a verse familiar to most Christians, what shall it profit a man if he gains the White House, but loses his own soul?
Christians are also fond of saying God never closes one door without opening another door. The "door" of the Center for Reclaiming America has closed. The new doors can produce a more effective politics, if what's on the other side is based on a message that has less to do with partisanship and more to do with the One who transcends all politics and Who lends His power only to those who will use it as He instructed.