First, a bit of context: why post this publicly if it’s addressed to a limited audience such as the North American church?
Because the church conduct in politics has been highly public and therefore deserves to have its actions discussed publicly. I have also witnessed lots of people in the church on both sides of the aisle who have made their feelings on various political issues known and have done so in a way that claims that their way of thinking in politics is God’s way. I wish to contend that often, this is damaging to relationships between those in the church with those who do not consider themselves as part of the church, between members within the church, and to the individuals own condition.
As a necessary aside: this is not some passive aggressive attack on the church I attend. I have been consistently impressed with and supportive of how the River’s leadership manages its interactions with politics. Our leadership, like most people, have opinions about politics, but they do not conflate those beliefs with religious truths to be preached from the pulpit. This is one of many reasons why I am truly grateful for our pastors.
This is also not some ivory tower criticism from a non-participant; I have skin in the game on this and have served in church or parachurch ministries for most my life. My hope is that this will be received by others in the church as what it is – a loving attempt to course correct for the good of the church and the country it resides in, rather than a holier-than-thou critique from the sidelines.
Why course correct at all?
The situation in (likely over-generalized and biased) summary:
Most prominent voices in the North American church, specifically the evangelical church, have vocally backed the republican party and the candidates it has put forth since the mid 80’s. The “religious right” as it was commonly called focused on issues of family units, right to life, and sexual ethics. At some point, there was a shift from merely voting one’s values at the polls to seeing politics as the major front of a “culture war” between what was perceived as traditional Christian values and the godless relativists of the left. Most observers outside the church (and some bewildered ones inside it) saw these battles as tending to center around abortion, sexual ethics, and the legal status of gay marriage. In many circles, these cultural battles began to dominate perception of what church was about. Things proceeded with little change until the 2016 election, when many voices in the church backed Trump as a candidate, claiming it was one’s Christian responsibility to vote for him. Many in the North American church questioned these claims, questioning that became louder during his four-year term. In the past year, we have witnessed both a doubling down by some voices in the religious right, and a resurgent religious left (resurgent, because a religious left has often been prominent throughout American history – see civil service reform, the elimination of the gold standard particularly the cross of gold Speech by William Jennings Bryan, and the social gospel for more). Splitting vocally and passionately from the religious right, the modern Christian left has adopted anti-racism, social justice, and “kingdom economics” (arguably translated as Christianized democratic socialism) as their rallying points.
And so we come to today, where the church has more or less split along the same party and cultural lines as the rest of the nation, only with the added hubris of claiming that God backs their platform, with a few notable exceptions that have attempted to adopt points from either side as what should be a Christian platform.
I contend that as movements, the religious left and right falling prey to many of the same sins. To make matters worse, we have pretended that vice is virtue and claimed that they are our Christian duty. These sins are pride, wrath, and idolatry.
Issue 1: Pride and repenting of the sins of others
It’s rare to see a mega-church pastor in a wealthy area preach against greed. Far safer for him to preach against the scourge of America’s cultural sins and discuss traditional family values. Conversely, after the capital riot, I saw many on the Christian left publicly repenting of the sin of idolizing Trump as a Christian. An outside observer may note that these individuals were remarkably consistent in their opposition of Trump for the past four years and wonder exactly what they were confessing and repenting of.
There’s a story in the New Testament that Jesus tells of two people at the temple, a tax collector and a religious ruler. For context, tax collectors were even more loathed in story’s setting then our day (if you can believe such a thing) because they colluded with a foreign occupying government and made their own salary based on how much extra above the required quota they exploited from their former countrymen. The religious ruler thanks God that he was born faithful to God, unlike, he notes in his prayer, the tax collector. The tax collector merely asks God for mercy for the wrongs he has done. Jesus notes that only one of them left the temple with their wrongs forgiven, and it wasn’t the religious ruler.
The story was as offensive and applicable to its target audience as it would be if directed at us.
Pride has been counted as the most lethal of sins in the Christian tradition for many reasons, one of which is how it often is invisible to the one who has it. It is human nature to take a certain perverse pleasure in the faults of others, because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We tell ourselves stories like: I may lie to my boss, but at least I don’t cheat on my wife, or I may not do much good in the world, but at least I’m not a murderer. We then seek out teachers, writers, and pastors who (to borrow a metaphor from the Apostle Paul) tell our itching ears what they want to hear.
The danger of highlighting and denouncing the sins of others is that we receive the cathartic feeling of repentance without dealing with the inconvenient and uncomfortable problem of having to change our behavior. A core element of the Christian faith is that Christians are not somehow morally better than everyone else – no one is without sin according to both the Bible and church tradition. And yet often, you wouldn’t know it by how we treat people on the other side of the political, let alone theological divide.
This is not to say that evil done by people does not matter or should not be addressed by the church, but the sin that is the biggest threat to my wellbeing is not that of those who disagree with me – it’s my own decisions that come from a place of selfishness, laziness, and arrogance. We need to start by recalling this and highlighting it more in our dialogue, rather than using the sin of our perceived enemies as a reason to dig a wider gap between us and them. Using the sin of others as an excuse to denounce and distance ourselves from them is prideful, unhelpful, and opposed to the core message of Christianity.
Issue 2: Wrath and outrage culture
For all the criticism of American culture by the Christian right and left, both sides have embraced one core belief of the wider population: the idea that outrage is a virtue.
If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention, shout influential voices on both sides. The causes, symptom, and cycles of outrage that we find ourselves locked in have been explored in the previous installments of this, as well as another piece from a few years ago, so you will be spared retreading that ground at length here
, patient reader. : )
It’s worth noting that the church has historically considered wrath as a mortal sin. Wrath, as opposed to anger, is a chronic condition, an emotion that has been allowed to run free and frequent, virtually unchecked and characterizing one’s interaction with others. It is something indulged in for perverse pleasure and a choice of mindset. Grimly, it is something that many in politics call us to.
But, my well-meaning and zealous friends on both sides of the aisle may say, there is so much evil and injustice in the world to be angry about. If we don’t speak up against it, won’t we be complicit in it?
There is a difference between taking action for good and allowing all our dialogue, teaching, and preaching to be characterized by outrage. The New Testament was written in a very violent time with levels of injustice, oppression, and restrictions on religious freedoms that we can barely fathom. And yet what were its recipients told to do? Fight a culture war to the hilt? Lobby Rome for their political agenda? Back the Sicari in overthrowing an unjust system? If so, I missed that command in my reading of the Testaments. Instead, I read they are commanded to love God and love their neighbors. Carry the gear of soldiers an extra mile. Feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. Endeavor to live quiet lives, at peace with one’s neighbors as much as possible.
Perhaps, most succinctly, the Apostle James instructed his readers to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to wrath.
Christians are not forbidden from defending themselves or others from injustice, but they are forbidden from allowing themselves to be characterized by rage, wrath, and hatred. An unbiased, outside observer may be excused if he thinks that the church has forgotten that rather important point of nuance.
Issue 3: Idolatry – politics as the new religion
Second temple period Jerusalem was a politically tense place. The Roman occupied Judea, wanted to maintain order, and keep the populace in line. The Zealots wanted to start an uprising and throw the occupiers out. The Essense’s focused on withdrawing from worldly pursuits and seeking a life of religious purity in the wilderness. The Pharisees worked with the rural and traditionally conservative population to preserve Jewish religious identity. The Sadducees wished to adapt their traditions to blend with Hellenism and Greco-Roman culture to work with the Romans and bring Judah into the modern world. These groups didn’t have much in common and were locked into a struggle for dominance. As expected, the Gospels record most of the groups attempting to coopt Jesus to their own objectives. Unexpectedly, Jesus resisted all attempts by groups to form political alliances with him, even fleeing crowds that wished to grant rule.
Alarmingly to all factions, Jesus’s followers consisted of people from each one of the groups (and several more left out here). Zealots and tax collectors, Pharisees and Roman Centurions, began to follow the teachings of this rustic Rabbi. Someone who can unite so many disparate groups was seen as a threat to the power of all. The Pharisees faction and Jesus had several high-profile run-ins, but when Jesus is finally arrested and executed, it’s a temporary alliance of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Romans who wish to put an end to the matter by crucifying their trouble in a moment of grim political unity.
It’s a bit ironic, then, how there seems to be a political-gap-bridging belief in the church that politics is one of the most important things Christians are called to do. Indeed, we have elevated avid political participation to one of the highest virtues. This claim seems contrary to the teachings of the New Testament and actions of Christ, which places a high emphasis on one’s relationship with God, others, and oneself, but does not expressly task anyone with going out and pushing for legal changes.
Do not misunderstand – I have voted in every election and primary since I was legally old enough to do so, and I take a great deal of joy in doing so. I think that citizens of a democracy have a moral responsibility to vote, but this is a lesser good than loving God and one’s neighbors.
Idolatry is the act of venerating a lesser good as an ultimate good. In our handling of politics, we have taken something that is a good of secondary importance and preached it as a moral imperative that justifies us alienating ourselves from our neighbors. The Biblical grounds for such reasoning are as suspect as the amount of good it has resulted in.
Following Jesus will change who I am, and who I am should shape how I vote, but how I vote should not shape who I am. We have gotten this backward, attempting to win political and cultural fights, but forgetting the ultimate orders that Jesus gave his followers: Love God and love people.
Grimly, this idolization of politics has made the church a pawn in the game of rallying support for two incredibly flawed political parties. If you think that your Christian duty is to vote for a specific candidate in order to fight a culture war, you will be far, FAR less likely to be thoughtfully critical of the platforms of both parties.
Politics isn’t black and white. There are not commandments on who to vote for. There are certainly biblical principles we can use to help us make wise decisions, but this will take work, a careful weighing of the moral calculus weighing conflicting priorities, humility, and a certain level of intellectual honesty that I find alarmingly lacking in most church discussions of politics.
But before any of this can happen, we need to stop worshiping at the altar of politics and realize that there are far FAR more important things in life than who we vote for every two years. Better to build relationships than to passionately defend the slightly less terrible candidate. Far better to make disciples than to “fight the culture war.” Better to follow the example of Christ than to “vote the Bible.” Better to feed the hungry than spend money lobbying for “kingdom economics.” Politics are important, but they are of secondary importance to the church’s mission. A good mistaken for the ultimate good ceases to be a good at all. Politics must be removed from its pedestal before we can engage in it productively.