A plea to evangelicals from an evangelical Mon Jan 14, 12:16 AM ET By David P. Gushee Conservative evangelicals are bringing a version of Christian values into the public arena where every American has to deal with it, like it or not. A recent example of this is the way grass-roots "Bible-believing Christians" in the Republican Party are boosting the candidacy of Mike Huckabee, and quite possibly sinking the campaign of Mitt Romney, mainly because Romney is a Mormon yet another misunderstanding of the way faith is relevant to politics. Evangelical politics matter to the general public, which is affected by what conservative evangelicals believe and "value." In the past seven years, we have seen that laws are written based on these values. Supreme Court justices are named based on these values. Executive-branch appointments are made based on these values. And presidential campaigns now seem to advance or collapse based on these values. So the general public has come to understand that what conservative evangelicals believe and do matter an awful lot to everyone in this country. Many people are furious about it. But these beliefs and values also matter to other Christians, especially other evangelicals like me. Our reputation is at stake, our voice in the culture, and the health of our religious communities. If the most vocal evangelicals get this wrong, it damages all evangelicals all religious believers, really. (Illustration by Alejandro Gonzalez, USA TODAY) I am not just talking about a bit of embarrassment in polite company. If there are people who reject God or the church, Christianity or religiously inspired moral values because of what conservative evangelical political activists do, this is disastrous from a Christian point of view. There are many such people. Here we are at the very heart of our religious mission, and it is getting fouled up by our politics. Conservative evangelicals are getting wrong both how they are bringing their faith to bear on politics and what they are saying when they do. Married to the GOP The "how" problem, among other things, is that they are married to the Republican Party and have therefore compromised the political independence of Christianity and the church. This is a huge mistake, an error of biblical proportions, because it verges on idolatry after all, "You shall have no other gods before me." One obvious sign of this was the assumption in the Christian Right that its leaders would endorse a Republican presidential candidate that it was just a matter of which of those GOP gentlemen was the best Christian choice. Endorsing a Democrat was and is inconceivable. Once any group of Christians gives itself away so completely to a political party, it ceases to be the church. The church becomes a branch office of the group's political party of choice The First Republican Church in America. This is the root problem, and it leads to all the other specific mistakes that follow: using the church (or parachurch organizations) and its considerable resources for direct or veiled candidate endorsements, political strategizing, dissemination of essentially partisan "voter guides," and get-out-the-vote efforts. A whole lot more than tax status is threatened when churches go over so completely to the business of secular politics. The "what" problem is more subtle but just as important. Conservative evangelicals generally offer an unbiblically narrow policy agenda focused on just a few moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage instead of tackling the full range of biblical concerns, which include poverty, oppression and war. And when they do engage some of these other issues, such as the foreign policy of our nation, they are (ironically) not Christian enough. Their faith doesn't inform their vote in a way that makes sense biblically. They are getting their values from somewhere else not from Jesus which is why they look so uncomfortable whenever anyone raises the "Jesus issue" in relation to their support for, say, torture. We must regroup. We evangelicals must rethink our engagement with politics. The place to start is by remembering that the church is not a branch of a political party and that its distinctive identity and mission must be protected, both for the sake of the church and for the sake of our culture and the world. Compromised identity The fundamental task of a religious organization is to serve God, not win in secular politics. Once this distinction is lost, the identity of the religious organization is compromised beyond repair. This is bad not just for the integrity of that religious group, but also for society, which if it is to flourish needs a variety of social institutions performing a variety of functions not every social institution morphing into a political organization. Specifically for Christians, we (should) know that the mission of the church is to be Christ's faithful people, and to do its core work of preaching, teaching and serving our neighbors. If it is true (as we boldly believe) that the church is the central location for the work God is doing to redeem the world, then our focus should be on the church's work, not the state's. As one aspect of our God-inspired love for our neighbor, we can ask the state and its leaders to do justice, protect life and advance the common good. We can do this in many quite constructive ways, from scholarly work to declarations of principles to activism on specific issues. But we dare not identify the work of any state, any political party or any politician with the work of God or the task of the church. Every time we do so we end up embarrassing ourselves, enraging the neighbors we are called to love, deepening the culture wars and damaging our own mission. David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, president of Evangelicals for Human Rights, and author of The Future of Faith in American Politics, to be released this week.