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Jesus is my running mate

Christianity, community and public policy


Talking about Christians-what "they" believe and how "they" believe it-is an impossible task, sure to garner letters on what we got wrong and who we didn't take into acount. What follows is not intended as a primer on the tenets of Christian belief, but rather a basic overview of the congregational options around Boise for Jesus's fans. Please holster your letter-writing pens.

As with other religions, "Christianity" is a pretty wide category. The binding belief is obviously the one in that Jesus Christ fellow, but even there, doctrines vary on what being the son of God means. So it shouldn't be surprising that differences between types of Christians run beyond doctrine and into politics. Or put another way, scriptural interpretation can't help but inform the political opinions of practicing Christians. A distinct political cleft exists between right-leaning Christians and their leftist counterparts. Around the Treasure Valley, whatever a person's socio-political beliefs-not to mention scriptural interpretation-there seems to be a Christian Church to match. Or is it that there's a political bent to match a Christian's understanding of the Bible?

In terms of political poles within Christianity, evangelical Christians generally fall to the right and self-professed progressive Christians to the left. Differences begin before believers even hit the public arena with their ideas. Evangelicals, with a literal and rigid interpretation of the Bible, tend to see themselves as having a direct line to God's plan. Left-leaning Christians tend to take a less literal view of the Bible and claim not to have all the answers, but only to be looking for them.

Words like "Fundamentalist," "Baptist" or "Pentecostal" are all tip-offs of a right-leaning Christian-as well as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. On the left, look for churches and organizations with vaguely new-agey sounding names like Call to Renewal, Cathedral of Hope, Clergy Leadership Network or the United Church of Christ. Unitarians fit here, too-although they're somewhat of a special case. A vast middle ground also exists, where adherents, though devout, aren't as visible in the community on behalf of their faith. But looking at the extremes, those comfortable with strong stands and unpopularity, might clue us in to the breadth and depth of options in Christian churches.

Religious belief structures inform conservative and liberal Christians' interactions in the wider community. The rigidity of fundamentalist Christian doctrine, for instance, flows naturally into a prescriptive political style. Fundamentalists, by definition, have the answers and seek to enact them as policy regarding abortion, gay marriage, church/state separation and right-to-die issues. On the other end of the spectrum, left-leaning Christians' less literal belief lends itself to a broader application of faith in the public arena.

The Christian Right is, arguably, the more visible extreme, through local vessels the Idaho Family Forum, Focus on the Family, Mission Media and other faith-based initiatives. The Christian Right is known for being politically outspoken and for basing activism on strict scriptural interpretations. Issues that have been targeted by the Christian Right include: gay marriage; school prayer; evolution vs. creation in public schools; abortion and recently, public displays of the Ten Commandments. The fundamentalist perspective can be reduced as follows: abortions-never; gay-not OK; evolution-I'm not a monkey; prayer in schools-yes, indeed; the Ten Commandments-plaster 'em everywhere and call it free speech; the war-going swimmingly. When the word of God is clear, the appropriate action is also clear. See Boise's Mission Media-whose mission is "to present the 'Good News' of Jesus Christ ... by using the secular media communicating God's heart to non-Christians."

Dennis Mansfield is a local pundit whose public persona is built around his identity as a Christian fundamentalist. Taking the Bible "literally where it says it's literal," conservative evangelical Christians possess a belief structure that informs their interactions with the wider community:

"One, is that the Bible is true. Two, what it says is God's word, so three, we ought to follow it," Mansfield says. He is formerly of the Idaho Family Forum, a group perhaps best-known for their dogmatic outspokenness about homosexuality, abortion, the Ten Commandments and "family values." IFF's purpose: "To shape the culture of our state by promoting biblical family values through influencing public policy and educating the citizens of Idaho."

Mansfield authored this statement, but no longer feels this way. Now, he says, "At one time I saw principled persuasion as the cornerstone to the work of the conservative community. I no longer see that. ... About five years ago, I started attending a different church. I was with meth addicts and heroin addicts, prostitutes and people whose lives are completely different from mine on the outside but every bit as needy on the inside ... and I started seeing life through a set of different glasses."

If Mansfield appears to be a kinder, gentler evangelical than he was five or 10 years ago, the core message still hasn't changed. What has changed is the delivery-coming, Mansfield says, from a place of love, not judgment. Yet while Mansfield talks about his church's planned drug clinic and an interest in helping marginalized groups like minorities and the poor, he was arrested last December for blocking the removal of the Ten Commandments monument from Julia Davis Park. Likewise, he makes no apology for 1994's Prop. 1 (the anti-gay initiative) and supports a gay marriage amendment to Idaho's constitution.

The fundamentalist church that Mansfield now attends, Vineyard, recently announced a new dedication to environmental causes, based upon the Bible's description of mankind as having stewardship over the earth. Vineyard's announcement came just as a similar intention was announced by the National Association of Evangelicals, who raised the question of whether Republican fundamentalist Christians' taking up of historically liberal causes signals a change of heart or an image overhaul.

On the other end of the spectrum, leftwing Christians don't necessarily feel that God has provided all the answers in a clear formulation, and often focus on broader social issues-poverty, war, distribution of wealth-rather than dogma. Leftwing Christian doctrine seems to be: gay-A-OK; evolution-part of God's plan; poverty-a bigger problem than who sleeps with whom; the war-not a very Christian undertaking. Issues like homosexuality are seen as minutiae. Many progressive Christians view gays as a marginalized group like the poor or racial minorities.

Boise's Metropolitan Community Church meets on Sunday mornings at the Community Center, "a resource for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender" community. The church specifically welcomes gay Christians, calling itself "a Christian church for everyone, with a special outreach to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders."

The Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Garden City is likewise welcoming. As stated by the Unitarian Universalist Association, Unitarians aren't strictly Christians. They believe in Jesus as an outstanding exemplar, but not as a supernatural being. As the Rev. Elizabeth Greene puts it, Jesus was a child of God in the sense that we are all children of God-just a far better one.

Drawing on Judeo-Christian, Humanist and Asian religio-philosophic traditions, Unitarians don't subscribe to a creed that everyone must follow. Rather, Greene says, to be a good Unitarian you have to be committed to making the world a better place. As a whole, Unitarians lean left, countering the fundamentalist Christian anti-gay agenda. They concern themselves with people who have fewer rights and less access to power, including the gay community.

Besides churches at either pole and non-political middle-dwellers, there are those hybrids-churches occupying ground at either extreme and exercising a lot of socio-political influence. A sterling example: the Catholic Church. While the Catholic Church has come out against the war in Iraq and concerns itself with poverty and labor movements, they also have a non-progressive record on reproductive rights and a historic unfriendliness toward homosexuality.

Wading through myriad options, if a person does find just the right faith community, chances are, the enthusiasm will be returned. Something else all Christians appear to have in common is a welcoming of new blood. It is very rare to find a Christian church-Right, Left or the vast area between-that turns away a potential convert.