The trouble with politicized Christianity

In a scathing article published last month in La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit-affiliated Italian Catholic journal, a priest and a pastor took on what they view as a problematic intermingling of religion, morals, and politics among Christians—particularly evangelical Protestants and Catholics—in the United States. Using the 2016 election of Donald Trump as a centerpiece, the authors argued that many of the positions taken by these “value voters” reflect a desire for a theocratic state not unlike that which inspires Islamic fundamentalism and warned that “confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other.” Unsurprisingly, the article did not go over well in many corners. One writer found it “long, confusing, wildly inaccurate in its interpretation of American Christianity, and an unremarkable critique by uninformed foreigners.” While there are certainly some problems in the piece, the least of which is its overstatement of its main point, its central concern—the politicization of Christianity in the United States—deserves honest consideration, especially as an in-house debate among Christians.

First, it is important to note that the involvement of Christians in politics—the activities associated with how society is ordered and governed—is encouraged in Christian doctrine. Christians have a broad Bible-based socio-political mission that includes fighting all forms of injustice, feeding the hungry, protecting and advocating the rights of the poor and other disadvantaged groups, promoting peace, and so on. That mission requires courageous and zealous participation in politics, and the employment of every legitimate tool to which other citizens avail themselves. Christ, who told his disciples his kingdom was “not of this world,” so challenged the practices of the politico-religious establishments of his day that some of his early followers thought he might indeed establish a worldly political kingdom. But he clearly told them to prioritize his spiritual mission: reconciling people to God by telling them the story of His love as expressed in Christ’s sacrifice—a practice known as evangelism. Aspects of the socio-political mission may further the spiritual, but the two are distinct.

While the goals and priorities of Christian political engagement are clear in doctrine, they tend to be less so in practice. A Pew Research Center Study from the 2016 presidential election showed the majority of Christians voted for Trump: Protestants (58%), Catholics (52%), and white, born again/evangelical Christians (81%). (Let’s ignore, for now, the problematic groupings.) The numbers presented an incongruity of sorts. Popular media analyses concluded several factors accounted for the result—the group’s concerns about supreme court nominees, socio-cultural issues, and the protection of religious liberty. Deeper analyses presented a more complex picture as the economy (87%), immigration (78%) (often conflated with refugee flows), terrorism (89%) (often conflated with concerns about the migration of people from Muslim-majority states and refugee issues), ranked much higher in importance for white evangelical Christians, for instance, than the foregrounded socio-cultural issues (70% for supreme court appointees and 52% for abortion). And, race, rather than religion, appeared a greater determinant as in the case of Hispanic Catholics, 67% of whom voted for Clinton likely out of concern for the treatment of Hispanic Americans under Trump. Although the socio-cultural issues were not among the highest of Christian voter priorities, they were, as shown in the study, still significant considerations in their choice. And, despite these complexities and nuances, in popular thinking, the political association of Christianity, broadly, with “the right” and its agenda calcified even more than it already had in past presidential elections.

The Christian Lobby

Looking back, the “Christian vote” in the 2016 election should have been foreseeable. The groundwork had been laid over the last few decades (especially the last two) by an influential Christian lobby of sorts that had emerged in U.S. politics. The lobby had two broad objectives: preserving Judeo-Christian norms as the nation’s default moral ethic and protecting Christians from real and perceived threats to their faith arising from the steady secularization of the country. Both goals have been widely embraced by Christians, but they are problematic and efforts to achieve them, misguided. To whatever extent the first goal is desirable, it is at its core a spiritual goal achieved, for lasting impact, through evangelism not politics; the second seeks to prevent the persecution of Christians, an eventuality all but guaranteed by the faith’s many counter-cultural doctrinal positions. The pursuit of these goals has mired Christian leaders in the type of political yuck from which they are not easily extricated and unnecessarily politicized the faith. I’ll explain.

Let’s consider why the lobby may have decided to pursue these goals in the first place. Setting aside the many problems associated with measuring faith, studies show a notable decline in the number of people identifying as Christian in the U.S.—94% in 1951, according to a Gallup poll, and 71% in 2015 (a drop from 78% in 2007), according to a recent Pew study. (These numbers tell only a small part of the story. They say nothing of the quality of Christianity that remains.)  In response to the decline, the Christian lobby has engaged the “culture wars” with ferocious determination, with the goal of ensuring the country at least retains features of “Christian character.” Its formidable opponents have dealt it many defeats and it has, in turn, sought even greater political influence and ever-deepening political alliances. Lost in the lobby’s efforts is the recognition that Christianity is first and foremost personal—there are Christian people not Christian countries or institutions. In seeking to maintain the country’s Christian character, the lobby is essentially trying to impose on a pluralistic state Christian values as political ideology divorced from Christianity’s spiritual roots. This approach benefits politicians, who get elected on the imprimatur of Christian morality (fast fading in the West) and use it instrumentally to further other political objectives that are not necessarily in line with the faith.

Some Christians might argue the culture wars are about the protection of life and the preservation of desirable social standards, not Christianizing the state. The argument is reasonable and persuasive, but it downplays the significance of its core and the implications thereof. The desired standards are moral standards based on Christian theology. In that theology, morality is more than just behavioral and is not imposed externally. It is, instead, a deep transformational process that happens individually (not institutionally) from the inside out. To get people to embrace that Christ-inspired moral transformation, Christians are to share their faith in word and deed (evangelize). They are to persuade others of its virtue not to use the government to impose it on people who find it neither desirable nor useful as do other lobbies.

The Christian lobby is also trying to preserve a social climate in which Christians are comfortable and free to exercise their faith without persecution or fear. American Christians had long found security in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but the social changes of the last few decades have persuaded them of its insufficiency. The many religious liberty cases popping up across the U.S. are evidence, as Rod Dreher pointed out in the Benedict Option, of Christians increasingly feeling they are being asked to choose between being a good Christian and being a good American. While addressing the concern through deeper political alliances may seem a good strategy, and may indeed, as it did for Emperor Constantine’s Roman Christians, stem the tide of persecution (which is negligible compared to that experienced by Christians in other parts of the world), the small gains come at a high cost.

In a pluralistic society, the results of such efforts can only be temporary, lasting only as long as the personalities tasked with preserving them. (In ancient Rome, the steps Constantine took to somewhat “Christianize” the empire through public institutions were, upon his death, reinforced half-heartedly by one of his sons, and, later, Theodosius. It took one determined Julian to undo much of it.) Christians would do well to remember that persecution is an unavoidable feature of their faith—Christ was crucified. The latter observation is not a call for Christians to court martyrdom or to sit idly by while their rights are trampled, but rather a reminder that comfort is hardly a Christian priority, and it is certainly not one worth politicizing the faith over.

Damage to Christianity

The damage done to Christianity through problematic political entanglements tends to last much longer than the gains. The entanglements make it difficult for well-meaning Christians to oppose the myriad areas of divergence between their faith and other positions held by their political partners, so they become silent accomplices to various forms of injustice perpetrated by their partners. It should be no surprise that attempts to preserve the Christian character of the state have also made it easier for Christians, based on a warped cost-benefit analysis, to embrace policies that seek to exclude or marginalize people of other faiths. The alliances also feed extreme elements within Christianity that will seek theological justification for any decision their political partner supports. Most important, when the independence of Christianity suffers, the faith’s spiritual mission, Christ’s priority, becomes even more difficult as people begin to associate it with partisan politics. It should bother U.S. Christians that “evangelical”—a benign theological term—is now politically-charged.

The myriad problems arising from close associations between Christianity and partisan politics have not been lost on thoughtful Christians. In 2008, a group of concerned Christian leaders, careful to note they were not speaking for all Christians, adopted an Evangelical Manifesto aimed at asserting Christianity’s independence from politics and clarifying both the mission and limits of Christian involvement in politics. It might be time to circulate another, if only to remind Christians that no amount of culture-warring can take the place of evangelism, and political institutions cannot resolve humanity’s moral problems, they offer only a temporary solution.

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