Christian Politicking

American Christians have a complicated relationship with participating in the democratic republic as citizens, although this tension has been more or less keenly felt over time. Despite popular-level narratives of the United States being “a Christian nation,” or the more recent claim that there is a greatness to which America can return, the United States has never been a Christian nation—not in a manner qualitatively similar to the way that ancient Israel was a people of God.[1] That is, God never covenanted with the United States in any special way. It feels a bit silly to have to state this. There is, however, a Christian imperial cult in the United States, albeit informal, that stakes its salvation in the flourishing of the Republican Party—sometimes believing it prudent even to place an American flag in the sanctuary. We can safely dismiss out of hand these practices as inimical to Christianity. The same temptation to participate in the civic allegiance of the populace was faced by Second Temple Jews and the first Christians, and they refused.

The tension between being citizens of the state and members of the church is most pointedly addressed in the Scriptures in two Pauline passages: Philippians 3 and Ephesians 6. In Philippians 3.20, Paul says that “our commonwealth exists in (the) heavens, from which we anticipate a savior—lord messiah Jesus.” [2] And in Ephesians 6.12, he writes, “Our struggle is not against (those of) blood and flesh but rather against the rulers, against the authorities, against the ‘cosmic powers’[3] of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

These two passages suggest two things at least that are pertinent for our purposes. First, Paul states that the Christian’s citizenship belongs to the heavens—not the nation-state in which she resides. Second, the Christian’s heavenly citizenship militates against the present world order and forces the Christian’s gaze upwards, as it were, to anticipate the coming of a heavenly savior. We can correlate these two passages in this way: because the Christian belongs to a heavenly kingdom, their status in worldly kingdoms is that of exile and stranger (cf. 1 Peter 1.1), and, as such, the Christian must struggle (lit. “wrestle”) with the orders of evil that permeate this world while simultaneously looking for Christ’s return.

Hopefully none of that formulation is new or surprising. If the recent election cycle is any indication, however, it seems as though certain sections of the American church have forgotten their heavenly citizenship. At the very least, we have failed to think carefully about what it means to enter the political arena as an exile. The privileged position that the Republican Party afforded to the Religious Right from the 1980s to the most recent elections gave many a sense of place and power in the political mechanism, and it became almost synonymous to state that one was a (conservative) Christian and a Republican. Times changed, and the position that left many feeling complacent now feels disrupted and at risk. I, for one, consider that a good thing, because it awakens the mind of many Christians to the political reality of being an exile. Unfortunately, many of the church are more than willing to sacrifice their capacity to critique the forces of evil, often symbolized by the powers-that-be, so long as they have a seat at the table themselves.

Since its inception, the Anabaptist tradition has provided a powerful corrective to the tendency among other Christian groups to dirty their hands in the art of formal politicking. Of course, in this country, their insistence on the free exercise of religion, which for them means not participating in the political machine whatsoever, does not come without cost, but it is a sacrifice that the Anabaptist frequently seems willing to make in order to preserve their witness. Such an extreme position is not quite necessary, but it does speak to a vibrant Christian ethic that, on ideological grounds, refuses to contribute to or directly benefit from “a necessary evil.”

As a moderating position, the work of King and others, functioning precisely as a prophetic voice in the midst of an oppressive society, might serve as a model for future Christian politicking. King, with Rauschenbusch, saw the work of “social justice” as a necessarily Christian task. That is, King understood himself as directly participating in the work of God as a Christian minister when he marched on Selma, Montgomery, and Memphis. While no society—and no church—will only have regenerated individuals, the proleptic kingdom of God at work motivates the Christian in the “spiritual” work of evangelism as well as the political work of justice, righteousness, and mercy. Precisely because the “beloved community” ought to exemplify the kingdom ethics of love and righteousness, the church community ought to call the secular community to account for its failure to practice those virtues. King effected this through peaceful protest, nonviolent resistance, and “redemptive suffering.”[4] This model, though difficult, serves as a faithful and prophetic witness to the meekness of Christ that counteracts the brutality that the State can inflict on its dispossessed. It was through their suffering that activists reminded spectators that these suffering ones were human and should be treated as such.

I said above that King’s model was a moderating position. It is, in one sense, because it rejects both formal engagement and formal rejection of the political machine. King neither leaves the machine to act as it will nor invests himself in endorsing candidates but rather chastises the system. In fact, when explaining his position as president of the SCLC, he says that this non-partisan organization allows him “to be critical of both parties when necessary.”[5]

However, it must be noted that such a position is far riskier. One can entertain a certain degree of control when taking the reins of a political party, although that notion seems to have been largely disabused from both conservatives and Christians thanks to the rise of the Tea Party and Trump movements. One can remain largely indifferent to politics when the whole system is a necessary evil. But by entering into the fray, essentially, without a sword is to leave one’s well-being and political security to the providence of God, and for some—especially those whose position has been secure for generations—that risk is too much to bear. For that reason, I do not blame Christians that see Trump as their last hope of retaining political power:  he may very well be. I will, however, question their allegiances if the next election cycle comes and the church again capitulates to an abhorrent candidate.

A low view of the church and her nature permits the Christian to begin her identity with American citizen rather than Kingdom citizen. Resituating the church as the center and essential location for Christian belonging may disabuse evangelicals of the notion that our well-being is tied to the nation’s well-being. This, in turn, may allow us to reimagine our place in the world—exiles, but exiles with a vision of the coming kingdom. Marsh offers a brutal critique of American Christians, who have largely replaced the centrality of the church with the state—but have done so by means of faith-based appeals. He writes,

The story of the beloved community may also serve to remind us that authentic faith always finds a way to break from incarceration in ideological and political gulags. American Christians can blame secularists for many things but surely not for the trivialization of faith in the modern world: Christians in North America have surpassed all competitors in that booming business. Our patriotism has become a cult of self-worship consecrated by court prophets robed in pinstripe suits. Forgetting the difference between discipleship and patriotism, the God most Americans trust is a simulacrum of the holy and transcendent God, a reification of the American way of life.[6]

My hope is that this is the election cycle where Christians awaken again to their reality. We are in fundamental opposition to the powers-that-be, and we have no permanent home in the political machines that govern the world. Rather, our society belongs in heaven, and the church community today prefigures that reality. May we live and do as though that were the case.

[1]Although it is true that a number of early European settlers came in pursuit of religious freedom, an equal number were here to make their riches in the new world.

[2]Translations my own, unless otherwise indicated.

[3]‘Cosmic powers’ taken from the NRSV rendering of κοσμοκράτωρ.

[4]Ivory, Luther D. Toward a Theology of Radical Involvement: the Theological Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), 73.

[5]King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Statement on Presidential Endorsement,” in The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. Given November 1, 1960.

[6]Marsh, Charles. The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 7.


Disorganized Thoughts on Christians and the 2016 Election

The following are a few ideas that I’ll eventually develop into a full-length post. However, given the from-bad-to-worse trajectory this election season has taken us, especially the churchmen among us, it seems prudent to offer up some things to consider as November 8 rapidly approaches.

  • We are essentially social beings, which means that we are essentially political beings. This doesn’t mean that we are essentially formally-political beings. Voting is not an ethical mandate.
  • The christian’s premier ethical principle isn’t self/community-preservation but is God-glorification. Everything else is subsumed to this.
  • Christians are called to an impossibly higher standard than other people, because our call is to imitate Christ, who suffered persecution and death for our sake.
  • Our concern, more than for ourselves, should be, chiefly, for God and, concomitant with that, for the dispossessed, downtrodden, and demonized. Note Jesus’ restoration of the (a) Samaritan (b) woman (c) accused of adultery and (d) threatened with a stoning. A concern for God without a corresponding concern for the needy is no concern for God.
  • The gospel message upended Jewish and Gentile particularism in the fledgling church. We shouldn’t militate against that with our political rhetoric. “Our churches are multiethnic but not our country.”
  • Some goods and some evils must be ranked, and it’s a matter of conscience (within reason) where any particular individual ranks certain ones or the other.
  • Christians should foster and exemplify love, peace, justice, righteousness, and mercy. Rhetoric that demonizes or demeans is beyond the pale.
  • We need to reclaim the language of shame in the moral sphere. No other word better captures how the church will look back on evangelical capitulation to xenophobic nationalism. It’s better to remember the event in shame than to be wiped from history. Do you remember the German Christians? Few else do either.
  • It’s hard to believe that evangelicals have considered the effect of an evangelical coalition-led backing of Trump on their evangelistic efforts, especially among those who see Trump as an existential threat—minorities, Muslims, immigrants/refugees generally.
  • One can hope that this election marks the end of the old guard, of the Religious Right as an institution–if only so that out of the ashes a phoenix can emerge with a reformed, renewed focus on justice, etc., and an emphasis on fleeing from the ridiculous partisan politicking that has so embarrassed evangelicals this year.


Review: Landscapes of the Soul (2001)

Porpora, Douglas V. Landscapes of the Soul: the Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Douglas Porpora, who teaches sociology at Drexel University, published Landscapes of the Soul: the Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life in 2001. Relying on public opinion polls and surveys and on in-depth personal interviews with individuals of varied backgrounds and persuasions, Landscapes of the Soul describes the state of the moral, religious, and otherwise self-understanding of American citizens. Not merely a descriptive account, however, he laments the loss of a transcendental vision, and, as he concludes, he urges people simultaneously to flee avidya[1] and to pursue Tikkun ha Olam, which is a Jewish concept referring to the restoration/repair/recreation of the world in justice, love, and righteousness.[2] The normative force of his argument is that we live innately desirous for a transcendental vision and ought to reclaim this vision.

Not being a sociologist or social scientist myself, I am unqualified to determine definitively whether Porpora violated certain rules of analysis. Nothing read as blatant misrepresentation, though. However, Porpora himself acknowledges that much of the content of this book is untouched by most sociologists. He writes,

This book willfully transgresses a number of sociological conventions. … As a secular discipline, defensive about its scientific status, sociology prefers to keep religion exclusively an object of study and not an intellectual partner. By violating this sociological convention here and elsewhere, I hope to overcome the sociological neglect of theology—not as object of study but as co-contributor of insight.[3]

One could argue with the legitimacy of that methodological decision. Nevertheless, the fact that secularism is the predominant working hypothesis of most of American culture generally and the academy specifically does not thereby disqualify his choice. Quite the contrary, I would contend that his choice to do so merely draws to the surface of the work his latent persuasions and presuppositions. Secularism isn’t the objective, disinterested perspective that Modernism had hoped would replace the mythological religious perspective of pre-Modern times,[4] and Porpora rightly notes that a religious perspective has more to offer to sociology than its status as an object.

Disavowing contemporary notions of virtue and vice as instrumentally-oriented, he argues that part of the reason for moral-nebulousness is our inability to conceive of, and work towards, an Ultimate Concern a la Tillich, or a moral vision. He thinks with Aristotle that the telos of our lives necessarily shapes the way we live. Negatively, if our view of our purpose is low, our view of ethics will be low. Positively, “The good moves us … as a final cause, drawing us to itself so that ultimately we become molded in its image. Suppose, for example, that the good that moves us is tolerance or justice. By being so moved, we become tolerant or just ourselves.”[5]

Most of the book argues that the moral imagination in American life has shrunk through a related lack of concern for ultimate purposes. He outlines this through a few different headings, from perceptions of identity to emotional detachment, heroes, and more. Reflecting on the results of public opinion polls and lengthy conversations with different people, Porpora weaves together a narrative that reveals a disturbingly low view of God, the world, and individuals’ own lives. Assuming that Porpora’s analysis of the data is solid, the results ought to shock the reader. They certainly shocked Porpora. American people, especially those that cannot articulate some overarching purpose for the cosmos, seem to float listlessly through the world. On the other hand, those who can construct a narrative to understand the world by, whether fundamentalist Christians or Marxist social activists, know why they and the world exist. It remains to be seen whether this oriented life is ideal. I would argue that it is—but not in this review. He concludes with a vision for moral purpose(-fulness) that would orient individuals, provide them a concrete and articulated end, and enrapture them with a vision for the consummation of all things.

Assuming that the results of this book would remain, in most matters, the same today, this book would benefit a number of distinct groups. Professors of philosophy, sociology, et al. could consider this as part of an introductory coursework concerning fundamental matters of ethics. Pastors and seminary students ought to consult the book to exegete the culture they try to reach. The general public can read this book to challenge their own moral visions, and perhaps to understand that of their neighbors.

[1]Avidya is such fascination with the superficialities of life that we fail to turn our attention to anything higher or deeper. Avidya is no longer just an ineliminable feature of the human condition” (309).

[2]In my limited research on the topic, the best treatment I’ve seen concerning Tikkun ha Olam is in David Patterson’s Emil L. Fackenheim: a Jewish Philosopher’s Response to the Holocaust (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008): 155 – 185.


[4]I take as self-evident the critical realist epistemological position that all knowledge is necessarily contextual, subject to verification, and possibly wrong. See, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Concerning religious knowledge, see the introductory material to N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, and Andrew Wright, Christianity and Critical Realism. Concerning science, etc., specifically see Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.