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What the Church Can Learn from the GOP

Of course, some might question the linking of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the GOP. But as Adventists prepare to gather in Georgia for our quinennial General Conference Session and select a new leader in about a year, we might look around to other institutions as we seek to navigate the 21st century. We might be surprised at the similarities and what we can learn.

The Republican Party began to form in the 1840s and held its first meeting on July 6, 1854 in Jackson, Michigan. It grew out of the great compromise of 1850 and unified much of the fragmented anti-slavery movement, quickly achieving organizational power under the charismatic leadership of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s. Seventh-day Adventism grew out of the great disappointment of 1844. Throughout the 1850s, the Advent movement was a loose confederation of Millerite fragments, and finally, through the charismatic leadership of Ellen White, et al, it officially organized on May 23, 1863 in Battle Creek, Michigan.

As Shakespeare wrote: “what’s past is prologue.” While I don’t want to make too much out of some shared history, it lends itself to recognizing that both institutions come from a discrete historical context. There are more similarities and dissimilarities, but beyond the beginning, there are some lessons we might consider as both institutions search for leadership today.

Among both SDAs and the GOP, during the 80s and 90s, and even much of this century, the loudest voices preached conservatism, particularly on social issues. The GOP fought the Equal Right Amendment; the Adventist Church voted several times to exclude women from much of church leadership. The GOP embraces creationism, although many of its members are more nuanced; the same applies in Adventism. The GOP has its most traditional believers in the South and so does the Adventist Church. But recent demographic shifts and intellectual changes have reduced the power of the GOP and many of the same moves affect Adventism as well.

This is no paean to the Democratic Party, although I am a member and proudly voted for President Obama. Among the Dems, I find things to critique – the Wall Street bailouts/bonuses, the corruption that will surely sneak in due to majority status, the go-along approach to war. However, polls show that 22% of Americans now identify as Republicans. In all except the official numbers, Adventist membership in America has lately been declining as well.

Of course, correlation does not equal causation. And these things do cycle. But as a proud member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I think that we might peer past the last 100 days to perhaps the last 1000 days and look for mistakes to avoid and lessons to learn as we look toward our own presidential election coming up in 2010.


Don’t Bring Back the 80s

Early in the 2008 presidential election, ten wannabes gathered at the Reagan library for a GOP debate and they all pledged, like a VH-1 show, to bring back the 80s. But in November America just said “no.” Judging by the news stories when Barack Obama won, was inaugurated, and has traveled abroad, the rest of the world agrees. People want hope, not bi-polar apocalypticism. They want ideals matched with actual development. Adventists are relatively conservative theologically and we should stay that way. (Yes, that’s right, this is appearing under the SPECTRUM masthead.) Theology is a framework and it’s vital, particularly during epochs of great change. We must respect our traditions. If I may reprise Edmund Burke on society:

Adventism is indeed a contract. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

That’s smart conservatism, recognizing the organic nature of human experience. Our doctrines matter because they define us even if we reject them. In thinking about our future as a community of faith and action, we need a new General Conference president who is faithful to our tradition precisely so that Adventists continue to learn to distinguish between past and principle. History progresses. The world is more connected, electronic, gender-inclusive, ethnically-mixed, carbon-saturated, media-driven, biblically-illiterate, religiously-skeptical, faithfully diverse, scientifically predisposed, gay friendly, economically stratified, and existentially lost than ever before.

We don’t need a leader who reads the word “lost” and forgets about everything else true in that list.

Remember that Jesus died for everyone, not just the people who read handbills. We need a fearless, forward-thinking leader because there are too many opportunities to show God’s Love to the world for us to confuse being a theological remnant with being a numerical one. In Education, Ellen White writes,

“The Vaudois and the Huguenots, Wycliffe and Huss, Jerome and Luther, Tyndale and Knox, Zinzendorf and Wesley, with multitudes of others, have witnessed to the power of God’s word against human power and policy in support of evil. These are the world’s true nobility. This is its royal line. In this line the youth of today are called to take their places.”

It should be noted that every one of those leaders Ellen White names broke with the status quo, started something new, and actually increased religious interest. That hopeful mix of – “Here I Stand,” “Yes We Can” – is the noble progressive belief that we need today.

Think Glocally

Post-9/11, Obama won, in part because he embraced his variegated identity and offered hope. The GOP often emphasized fear – of Muslim terrorists, China, Mexican immigrants, and, of course, the gays. Of course, right-wingers like to point out that liberals didn’t tolerate the folks who preached against those Others. What they forget is that you don’t get credit for being tolerant of what’s familiar.

Adventism needs leadership that doesn’t just preach diversity, but represents it. Many of the biggest Adventist stories of the 80s happened in the Caucasian majority countries. Just look at the names: Ford, Davenport, Hart, Rae, Chamberlain; but more recently there’s been more names like Ntakirutimana, Speight, and Nkunda. It appears that the power centers of our church are moving an ocean or two south of Silver Spring.

That said, a sense of local mission would solve a lot of church problems. We need to hear less about what are actually context-dependent standards and more about the value of doing justice and loving mercy. Social justice helps us to all to understand our various identities by starting conversations, which create empathy, which leads to action. Adventists need a leader who doesn’t just talk about unity in diversity; our global church will benefit from someone who embodies, but more importantly, inspires, both global and local action in others.

Take Action, Transparently

American health care and education need serious attention and Obama has been making a pretty big deal about tackling both of them soon. It’s not clear what the GOP has planned. Like America, Adventism has built well respected medical and educational institutions. But many face serious issues as well. How will Adventism keep its holistic health and education identity as the trends lead away from the homogeneity that’s defined us?

Part of Obama’s bipartisan appeal resulted from his commitment to results: to accomplish more, more openly. Too many Adventists feel disconnected from church leadership and they aren’t always sure what the layers actually accomplish. The “Tithe is up! Go back to giving” messages that trickle down don’t inspire the sort of confident relationships that keep institutions up and running.

The next generation wants action. And smart too. Under Elder Paulsen, the Adventist Church has reaffirmed our non-combatancy stance, connected our creation doctrine to care for the environment and turned our attention to advocacy on issues like HIV/AIDS in Africa. Future leadership must keep this action alive as Adventism has to convert truth to action for the next generation to care.


In many ways, both the Republican Party and the Adventist Church would benefit by drawing on their early movement history. Speaking present truth, both stood for change, and an embrace of new theories of the day – abolition, health reform – and achieved significant growth and success in the 19th century as a result. Now institutions, both are at a crossroads. Some say that Adventism lags about ten years behind the mainstream culture. That puts us at 1999.

By avoiding 80s nostalgia, by thinking glocally, and by openingly up the beaucracy to focus on real social issues, the Adventist Church could save itself an unnecessary experience in the bush, as the Australians say. But that might mean choosing the road less traveled.

Whither Adventism in 2010?

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