Blue, red states just same as Old, New Testaments

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 6, 2005

Let me guess. You’re tired of red and blue states. Fair enough. So am I. Let me offer an alternative as we march into 2005. Think of America as divided into an Old Testament nation and a New Testament nation.

Old Testament America largely resides along the two coasts and in the Upper Midwest. And when it comes to religion and politics, this nation mostly emphasizes social morality. Gaps between rich and poor. Lack of health care. Pollution pouring down.

All this fits in with Amos, Micah and those Old Testament prophets. They talked about societies being fair and just. And you can hear their values preached in the Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota. You also hear them in Catholic churches in places like Altoona. Think Garrison Keillor, liberal church values and Democratic strongholds.

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Over in New Testament America, which runs mostly across the South, West and Rocky Mountains, you get a different emphasis. Personal morality dominates there: Marital fidelity. No abortions. And certainly no gay weddings.

These are people who’ll cite you Paul and Romans when discussing homosexuality. They’ll also look to books like Galatians for instruction in daily living, like keeping your thoughts pure. That’s what you’ll hear in small Bible churches, evangelical megachurches and Pentecostal temples in Florida, Texas and Colorado. Think James Dobson, his Focus on the Family and Republican voters.

Here’s the problem: Neither morality is sufficient unto itself. The Old Testament nation can talk about social justice, environmental stewardship and racial equality. But the New Testament nation has a point. What good is all that if you’re cheating on your wife or abusing your kids? Personal morality matters _ a lot.

Likewise, the New Testament nation can complain about homosexuality, abortions and adultery. But what good is all that if you ignore gays suffering from AIDS? Or single moms unable to earn a good living? Without social compassion, faith becomes hard and cold. Or, as Paul would say, a clanging cymbal.

What we need is both halves _ personal and social morality. That’s a tall order, I admit.

But we’ve had leaders who have combined the two. Jimmy Carter practiced personal piety, even once shocking people as he confessed his lusts. And he understood the social dimensions of his faith, pressing for human rights and decent living standards around the world.

Religious leaders such as the Rev. Eugene Rivers get it today. Like a prophet, the Boston Baptist presses local and national leaders to address social issues such as teen violence, drug abuse and AIDS.

The Old Testament land minister also understands the personal morality New Testament America values. As a pastor in inner-city Boston, he’s worked with the Bush White House on finding more personal remedies to, say, drug addiction. He understands that a mentor can do wonders when it comes to battling a nasty habit.

The Rev. Marcus Jackson at the New Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Dallas sticks out, too. He can quote the Bible as much as any fellow New Testament resident. And he practices the spiritual discipline a strong faith requires. But he acknowledges personal holiness only takes you so far. Social justice also is biblical, he emphasized in several conversations we had last year about the presidential election.

That’s what I’m looking for: leaders who can combine justice with piety. This year, I’m going to keep searching for and writing about them because they can speak to both halves of our nation. People such as George McKinney, the San Diego pastor who’s prayed with President Bush and who is strongly committed to seeing justice in his city’s urban core. A Californian and a black, he has the credentials to cross in between our two nations and speak to them each. (If you have other names, e-mail them to me at the address below.)

At some point, we need to bring the Old and New Testament nations together. One without the other leaves us incomplete. Personal morality and social morality need to go together, not compete at the ballot box.

William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at the Dallas Morning News, Communications Center, Dallas, Texas 75265; e-mail: