News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 23, 2012

A Challenging Trend: Sullivan minister, theologian offers response to politics’ religious right

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

SULLIVAN — Paul McGlasson decided to write his sixth book in August 2011. The presidential campaign was revving up.

A Christian minister, author and Yale-educated theologian, the 56-year-old pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sullivan felt compelled to answer an event in Texas. The result was McGlasson’s newly released book, “No! A Theological Response to Christian Reconstructionism.”

Conducted at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, the event, called “The Response,” served as the launch of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s bid for the 2012 Republican Party presidential nomination. In his book, McGlasson describes The Response prayer rally as “a Christians-only effort to call on divine support for Perry’s candidacy, as well as to ‘claim’ the United States for a new Christian transformation in the political realm.”

To McGlasson, the rally at Perry’s campaign launch exemplified the deepening alignment of a Christian movement, often termed the religious right, with one political party. McGlasson decided to challenge the theological basis of Christian reconstructionism, which he views as a set of political-religious ideas or “dominion theology.”

In a political issue, “when politicians or Christians say, ‘This position is the Christian position,’ then as a theologian, my ears prick up,” McGlasson said, sitting in his office at the Sullivan church.

An official with the American Family Association, a Christian group that helped sponsor The Response, defended the alignment with the Republican Party last week and rebutted McGlasson’s assessments.

Now in his 13th year as pastor at Sullivan, McGlasson has authored five other books, including, “God the Redeemer,” “Canon and Proclamation” and “Invitation to Dogmatic Theology.” He and his wife, Peggy, a speech pathologist, have two adult children — one in college at Indiana University and another recently graduated from Ball State and is working as an AmeriCorps volunteer. McGlasson received a master’s of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School and a doctorate in systematic theology from Yale. Prior to his parish ministry, McGlasson taught theology at the college and seminary levels.

“I’m no liberal, in terms of being a Christian,” he explained from his office, while a couple of installers worked on the sound system inside the church’s sanctuary. “I consider myself a mainstream ecumenical Christian.”

In terms of religion and national politics, “The people that are getting all the press are on the extremes,” McGlasson said. In between, he added, are earnest Christians simply trying to discern God’s will for church and society. Whether through Christian reconstructionism on the right, or the religious left, alignments in partisan politics deserve theological challenge, McGlasson contends.

“I don’t think the Gospel can be politicized,” he said, “and politicizing it from either side is a mistake.”

Shift seen

McGlasson sees the growth of Christian reconstructionism on the right shifting from the 1980s Moral Majority efforts for a Christian influence in society to the present-day movement to place Christian dominion over society. “Even a guy like Jerry Falwell didn’t see it quite that dramatically,” McGlasson said, referring to the late co-founder of the Moral Majority.

In his theological response, McGlasson said reconstructionism involves four interconnected ideas — a Christian world view, which he said cultivates “us vs. them” epistemological dualism; that Christians have the right and role to legislate morality for all people everywhere; that Christianity and western culture are two sides of the same coin; and that the ultimate calling of Christians is to dominate the earth.

The global Christian church, McGlasson said, is growing rapidly, especially in Asia and Latin America. Approximately 1 in 4 of the world’s Christians live in sub-Saharan Africa, and about 1 in 8 reside in Asia or the Pacific region, according to the Pew Research Center. Christianity’s global growth, McGlasson said, is the result of service by Christians through the example of Jesus Christ. “He said, I came not to be served but to serve, and that’s the fundamental call to be a Christian — to serve and not be served, especially to the weak and to the helpless, and not to dominate,” McGlasson said.

In his book’s introduction, McGlasson writes that it aims to stress four points, on the basis of Scripture. “First, the inherent value of democracy as a divine right for all peoples and nations; second, the need for economic equality in a world which is becoming increasingly polarized between the wealthy and the poor; third, the embrace of the outsider, the foreigner, the marginalized in our global society; and finally, the relative value of human culture (including government, art, science, education, and so forth) for Christian existence under God’s gracious care. All of these are joined together in a force more powerful than any false quest for dominion over the other, indeed the most powerful force in the world: the power of love. The Christian is called to participate in nothing less than a new society.”

Party differences

Through an email response to a Tribune-Star query seeking comment, Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the American Family Association, agreed with McGlasson on one point, but disagreed on others. Fischer mentioned particular issues — taxation levels, immigration enforcement, abortion and same-sex marriage — in validating the AFA’s political involvement through referencing Bible passages. He had not read McGlasson’s book.

“I certainly agree with him that moral and economic truth are not the province of any one political party,” Fischer wrote. “But on the other hand, the Democratic platform supports abortion on demand and ‘marriage’ based on the infamous crime against nature. The Republican Party platform endorses the sanctity of human life at all stages of development and one man-one woman marriage, both of them biblical standards. The differences between the two parties on those issues is not political but moral, and it would be foolish and dangerously naive not to recognize that.”

McGlasson offered scriptural basis for his conclusions, too, and challenged using the Bible to fight “an ideological battle between the left and the right.”

McGlasson is not sure what this fall’s election, from the local level to the presidential race between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, will do to the future political involvement of the religious right. Christians, he predicted, will later see the trend as a mistake. In the early 20th century, he pointed out, many well-meaning Christians pushed successfully for the national prohibition of alcohol. That ban instituted in 1920, though, was marred by organized crime and unequally applied enforcement, and was repealed in 1933.

The fight against alcoholism was “understandable,” McGlasson said. “Lives were ruined by it. Preaching against alcoholism is a good thing. Preaching against any form of addiction is a good thing. But trying to legislate that on other people is another thing.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.