Well, Indecision 2008 (or whatever nickname Jon Stewart and his Daily Show chums have given it this time) is nearly here.
Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be paying any attention to an election taking place in a country I don’t live in (yes, I know: a black man is running. Big woop). But when writing about Christian music is part of your job, you’re kind of forced to take an interest. You see, politics is a biiiig part of American Christianity, and a lot of the art, media and teaching that come from there are heavily coloured by the partisan stance of whoever produced them – a point many of us non-American Christians who feed voraciously on the Christian culture industry’s output often fail to realise.
Every April, I take a trip to Nashville to attend the Gospel Music Association’s annual GMA Week. I remember turning up at GMA 2004, and being greeted by a giant banner covered in signatures, proclaiming “The Christian music community supports our troops in Iraq” (this was the same GMA at which my friend Mike Rimmer went about wearing a T-shirt with WWJB? (Who Would Jesus Bomb?) written on it). As one of the millions who’d marched the streets of London in protest against the war, you can imagine how that made me feel…
I’d kind of resigned myself to accepting that Christian music = rightwing politics. But in recent years, I’ve seen quite a few of those fiercely conservative Gospel/ccm people become less so. You still have guys like Redeem the Vote (ostensibly non-partisan, but in reality very pro-Republican) rallying young Christians’ support – first for Mike Huckabee, then for McCain once Huckabee was out of the race. But it appears that this time round, Christian voters are looking at other options beside the GOP – and are being helped to do so by some of their favourite gospel/ccm acts. The Democrats – famous for not ‘doing God’ – have even enlisted gospel singers such as Donnie McClurkin and the Mighty Clouds of Joy to help bring folk round.
I met Frank Schaeffer (author of the book Crazy For God) at Greenbelt this summer. Not only did he openly pledge his support for Obama several times during the festival; he also had a lot to say about how Christian voters’ moods were changing.
“A lot of Evangelicals now realise that they were sold a bill of goods by the Republican leadership,” he told me. “The one stick in the mud that won’t go away is abortion. But that said, most Evangelicals – with that as a caveat – are becoming more comfortable with voting for a Democrat, because they see the absolute failure of not only the Bush administration, but also this idea that you have to pass a sort of theological test in order to be President. That’s insane; you’re not hiring the guy as Pastor-In-Chief.”
As I’ve spoken to American Christians (musical and non-musical alike) over the last couple of years, many have cited one guy as being the catalyst for so many of them re-examining their political views: Jim Wallis, the Vicar of Dibley’s husband (no, seriously!) and author of books such as The Soul of Politics and God’s Politics: How the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.
“People like Jim Wallis have taken a lead in getting people involved in a larger conversation than abortion and homosexuality as the touchstones,” said Jars of Clay’s keyboardist Charlie Lowell, when I interviewed him before the band’s last UK gig. “He’s got us looking at issues such as taking care of the poor and ultimately what we’re building as a future, rather than what we’re against.”
I’ve met Jim Wallis several times over the years – usually at Greenbelt, where he’s a regular speaker, as well as at events organised by Faithworks and Make Poverty History. He’s told me more than once that “the monologue of the Religious Right is over,” but I’d always had a hard time believing that when TBN – along with the other Christian satellite channels – shouted the opposite so loudly. Brian McLaren, another speaker at this year’s Greenbelt, had an explanation for that.
“Something people outside the US just don’t understand is the degree to which religious broadcasting has enormous power,” he said. “I sometimes – being very tongue in cheek – refer to it as ‘Radio Orthodoxy’. The most powerful denomination in the USA is actually not Baptists or Pentecostals; it’s the people who control the Christian broadcasting networks!”
Brian longs for more Christian musicians to be more questioning of the political process, and cites the singer Derek Webb as one bright spark in the ccm pool. Having heard Derek’s The Ringing Bell album and seen the hilarious video for his song “Saviour on Capitol Hill”, I have to agree with Brian. When I actually got to interview Derek, I wasn’t disappointed – nor was I too surprised to learn that some of his more edgy songs haven’t gone down too well within the Christian music scene.
“The Christian music market is traditionally a fairly conservative one,” Derek said. “So when you as a Christian artist start looking at the more social implications of following Jesus, it does kind of concern people. I’ve always found that ironic, because looking at just the simplest teachings of Jesus, he clearly puts a high priority on caring for the poor. When you start to look at the social implications of what Jesus said, applying it socially is not only inevitable; it’s commanded. And when you look at the social implications, it inevitably becomes political.”
As you would expect, Derek’s been observing Indecision 2008 with interest. “So far, I think it’s better now than it’s been in a long time,” he said enthusiastically. “There does seem to be a heightened interest in having a more nuanced political conversation. I’ve been surprised by some of my friends and people I know, who four or eight years ago would simply have looked for the conservative candidate and blindly pledged their allegiance to him. Now I’m seeing some of those people are more interested in a whole discussion.
“I’ve been hoping that over time, Christians would begin to realise that politicians are primarily in the election and re-election business; willing to go to any group of people whose language they can decipher, and say to them whatever they need to say in order to get their votes. That’s just how it works. As you look over the history of the last 20 or so years of Evangelicalism and how it touches elections, people are bound to start realising, ‘these guys aren’t necessarily on my side!’
“Whoever you discern as the ‘Christian’ candidate – the guy who seems to have all his spiritual ducks in a row – has more likely deciphered the Christian language and is able to get in front of Christians and make himself seem appealing and electable. That’s not to say that some of these men aren’t whom they say they are, but Christians have to be a little more savvy about the game that’s being played. The politicians understand what they’re doing, but unfortunately, the public – and most often, these Christians – hear the politicians talk about the few issues that those politicians know are the only issues that are important to them, and they’re just swayed really easily. We should be a little more careful.”
Derek has some valid points, IMHO. And I’m all for Christians getting involved in the political process, whatever side of the fence they’re on or whatever country they’re in – just as long as they don’t try to claim God as a member of their party of choice (which is why I agree 1,000,000 percent with the line in one of Derek’s songs that one of the two great lies he’s heard is that Jesus was a white middle-class Republican). But is this “more nuanced political conversation” going to have any real effect on the poll results? Well, they’re nearly in; lets see for ourselves, shall we?