The Barack Obama campaign opened its downtown Raleigh headquarters July 22 to much fanfare, but just around the corner the same night, the Obama celebration was outdrawn almost 3-to-1 by Jesus.
A "campaign stop" of the Jesus for President book tour was led by evangelical progressives Shane Claiborne, 33, and Chris Haw, 26, whose book, Jesus For President, was published this spring by Zondervan. The new movement represents one of the most exciting shifts among Christian evangelicals.
The Raleigh gathering at First Baptist Church on Wilmington Street, the 19th stop on a 21-city, 10,000-mile veggie-fueled bus tour, drew a crowd of mostly 20-somethings. Mixed in were old-guard progressive Christians, many affiliated with the N.C. Council of Churches.
In an interview before the show, Claiborne said the substance of the Jesus for President message is: "How do we interact with a world that's really gone mad?"
In a crazy world, it's better to be peculiar than relevant, he said, and Christians must find alternative ways of living in an unjust world.
The charismatic, stick-thin Claiborne, who sports dirty blonde dreadlocks and black, horn-rimmed glasses, said Christian evangelicalism is "driven to cultural relevancy."
"One of the things we challenge is, 'How much are we relevant to culture, and how much are we peculiar to culture?' The idea of a contrast society, being a people that are set apart."
Claiborne said he offers "a refreshing message for post-Religious Right America," adding some young evangelicals are turning away from the often harsh and unloving messages—such as gay-bashing and immigrant-bashing—that fuel the Religious Right.
"We really believe there's a lot of people that are hungry for a new conversation and a reshaping of what it means to be political, and we're glad to be a part of that," Claiborne said. "One of the ways that the Religious Right went wrong was by telling people what to do rather than inviting people to think for themselves."
The campaign's message, smoothly presented via overhead projection, live inspirational music and a thought-provoking, often-humorous script, lasted close to three hours, but no one in the standing-room-only crowd of about 500 seemed to lose interest.
"Part of why young folks, especially evangelicals, are really attracted to this conversation is because they have known Christianity as lip service that has a lot to say with our mouths but very little to show with our lives," he said. "I think what folks are really looking for are authenticity and integrity, things that you can really wrap your hands around as an expression of our faith."
In the presentation, Claiborne and Haw pointed out that the marriage of church and state still defines Western Christianity. "The church has fallen in love with the state, and this love affair is killing the church's imagination," they wrote. "Too often the patriotic values of pride and strength triumph over the spiritual virtues of humility, gentleness and sacrificial love."
To make their point, projected on the overhead were quotes from Adolph Hitler and Harry Truman, adversaries in World War II who nonetheless both claimed God's approval for their killing.
Hitler: "By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."
Truman: "Having found the atomic bomb, we have used it. We shall continue to use it. ... It is an awful responsibility which has come to us. We thank God that the atomic bomb has come to us instead of to our enemies, and we pray that God may guide us to use it in his ways and for his purposes."
Said Claiborne: "The banner of love is the only flag we salute. We pledge allegiance to a different commander in chief, a different gospel than America's. Just as America has her liturgy—singing the national anthem or placing our hands over our hearts or 21-gun salutes—we as a church need new rituals and a liturgy to give people a sense of belonging and devotion, of an identity that runs deeper than nation."
At the end of the presentation, Claiborne and Haw told the audience they won't endorse any particular candidate for president.
"You can think of voting as damage control, that we're trying to lessen the impact of the powers," Claiborne said. "That doesn't mean that we're putting our faith or our hope in this party or candidate."
Still, longtime Raleigh activists Cyrus and Carolyn King, like some others, made stops at both Obama's new campaign office and Jesus for President.
"I'm still voting for Obama," Cyrus King said, with a chuckle as he left the church.
The Rev. Isaac Villegas, pastor of the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, said it remains uncertain whether the Jesus for President message will catch on and possibly grow into a movement for social change. However, like other evangelical meetings, Villegas said many people left Jesus for President feeling excited from the hoopla. "That was just a beginning," he said. "It's encouraging and energizing to be around people who want to imagine different possibilities for political action. We need to exercise our imaginations."
Villegas and Mennonite pastors, the Rev. Spencer Bradford of Durham and the Rev. Duane Beck of Raleigh,want to continue the conversation. To learn more, go to anabaptistexchange.org.
Who would Jesus deport?
Walls are being built. Laws are being toughened, and tension is rising, but they just keep coming. Tens of thousands of people stream across the U.S.-Mexico border each year in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
There are more than 35 million foreign-born persons residing in the United States, 23 million of whom have arrived in the past 20 years; at least 12 million are undocumented.
Of interest to Catholic Relief Services is that more than 300,000 of the annual new arrivals are Catholic.
The numbers are telling and point to a bigger problem of economic injustice, said Cullen Larson of Catholic Relief Services at a June breakfast gathering of the Franciscan Coalition, a social justice group sponsored by Raleigh's St. Francis Catholic Church.
The federal government's inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation has led to scores of local and state laws that have cracked down on undocumented immigrants, and have been "harmful to many," Larson said. "People are suffering and dying."
The immigration debate is nuanced, especially for those who claim Christianity as their faith. While Larson said the Catholic Church does not support illegal immigration or open borders, if peoples' lives are in danger, the laws must protect them.
"Nations have a right to control their borders but not an absolute right," Larson said. "People have the right to migrate to support their families."
In a January 2003 joint pastoral letter on migration, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, U.S. and Mexican bishops called for comprehensive immigration reform:
- Address root causes of migration by developing economic, political and social conditions that make it unecessary to migrate.
- Allow undocumented residents of all nationalities to earn permanent residency
- Allow family members to reunite with loved ones in the United States
- Reform labor laws so migrants can work in a safe, humane environment
- Restore due process protections for immigrants.
"Our faithfulness as a community is measured by how we treat the most vulnerable among us," Larson told the Indy. "The lack of documents does not take away the human rights of someone desperate to feed his or her family. Jesus welcomed the entire human family to his table."