I AM SITTING in church looking at the minister, but I am not listening. My mind has temporarily surrendered its spiritual responsibilities; I muse on the subject of verbal violence in our land.
Liberal or conservative, small town or big city, powerless or powerful, we are after one another in a rhetorical war that is unprecedented in American history. Kindness and gentleness are absent. Tolerance is unknown.
I ponder the role of the evangelical church in all of this. We meet weekly for worship as members of a local body of believers. But we are also members of the body politic -- living, working and rearing our families like everyone else.
I wonder: Does this one hour in which we gather to worship God have anything to do with this war of words? I think it does, but not in the way most outsiders believe.
Well defined doctrines and strong convictions are at the core of evangelical church life. We know what we are for and against, especially in matters of morality, and we are quite willing to make our thoughts known. Our tradition is one of pronouncement, of declaring the message.
On most Sunday mornings, these beliefs translate into strong words about sin and righteousness. The moral and spiritual decay of the world around us also seems to find its way into evangelical sermons no matter what biblical text the minister selects.
Given this framework, one might also expect to hear a measure of verbal violence aimed at government officials with whom evangelicals disagree. President Bill Clinton would appear to be a good target since his policies on a variety of social issues are anathema to evangelical Christians.
However, few evangelical pastors ever speak against the president from the pulpit, regardless of their personal views. Gospel truth, not political propaganda, is the unspoken but scrupulously obeyed maxim of preaching in virtually every evangelical church in America.
This is the right approach. Church is no place for politics. But this restraint is misleading. For the truth is that evangelical political views have filtered into our churches in a subtle and ominous manner: We have ceased praying for our president.
Occasionally, a brief mention of "the president and his cabinet" is heard. But that is all. Indeed, I cannot recall ever hearing President Clinton's name spoken in any prayer from an evangelical pulpit, or in any other public gathering of evangelicals for that matter.
This is wrong. It is transgression by omission. For, no matter how we feel about Mr. Clinton, the Bible plainly instructs Christians to pray for "kings and all others who are in authority over us, or are in places of high responsibility, so that we can live in peace and quietness." By refusing to pray for the president, we tacitly condemn him before the very God who instructs us to pray for our leaders.
Certainly, this omission is a far cry from the verbal violence that reigns in our land. But it is closer to the problem than most evangelicals would like to think.
Eugene Peterson, an evangelical writer, calls prayer "reversed thunder." Evangelical Christians would do well to make a little of this verbal thunder by praying publicly and privately for our president. In so doing, we may bring some "peace and quietness" to our troubled land.
Let us pray in particular that God will give President Clinton wisdom and courage as he performs his duties in our country's highest office.
Let us also pray that the Christian faith Mr. Clinton professes to hold will guide him in moral and spiritual matters, and will be a source of strength for him in the days ahead.
Tom Bisset is general manager of WRBS-FM, an evangelical radio station. He writes from Lutherville.