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. 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.”  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’ 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.” 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.”
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.
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.
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.
Translations my own, unless otherwise indicated.
‘Cosmic powers’ taken from the NRSV rendering of κοσμοκράτωρ.
Ivory, Luther D. Toward a Theology of Radical Involvement: the Theological Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), 73.
King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Statement on Presidential Endorsement,” in The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. Given November 1, 1960.
Marsh, Charles. The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 7.