On Feb. 22, inside a Clark Atlanta University auditorium, Christianity girded its loins with faith, anointed itself with righteousness and went forth to do battle with, well, Christianity.
It wasn't quite a Tim LaHaye vision of the final conflict at Mount Megiddo. There was no thunderbolt-wielding Christ bloodily massacring gays, Jews, Muslims and billions of others who failed to meet Pat Robertson's criteria for salvation. But the scene wasn't pretty.
Sadie Fields, the brittle vicar of Georgia's Christian Coalition, told a town hall forum on immigration reform what her brand of Christianity taught about undocumented immigrants. Invoking Old Testament Scripture, Fields intoned, "We uphold the rule of law. God would never condone chaos and lawlessness for he is a God of order, justice and righteousness."
For the crowd, largely black and Hispanic, that was enough. From the back of the auditorium, Aquiles Martinez jumped to his feet, marched forward and addressed Fields in a voice that trembled with anger.
"Jesus was an exile himself," Martinez fumed. "He lived an uprooted life. He opposed unjust laws. He opposed the religious and political establishment of his day."
Martinez paused and gathered himself, knowing he was on the verge of challenging an authority as stern and unforgiving as the Pharisees. Then the Methodist minister from Reinhardt College in Waleska, Ga., thundered, "How dare you support legislation that victimizes the poor!"
He didn't add, "... and call yourself Christian," but his meaning was unmistakable.
The jeremiad was greeted with a few seconds of silence, then hearty applause. Fields glared at Martinez. But state Sen. Chip Rogers of Woodstock, the Republican who authored Georgia's new anti-illegal immigration law, rode to her defense. How, he wondered, could anyone question someone else's religious beliefs?
"That," he said, "is between the person and his God."
More than a few in the crowd of about 300 snickered at the irony in that remark coming from a member of the GOP -- an acronym that in recent years has come to stand for "God's Own Party." One young woman waved a finger at the stage. "Isn't that how Republicans win elections?" she asked. "Don't they claim they own Jesus?"
Well, yes, many Republicans do just that. But more than a few Democrats are getting the message that faith counts.
There's a new social gospel being heard in churches and -- more to the point -- in political strategy sessions. The self-recruited warriors for Christ who formed the vanguard in GOP takeovers of the White House, Congress and statehouses across the South suddenly are no longer unopposed in the battle over faith in American politics.
Chapter 1 of the new social gospel is a rebuke of the moral meltdown among purportedly God-fearing politicians -- people like Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay and even George Bush. They're enveloped in controversies involving deception, hypocrisy and other less-than-holy behaviors.
Chapter 2 of the new gospel records the discomfort among some believers that the narrow interests of politically motivated preachers -- primarily opposing abortion and gay rights -- aren't all there is to religion. Why, the gospel asks, aren't more evangelical leaders sermonizing on the core of Jesus' teachings: peace, compassion and poverty?
Chapter 3 introduces new religious leaders and a growing number of rigorously religious folks who are bucking the Republican agenda. Many of them hold "conservative" religious social values. Others form smaller but recently energized contingents of moderate and liberal religious Americans. Their leaders are often evangelical preachers, such as the Rev. Jim Wallis of the Sojourners movement. Some, including Rabbi Michael Lerner of the liberal Tikkun movement, hail from other religious backgrounds.
It remains to be seen whether the forces arrayed against the religious right will amount to much. Will they cause a substantial number of evangelicals to consider issues other than the short litmus test positions that fundamentalists such as Sadie Fields and Jerry Falwell have told them are important? Will they energize people of faith from other religious traditions to become more engaged in the political process? And, most of all, will they fracture the coalition that has given the Republican Party control of the White House, Congress and state governments across the South?
"The Republicans can hold together only if the Democrats help them," says Allan Carlson, who runs the Howard Center, a Christian issues research center in Illinois. "The interests of corporations and banks, the real power in the Republican Party, aren't the same as the interests of families. More and more Christians are becoming aware of that."
Carlson adds, "But the good news for Republicans is that the Democrats can't shake loose with their attachment to the 1960s' sexual revolution on issues such as same-sex marriage. The Democrats refuse to adopt pro-family measures, and for social conservatives, that means there's no place to go except the Republican Party."
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