White Like Me

A Christian comes to terms with Dallas' Christian Coalition

While I sat through a four-hour, Friday-night meeting of the Christian Coalition earlier this month, I searched hard for the sinister folks who have infiltrated Texas' Republican Party.

I scanned the fellowship hall of Northwest Bible Church, eyeing the faces in each row of those $20 padded "stacker" chairs that fill every evangelical church in the universe.

I searched for twitchy bigots and beady-eyed demagogues, but saw nothing that frightened me--just average people, equal numbers of men and women, learning, for the first time in most cases, how to involve themselves at the precinct level in the party of their choice, which, as the whole world knows by now, is usually the Republican Party.

The speaker, Paul Powell, a skinny, sharp-witted guy in a gray suit and Mickey Mouse tie, insisted to his audience that the Christian Coalition is nonpartisan and isn't backing any individual candidates. No matter that all around us were guys with Buchanan bumper stickers--and every time the subject of Bob Dole came up, people could barely disguise their disdain for that "wishy-washy" Washington lifer.

Powell stuck plainly to his message: Get involved; and if you're going to get involved in American politics, you have a choice of two flavors--Republican or Democrat. "We're here because our culture is falling apart," Powell said at the beginning of the March 1 meeting. "I'm here because I'm after power. We want to take [our] values and help our culture to be more healthy. We're after some influence."

The people murmured their assent, then strained their eyes at an overhead projector while Powell dissected the process of choosing party delegates.

Young and old, prosperous and just-barely-hanging-in-there middle-class, these people took notes and followed the flow chart in their precinct organization handbooks. I began to understand why this Christian Coalition, with its 1.6 million contributing members--an unprecedented alliance of conservative Protestants and Catholics--may very well become the most important democratic movement of this decade.

While many Americans stand idly by making fun of their Congress and reviling their president, the Christian Coalition is moving into the empty space left by apathy. Who can fault them for that?

Talking to some during meeting breaks, I found, as I had suspected, that many had been politicized by a single issue: abortion. Once they had gotten involved in the Coalition, they had broadened their perspective to encompass many other national issues--economic and foreign-policy concerns, as well as moral matters.

That can only be a good thing, I thought. The process of getting involved in the public-policy arena seems to exert a moderating force of its own. So why is it, then, that the Christian Coalition gives so many people the heebie-jeebies?

I looked around again, and neither saw nor heard anything that would frighten me even slightly. There was nothing resembling the presumptuous, pious contempt for the unwashed that seemed to characterize the Moral Majority, the Coalition's political predecessor. (Coalition members are urged at all times to be courteous to their opponents because each is a "witness of Jesus Christ.")

Yet there was something disturbing about this meeting of the Dallas County Christian Coalition. Surveying the room, I saw that all but a half-dozen of the 275 people present were white--in a city that is more than half-minority.

That observation stuck with me. Surely, Ithought, not all of the theologically conservative Christians in this town are white.

Hispanic Christians, for example, must be the most pro-life human beings on earth--the Christian Coalition's natural allies, it would seem--and black evangelicals are, issue for issue, some of the toughest gut conservatives in America. Whew--you ought to hear them talk among themselves about welfare and crime.

So where were they?
As the meeting dragged on--good heavens, these folks must develop their stamina at Pentecostal camp meetings--my mind began to drift, way back, to a strange incident in my childhood.

Call it a parable of sorts. One Sunday morning many years ago, in a small Wisconsin town, my mother, my sister, and I were driving to church, when Mom told us that one day--perhaps today--she was going to climb atop the church pew and scream at the top of her lungs.

I was horrified.
Just an idle threat, you presume. But no. I knew my Mom. I knew she just might do it.

It would have been an all-purpose primal scream--nothing to do with getting the Holy Ghost--a simple cry of frustration, the sound of intellectual meltdown, of a mind bearing an unbearable burden.

You see, it's tough being an evangelical Christian. There was the preacher, running through his repertoire of spiritual platitudes: "Let go and let God"; "Trust and obey, for there's no other way." There was the preacher's wife, with her big hair and brittle smile.

Sometimes you ask yourself, is this what it means to follow Jesus Christ?
Being an evangelical--a seeming anachronism in a post-modern age--means embodying many contradictions, containing within yourself many ambivalent thoughts. You are in the world, not of it--struggling to reconcile private beliefs with a public demand for complicity, conformity, and conventionality.

It all kind of gets to you sometimes. It's a wonder we don't explode from the strain.

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