I’ve said before on this blog that I’m not a political junkie, and that I don’t follow politics all that closely. And yet, in recent months, I couldn’t help but write a few posts that dealt with political issues. I think that I owe it to the regular readers of this blog (thanks to all 5 or so of you) to say more about what is behind the statements that I make about politics.
First, some personal history: I grew up in a Christian home in the South, and my parents tended to vote Democrat. At the same time, I went to a Christian high school, where political issues were often presented in a pro-conservative light. In part because of these different messages that I got from different influences, I registered to vote as an Independent when I turned 18. Since then, I’ve voted for a mix of Republican, Democrat and third-party candidates.
Over time, as I’ve grown in my Christian faith, I’ve continued to think about how it should affect how I vote, and how I think Christians should conduct themselves in public life. Instead of believing that my faith aligned me completely with one political ideology, I decided that I should make decisions on political matters on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis. Whenever it comes time to vote, I take a good look at each candidate’s stances on various issues that are important to me as a Christian (like the environment, war, and the economy, as well as the classic personal morality issues like abortion and gay marriage). Usually, after nearly despairing, I come to a decision and vote for the person I disagree with least.
Recently, I’ve been having a very negative reaction to associating the Christian faith closely with a particular political point of view, or even with the United States. This goes back at least to the time I was at a service one Fourth of July weekend at a megachurch in southern California in 2001, and they raised a 110-foot American flag to the ceiling at the end of the service, as the big finale. Something seemed wrong about that to me. I think that the fusing together of Christianity with the state has always been dangerous. The reason why I’m troubled by this is that I think, historically, whenever the church and state have been aligned, the church has always suffered. It always fails to preach the gospel the way that it should. The enemies of the state become the enemies of the church, and Jesus’ way of sacrificial love is not followed. In this presidential election cycle, I’ve been bothered by things like Obama’s misinterpreting the Bible in the service of the state, and also by statements like the one made by Sarah Palin that “We see America as the greatest force for good in this world.” (McCain expanded that to say America was the greatest force for good in the history of the world in the final presidential debate.) As a Christian, I think that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest force for good in the world. The impact of America on the world is a mixed one, in my opinion, and I am disappointed that professed Christians like Palin and McCain have made the statements they have. I’m concerned that those who say that their nation is the greatest force for good in the history of the world may not be able to see where their country has made mistakes. Putting America first means putting the kingdom of God second. There is a word for putting the kingdom of God second to something else, and that word is “idolatry.”
In contrast, I’ve had a positive reaction to the stances on politics articulated by such people as Scot McKnight, a New Testament scholar who teaches at North Park University in Chicago, and Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota. McKnight wrote a post on his blog, JesusCreed, a couple of years ago that argues four things: 1. Churches should educate Christians on what the Bible says and how the Church has thought about various political issues. 2. Christians should remain independent enough to provide a prophetic stance. 3. It’s irresponsible to say that we can be completely apolitical. We need to address political issues, but from an independent stance that allows us to speak prophetically. 4. (and related to 1.) Each person is responsible for where he or she stands politically. Churches should educate, not indoctrinate. If churches say that responsible Christians should only vote a certain way, they end up demonizing the opposing view and contributing to the widespread lack of respect and civility in our culture today. McKnight wrote another post more recently, on October 3 of this year, which asks the question, “Where is our hope?”
Where is our hope? To be sure, I hope our country solves its international conflicts and I hope we resolve poverty and dissolve our educational problems and racism. But where does my hope turn when I think of war or poverty or education or racism? Does it focus on November 4? Does it gain its energy from thinking that if we get the right candidate elected our problems will be dissolved? If so, I submit that our eschatology has become empire-shaped, Constantinian, and political. And it doesn’t matter to me if it is a right-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Republican wins, or a left-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Democrat wins. Each has a misguided eschatology.
Four years ago, Greg Boyd preached a sermon series at his church called “The Cross and the Sword.” Later, this turned into a book called “The Myth of a Christian Nation.” I haven’t read the book, but I have listened to the sermon series, and I resonated with what he was saying. What he was saying was that for Christians, the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about is central, and it must not be confused with other kingdoms. Here is a quote from Greg Boyd:
Matthew (a Tax Collector) and Simon (a Zealot) were much farther apart in their views about political issues than (say) a Liberal Democrat and a Conservative Republican would be today. Yet, we never read a word about which view was “better” in the Gospels. And the reason is that their widely different political views are insignificant next to the one thing they are called to do as followers of Jesus: express God’s love for others the sacrificial way God expressed his love for them.
So, if we’re thinking biblically about the kingdom of God, we have to conclude that it just doesn’t matter whether you’re a conservative “Matthew” or a liberal “Simon.” If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, committed to building the Jesus-looking Kingdom by sacrificing for others, there’s room in the kingdom for you.
The kingdom of God is different from the platforms preached by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Of course, Christians should be involved in political issues – because we are commanded to love our neighbor, we should be involved in the lives of our fellow women and men – but the kingdom of God must never be confused with the kingdoms of this world.
This is why I don’t write a lot about politics on this blog. But when I do, I am highly critical of the longstanding tendency in American politics toward civil religion – blending the kingdom of God with other things. In spite of its long tradition, it amounts to idolatry.