Jul  2016 19
Three Reasons Why Christianity in the U.S. Works Better as Critic than Cheerleader

“There have been religions intimately linked to earthly governments, dominating men’s souls both by terror and by faith; but when a religion makes such an alliance, I am not afraid to say that it makes the same mistake as any many might; it sacrifices the future for the present, and by gaining a power to which it has no claim, it risks its legitimate authority…. Hence any alliance with any political power whatsoever is bound to be burdensome for religion. It does not need their support in order to live, and in serving them it may die.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1848 edition

So wrote the French visitor who came to the U.S. in 1831 to study aspects of the young nation (prison system, particularly) and wrote what is still one of the most insightful commentaries on American life.

As the U.S. endures the two weeks of nominating conventions, I wish Tocqueville’s words regarding religion and democracy in the U.S. would be better heeded than they will be—no, based on the opening day of the Republican convention, than they already are.

It is not just good law that leaders of religious organizations, speaking for their organizations, are forbidden to endorse candidates. It is good theology. Christianity in a democracy works better as a critical, transformative force than it does as an endorser or enforcer of governing policy.

I offer three reasons for this assertion that Christianity, through the voice of Christian leaders, is a better critic than cheerleader. Each reason is rooted in the theological claim that the Reign of God cannot be equated with or subsumed under the governance of any nation.

First, the state cannot have a Christian’s ultimate loyalty. That loyalty belongs to the Reign of God. The Reign of God—not any platform, candidate, or policy—is the Christian’s measure, the plumb line for belief, behavior and ethics.

Platforms, candidates, policies, and laws may more or less approximate the principles of love, justice, and compassion which are derived from Christian narratives, but we Christians err if we do not retain the “more or less” judgment. No candidate, administration, or program is the embodiment of “Your Kingdom (Empire) come…”

Second, the ultimate aim of Christianity and the ultimate aim of the U.S. are different. Whether one believes that the ultimate aim of Christianity is social justice, or belief in the Lord Jesus, or that God so loved the WORLD that God gave God’s only son, or that Jesus is the New Human who walked, opened, and showed humanity either a path or the path to God, these aims are not the aims of history’s most powerful Empire, the U.S.A.

Among the chief purposes of Christianity is a reminder that each of us will die, that death (and every reminder of our mortality) gives life meaning, and that the chief meaning of life is fulfilled in loving God, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and loving God’s creation.

Third, among the most dangerous perils Christianity ever faces is collapsing the Reign of God into history. Jesus described the Reign of God as yeast and as a mustard weed (Matthew 13:31-33). The appearance of the Reign of God in history is fleeting, peek-a-boo. It is characterized more by revelatory moments than by political programs.

As H. Richard Niebuhr wrote, Christianity is more movement (a movement of God) than institution. A movement cannot be fully ensconced in parties, regimes, and persons.

Both conservatives and progressives have over-identified the Reign of God with a regime or a program.

On the conservative side, the U.S. is in the waning stages of an alliance between white, evangelical, politically active and largely southern Christianity and a kind of Republican politics that embodies what Reinhold Niebuhr meant by “children of darkness.” (See a previous blog post “Needed: More Humility.”)

That alliance is dying because the generation that created it is dying and younger generations of white evangelicals reject the alliance. See the 19th century warning about identifying religion and a regime at the outset of this blog.

But on the progressive side, there has also been a too-strong identification of Social Christianity with particular policies, whether in the Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson, or Obama administrations.

When identification between public policy and a particular kind of Christianity becomes so strong and predictable, one must wonder if the political or the religious is organizing the relationship.

When a Social Gospel expresses the entirety of the Gospel, then I fear that the Reign of God has been collapsed into a particular regime, and the Gospel will be rejected when the regime is eclipsed. I think the issue of what of the Gospel transcends social justice is a key issue for the evolution of old-mainline Protestant Christianity.

As I understand the faith, true Christianity functions as leaven and mustard weed in every culture—infiltrating, transforming, opening. I believe one of Jesus’ core messages in every age is, “Your family is bigger than you think.”

God, God’s will, God’s law, God’s love cannot be identified with any nation, any party, any platform, any candidate.

I am not saying Christians should stay out of politics. But when Christian leaders are speaking in public as Christian leaders, it is better to speak with and protect their prophetic voices, looking for where there might be yet more love, more justice, more compassion—rather than to serve primarily as cheerleaders for a program, policy, or candidate.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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