One of the greatest failures of Christians in this country is when they don't think and act as Christians first. Instead, they think first as Americans, consumers, partisans, and sometimes even as Red Sox fans. This leads to bending over backward to justify un-Christian behavior and attitudes to fit these other identities. The biblical name for this behavior is idolatry.
Now, Christians can and do identify as Americans, consumers, partisans, and even Red Sox fans (the latter being my particular temptation!). But, it should never be our first or primary identity. Those other identities should all be subservient and accountable to our identity in Christ.
A piece by Michelle Goldberg in Newsweek chronicles some evangelical voters in Iowa trying desperately to contort their values in order to justify supporting Newt Gingrich. She quotes Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council as saying, "Under normal circumstances, Gingrich would have some real problems with the social-conservative community... But these aren't normal circumstances."
In other words, this guy clearly doesn't stand for our values but we are ready to jettison those in order to make sure our party wins the 2012 election. Newt Gingrich's three marriages -- serving his first wife divorce papers while she was suffering from cancer, and cheating on his second wife while leading the impeachment battle against Bill Clinton for lying about his sexual sins -- would normally be disqualifiers for family values conservatives. Later in the article, Ralph Reed discusses evangelical support for Ronald Reagan, our country's first and only divorced president, and says, "These voters believe in forgiveness, they believe in redemption."
In other words, some people are willing to forget anything and turn a blind eye toward what they would otherwise see as moral failures, as long as they can count on faithfulness to political or party ideology. Moral consistency is the clear loser in such political calculations.
Unfortunately, many people who go to church on Sunday are more influenced by what they see on cable TV than by the Bible. I hear that lament from pastors all the time. Too many of their congregants' political priorities are determined by a party or ideology -- not the Word of God. Their identities are shaped by marketing and media campaigns that manufacture a view of the world in order to maximize their own power and profit.
The antidote is simple. Christians need to read their Bibles more. It makes a difference.
I was surprised, as were many others, when a headline in Christianity Today a few months ago read, "Survey: Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal." While many studies have shown a correlation between frequent church attendance and conservative political views, a new study from Baylor shows that frequent Bible reading increases opposition to the Patriot Act and the death penalty, while broadening one's concern for social and economic justice.
In fact, Baylor set up a five-point scale to measure Bible reading frequency. Participants were asked, "How important is it to actively seek social and economic justice in order to be a good person?" Each point moving up the Bible reading scale correlated with a 35 percent increase in Christians who would agree with that statement.
Frequent Bible reading doesn't correlate with any neat political category. Concern about abortion and gay marriage also increase with regular reading of the Bible. Christians must and should engage, struggle with, and be accountable to the scriptures. It is what keeps us honest, ensuring that we are Christians before we are Americans, consumers, partisans, or Red Sox fans.
The good news is that while stories about Tony Perkins, Ralph Reed, and other evangelicals ready to jettison their core beliefs in pursuit of political power tend to make headlines, it's not all evangelicals.
A new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service asked what different Americans favor or oppose when it comes to reducing the federal deficit. Here is what's surprising: 58 percent of white evangelicals now oppose cutting federal programs that help the poor, 72 percent oppose cutting federal funding to religious organizations that help the poor, and 60 percent favor raising taxes on those that make more than $1 million a year, in order to help reduce the deficit.
Those startling results are very important and should cause Republicans to reconsider their position on deficit reduction and begin listening to a significant part of their electoral base. Even more importantly, it might get them to start reading the Bible more.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.