The Problem with À La Carte Politics

The Problem with À La Carte Politics

Christianity Today, March 2021

A few months before the 1996 election, a stack of voting guides showed up at my nondenominational church in suburban Chicago. The guides contained candidates’ headshots and positions on a series of hot-button political issues, including abortion, homosexuality, and congressional term limits. Our church was one of approximately 125,000 to receive them, according to their source—the Christian Coalition, which had emerged out of Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential campaign. Under federal tax-exemption laws, the Coalition guide could not explicitly endorse any candidates; it simply highlighted issues that ought to be high priorities for churchgoing evangelicals. The not-so-subtle messaging: Do the political math, and you will know who is on the side of the angels.

As a precocious preteen, I occasionally heard rumblings of interesting adult conversations during coffee hour. The guides provoked a controversy that caught my attention immediately. Should the leaflets be inserted into the church bulletins? What kind of theological or political statement would that make? For a church whose ecclesiology swung as low as the Gaither band’s baritone, this was our only substantive liturgical debate of the year. I listened intently in the narthex and later studied the guide at home. For me, it seemed like a great political awakening at the time.