Just a few weeks ago over 100 “faith leaders” signed the “Covenant for Civility,” calling Christians to civil dialogue across their differences. Who could be opposed to the call to reasonable dialogue? What could be controversial about asking Christians to be Christ-like in how they defend their Christian convictions?
Yet the responses to the Covenant have been as revealing as the Covenant itself. Shortly after the Covenant was signed, Dr. George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, asked that his name be removed from the list of signatories. Juleen Turnage, spokesperson for the Assembles of God, explained Dr. Good’s reason for his action. In the process, she explicitly rejected the possibility of any “big tent” within which all Christians might stand:
“The problem is the tent that has grown so large on the signatures of this that are including people who are supportive of gay marriage and abortion rights,” Juleen Turnage, spokeswoman for the Assemblies of God told Religion News Service. “He (Wood) just felt that he could not become a part of a large tent.”
Daniel Schultz, a UCC pastor in Wisconsin, cites this response in today’s blog on ReligionDispatches.org. He uses it as the occasion to fire back a matching salvo:
“The long and the short of it is this: the Christian Century-mainline church crowd should really think twice before signing on to one of these wild goose chases. They always promise more than they can deliver. The fact of the matter is that the American right wing, religious or otherwise, is only interested in meeting you halfway insofar as ‘halfway’ is defined as you changing all your positions to match their own. It’s all very nice for them to be civil—as long as you give up on gays, lesbians, reproductive rights, and probably a whole laundry list of other positions.”
The symmetry between Rev. Schultz’s piece and those whom he’s attacking is perfect. Schultz rejects dialogue with evangelicals because they’re too far to the right. This drives him further to the left, and now he doesn’t want to be found in any tent they are in.
The whole exchange shows even more strongly how urgent it is to reclaim a Big Tent Christianity, a centrist return to “just Christian” in word and action. The two poles are driving each other ever further apart, spawning ever deeper hostilities. The solution — in American society as in the church — certainly is not to let the other’s anger fuel my own. As leaders it’s our task to help break the cycle of anger, of rejection leading to rejection, and to foster a radically different understanding of the heart of Christian faith.
Does the exchange make me worry that the public conference on “Big Tent Christianity” that we’re planning for Raleigh, NC on September 8-9 is a mistake? No, it seems even more urgent than before to invite the combatants to lay down their weapons and to look for something deeper and more enduring in Jesus’ call to the kingdom of God.