A call to focus on the flocks

A few years after Roe vs. Wade, one of America's most passionate preachers publicly attacked the impact of legalized abortion on the powerless.

His National Right to Life News article ended with these words: "What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of person, and what kind of society, will we have 20 years hence if life can be taken so casually?"

The Rev. Jesse Jackson used to ask those kinds of questions, before he bonded with the Democratic establishment.

Now, two former Moral Majority leaders are bluntly asking ministers on the Religious Right if they will be able to avoid yielding to similar pressures to conform after an unholy union with the Republicans.

"Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," argues columnist Cal Thomas, who writes for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. "When a preacher or any other person who claims to speak for God, and who already holds sway over sometimes large numbers of people, is seduced by power, he can become destructive, not only to himself and to those he is charged to lead, but to the cause and the objectives of the One he is supposed to be serving."

In their book "Blinded By Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?", Thomas and the Rev. Ed Dobson of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., stress that they have not abandoned any of the moral and religious convictions that once landed them jobs as top aides to the Rev. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va. Both say that moral conservatives must continue to be heard in both political parties, in mass media, in education and in a wide range of organizations that try to affect public-policy debates.

Nevertheless, both are convinced it's time for those who lead religious ministries and institutions to get out of politics and back to changing hearts, minds and souls. It is time, they insist, for shepherds to focus on their flocks.

God needs people who are called to work in politics to work in politics, said Dobson, during a visit to Washington, D.C., to hook up with Thomas for a "60 Minutes" interview. God needs spiritual leaders to help people through their churches and parachurch ministries. The danger zone, he said, is when ministers start devoting their time, gifts and resources to trying to vote in the Kingdom of God.

"Churches were created for ministry and it's wrong to try to use them for other goals," said Dobson, whose 6,000-member evangelical church is active in many morally conservative social causes, but shuns political efforts.

It's easy to understand the temptation, he said, because he felt it himself during the years when he often stood in for Falwell at political forums and on news shows.

"There is an illusion of access and influence and power when you are talking about the great issues of politics," said Dobson. "It makes you feel important. But what you are doing is trying to find a short cut to changing the culture. It won't work."

Church history could be repeating itself.

A few decades ago, many mainline Protestant church leaders became obsessed with progressive social causes during the era when the parents of the 1950s and '60s were struggling to raise the Baby Boomers. Mainline ministers briefly basked in the spotlight, while scores of their people took their spiritual questions elsewhere. Today, Bill Clinton's White House haunts many conservative pastors the way Vietnam haunted clergy on the left. Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers need help raising another massive generation of children.

The bottom line: Is the goal of the Religious Right to be as assimilated into the Republican Party as the National Council of Churches has been into the Democratic Party?

"One reason the National Council and World Council of Churches no longer have the moral power and authority they once enjoyed is that they married government to God," according to Thomas. "In the process, their moral power evaporated and they became, as the Religious Right has become, just another special- interest group to be appeased by politicians."