For the past few weeks, I’ve both wanted to make a theological statement about the current state of the U.S. and to absolutely avoid doing that. Well, I’ve decided to go with the former approach.
As with many subjects, I’ve a lot of thoughts on a cluster of related topics, so I’ll try to to organize the thoughts in a reasonable manner.
I first want to say a few things about the role of religion—and Christianity in particular—in American politics. Unfortunately, in taking a firm stand on this topic, I fully expect that some folks will take my words as inflammatory: such is the cost of conviction, I suppose. I can only hope that the full breadth of my statements will demonstrate well-considered positions intended to make reasonable arguments about (what I believe to be) objective truth. You’ll be the judge.
The U.S. as a “Christian Nation”
First, let’s address the assertion often made by conservatives that the U.S. was “founded on Christian principles” (and thus should be run now under a—very particular—view of Christianity). This statement is, at best, a half-truth. Many of the founding fathers would not have considered themselves Christians. Our country (as an independent nation with our current form of government) was formed during the Enlightenment, when hostility to organized religion could be openly demonstrated—see Voltaire and the reactionary, anti-religious elements of the French Revolution.
Thomas Jefferson believed in Jesus as a moral teacher, but not a supernatural person. Even without resorting to C.S. Lewis’s argument that you must see Jesus as liar, madman or God, with no room in between, it’s clear that Jefferson doesn’t hold the core belief of being a Christian. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin likely would have considered himself a deist rather than a Christian, believing in the existence of a God (probably in the sense of the distant “Clockmaker God”) but not in the dogma, doctrine, theology or “mythology” of the Christian faith. These men, as some of the best-known fathers of the nation, are emblematic of the diversity of religious thought—and the acceptance of such diversity—among the framers of the constitution. Yes, the diversity was ultimately limited to Western thought, ignoring for the most part Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and Confucianism and only incorporating Judaism viewed through the lens of Christianity.
We must also remember that the history of the Americas prior to the founding of the U.S. is one of a search for religious freedom on the one hand and religious conflict on the other. I’ve written a number of articles on piracy, particularly in the context of gaming, but the history of piracy is instructive here as well. Bear in mind that the time when Columbus discovered the Americas was the same time that the (newly combined) Spanish crown concluded the Reconquista and expelled the Jews from Spain. There is evidence that Jews of affluence had a hand in securing the funding of Columbus’s initial expedition to find a safe place for them to live as they relocated. Others fled to the Ottoman Empire, which was generally more tolerant of them. In the following century, the development of Protestant sects of Christianity in the German principalities and in England led to fierce, violent, and prolonged conflict over the “One True Faith”—see the Spanish Armada, the attack on Cadiz, the German Peasant’s Revolt, the Thirty Years’ War, the English Civil Wars, the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries, etc. This conflict links directly with the history of piracy—in the Mediterranean, some Jews turned to privateering in service to the Ottomans to exact vengeance on European countries that had persecuted them, while in the Caribbean, the Protestant or Jewish faiths of many privateers and pirates helped justify (to them at least) their aggressions and assaults on the assets of Catholic Spain. Francis Drake’s famous expedition is emblematic of this, but consider also that many famous privateers and pirates who followed were English or Dutch protestants or French Huguenots who saw themselves as paramilitary actors in the same conflicts that were rocking Europe.
On the North American mainland, many of the early settlers were looking for a place to freely practice their faith (usually a form of Christianity, but divergent from other forms holding more political power)—the Puritans of Plymouth and Salem were too prude or fundamentalist for mainstream Anglicanism and Rhode Island was formed by those outcast for religious divergence from other settlements.
The establishment of my own Methodism as separate from the Church of England also demonstrates that religion and politics were a messy dialectic, not the influence of a monolithic Christianity on the development of new political systems. John Wesley considered himself a reformer within the Church of England, not a rebel seeking to establish a separate denomination, but, when the English government began to require clergy to swear oaths of fealty to the English Crown during the American Revolution, those Methodist preachers who refused to swear such oaths were left with few other choices.
Further, the ecclesiastic structure of the United Methodist Church follows the three-branch system of American secular government; an instance of politics influencing religion (something that has become common nowadays not in polity but in theology) rather than religion influencing politics.
If anything, the recent past had demonstrated to the founding fathers of religion and politics being too closely bound together, not the value of creating a Christian nation when so many had died fighting over what Christianity was supposed to be.
Had the intention been to establish a monolithic Christian republic, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would look very different.
“Deus Vult” is Latin for “God Wills It.” It was a battle cry of the Crusades and has occasionally reared its ugly head in human history ever since.
I have a relatively easy time making the argument that Jesus had nothing to do with the Crusades. Consider the following:
(1) Jesus did not bother with a physical overthrow of the Romans. Why, a millennium later, would he sponsor European outsiders undertaking an equally bloody endeavor to take the Holy Land from Muslims? There is a sweeping argument from the Old Testament to the New moving away from the pagan belief that God is geographically bound–see especially the tearing of the veil in the Temple upon Jesus’ execution. I understand fully the power and inspiration that comes from being where God lived out God’s incarnation on Earth, but placing an overemphasis on the places and material remnants of Jesus’ life misses the greater point Jesus incarnated to make. That Jesus’ body could not be found in the tomb accomplishes more than only providing evidence of Jesus’ divinity.
(2) Ever heard the phrase, “Kill ’em all; God’ll sort ’em out?” It comes from the Albigensian Crusade, a war on heterodox believers in Southern France (in Languedoc, which literally means “the land where they speak lenga d’oc (the Occitan language). The Cathars there where heterodox to the Catholic faith, with a gnostic approach to Christianity, but political and material concerns were motivating factors just as much as religious ones (see below). In 1209, Crusader forces were besieging the city of Beziers, but they encountered a problem. The city contained both Cathars and Catholics in good standing. The Crusaders, let by Simon de Montfort, exhorted the Catholic citizens to leave the city before the Crusaders assaulted it. They refused. Now, I’d like to believe that the Catholics did so in true Christian spirit–to protect others from violence by hopefully making the moral cost of an assault too high for the besiegers. But, I’m also a realist, and it’s equally likely that, knowing what happens when a city is sacked, the Catholics were trying to protect their own homes and property without regard for the Cathars, knowing that the invading Crusaders would make little distinction in their pillaging. Maybe some of column A, some of column B.
Regardless, the Crusaders were forced to make a choice. As the story goes, the Papal Legate to the Crusaders, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, cut through the conundrum by saying something like “Kill them all; God will know his own.” That’s been rehashed to the, probably more familiar, “Kill ’em all; let God sort ’em out.” This, I think is indicative of the problem with both the Crusades and the “Deus Vult” mentality applied to anything–even if the cause is good (and, for the Crusades and most of the other times “Deus Vult” language has been employed, the cause isn’t good either), the mindset justifies any atrocity–no matter how un-Christian–committed in pursuit of the goal.
For many of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, conservative politics and fundamentalist Christianity collided to create a Deus Vult mentality, with a number of the insurrectionists carrying flags that said, literally, “Deus Vult.” In their mind, Trump’s presidency was God-ordained.
On the one hand, they came to this conclusion because Trump supported policies they believed are “Biblical.” that’s a fraught idea, and I’d much prefer to focus on ideas and policies that are “Christian” (in following the person, nature and teachings of Christ) rather than those that are “Biblical”–the Bible says a lot of things, which are contained in different types of literature, are often not intended as examples of righteousness but quite the opposite, are bounded by the human context in which they were written (even if divinely inspired), are sometimes contradictory, and must always be interpreted to be understood.
On the other hand, equally or more problematic, the people who believe that Trump represented the last, best hope of Christianity–while behaving and spearheading policies that are absolutely anti-Christian–are guilty of one of the most damning indictments of American Christianity: that we shape Jesus into our pre-existing understanding of cultural and individual values rather than conforming ourselves to the righteous values taught to us and demonstrated for us by Jesus in his incarnation. This is a fair accusation often leveled against popular American Christian theologies, particularly by Liberation theologians who can personally speak to the injustices that just such an approach has perpetrated.
Think about this: In America, if you go into a “Bible bookstore,” or even if you order online, and you’re looking for a Nativity set, what color is Jesus in the default selection. He’s usually white. Now, there is a longstanding tradition of artistic pieces that portray Jesus looking like the person who made the art (in terms of ethnicity, not specific features), and there is some reasonable theological argument for that as an indication of how Jesus connects with each of us beyond barriers like race, ethnicity or language. But when the portrayal of Jesus as white becomes part of a subtle message of “Jesus is the best, and so is being white, so of course we should should see Jesus as white,” we have a problem.
K and I are currently listening to the audiobook of Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired; she makes a point that the Bible was used as justification by the abolitionists seeking to end slavery, but also by those seeking to maintain slavery. That something is “Biblical” by itself is a term that is worthless without greater context.
I am in agreement with the idea that we Americans have largely perverted the truth of Christianity to justify our baser desires, and I see this more and more in conservative politics in this country. I want to be careful here in not saying that I think one cannot be politically conservative and be a righteous Christian; nor does being liberal and calling yourself Christian make you good or righteous. But, on the whole, I see much more in leftist politics that coincides with the teaching of Jesus and much more bad behavior from conservatives that uses a skewed view of Christianity as cover for un-Christian behavior.
I also want to make a distinction here that I’ll try to develop more below: because I do not have the cognitive or moral capability to know someone else’s heart and soul, it’s important to me that my statements about the “un-Christian” are meant to be about behaviors, beliefs and ideologies, not about people. We are all fallible, we all fall short of doing all the things that would make us righteous, and I do believe in grace even for those who know what is right and fail to do it–we’re all there sometimes. As we’ll discuss below, there is a fine line to walk between grace and forgiveness on the one hand, and accountability, truth and justice on the other.
(3) Strong historical arguments have been made that the Crusades arose as much or more out of the socio-economic environment and psychological fears of the Middle Ages as any theological justification. Primary among these causes were issues of land division and ownership related to population growth. If your region practices primogeniture (all the land is inherited by the firstborn son), what do you do with all of the “noble” children who receive no inheritance but do not lack for ambition? If your region doesn’t practice primogeniture, how do you keep the land from being divided so much between so many children that no one is left owning a useful amount of land? The answer to both questions seemed to be to add more land to the equation, and the argument goes that the idea of Crusade to liberate the Holy Land (and other places in later Crusades) provided reasonable cover for what was ultimately a move to create an economic pressure valve.
Think about the mindset of the time, the fear of hell and the desire for heaven (especially when heaven was the only chance to live a better life than the squalor of a peasant) and then imagine being told that, by undertaking a Crusade, you’ll be cleansed of all sins you’ve ever committed (including those you commit on Crusade), you’ll skip the lines in Purgatory and go straight to St. Peter’s Gates. You’ve been indoctrinated to rely on the Church to tell you, de facto, religious truth and this comes directly from the Pope. How would you feel? Do those feelings, does that psychology, actually make you righteous? Does it actually justify–theologically–the things you’re likely to do–to be asked or told to do–while on Crusade?
All of this is to say two things: (1) we ought to call out those who claim it is their Christianity calling them to do un-Christian things; (2) at the same time, we must be very careful that we are constantly seeking to conform ourselves to true Christianity in our pursuit of justice, lest we start to be the ones saying “Deus Vult” as we seek to destroy that which we perceive as unrighteous, because we have become more convinced of our own righteousness than we are sincere in our desire to humbly follow the commandments God has given us.
How Should Christianity Influence American Politics?
C.S. Lewis wrote some profound–and still applicable–statements about how one’s Christianity ought to influence one’s politics. If you want to hear his comments, or if you’re becoming tired of mine, take a break and go look that up (I believe that topic is found in Mere Christianity, but it might be in God in the Dock).
Some of what I will have to say will parrot Lewis and, like him, I’m going to try to make some comments about how I believe that Christianity should influence a person’s (and particularly the American’s) approach to politics.
(1) Christianity directs the believer to be more concerned with striving for personal righteousness than fixing the immorality of others.
First, let’s acknowledge the pragmatic reality that laws don’t change morality. For example, when abortions are illegal, they become more dangerous, more shadowed, more exploitative, but not necessarily less common. For a less controversial example, see Prohibition. It came out of a well-meaning Temperance Movement intending to fight the definite societal ills caused by drunkenness and alcohol addiction. The end result was to give power to criminal organizations to supply what could not be had through legal channels but remained in high demand.
There are better means than legislation to try to make humans more righteous. Let’s think about the ways we can address systematic issues that push people toward destructive, injurious or “immoral” acts instead of focusing on codifying what is and is not categorically immoral. When Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” is this not a legal intervention? That’s something we should think on when looking at our own motivations for supporting certain kinds of laws.
(2) Christianity is about personal sacrifice for the greater good of others.
Political analysts make most of their predictions based on the ability of logical people to conduct cost/benefit analyses and to choose in favor of their own self-interest. We know that there are plenty of people who are incapable of or unwilling to understand the true costs and benefits of certain decisions, and some decisions will have costs and benefits to wide-ranging to be readily apparent.
But how would politics in our country change if the greater good of others were our focus in voting rather than the preservation of our own powers, rights, and socioeconomic status? What if we were able to step back and say, “Yes, this will cause a minor hardship for me, but it will alleviate a much greater hardship for many more people, so I’ll vote for it?” What if our politics was only about “us” instead of “us and them?”
(3) Christianity weighs the moral costs against the pragmatic benefits.
American politics has, in many senses, become a Crusade–all will be forgiven if you achieve the desired result. This has led to political gamesmanship, underhanded tactics, stonewalling, and all manner of other dishonorable approaches to “winning at any cost” that have undermined the systems that were put in place to protect our freedoms and to support a politics that uses compromise to reach results that benefit the greatest number of people possible. Both parties are guilty of this.
If we’re to be generous, neither party intended for things to go this way, but decades of tit-for-tat and “if they’re playing dirty, we have to, too, to have any chance!” without enough politicians standing up and saying “Enough!” that, by degrees we’ve dug ourselves into a hole from which there seems no escape.
We’ve got to get away from that. And a good Christian ethic can help us to do this (to be fair, the Christian ethics I refer to here are found in the moral systems of most or all all world religions of which I’m aware). We have to support the right way of doing things before we support getting our own way. To be ethical, procedure must be as important as results, or we end up where we are now–no one trusts that the procedures have been fair and so no one trusts the results. The results we speak of may differ between the parties, but the problem is the same.
Grace and Justice
In reflecting on my own personal experiences, my own passions and convictions, and then looking to the state our country is in, I see finding the balance between Grace and Justice to be the hardest line to walk of all. Thank God that ultimately, it is God who is responsible for bringing us to that perfect balance and not me.
You’ve probably seen in this post my own struggles with this issue–to look for the good and reasonable in the beliefs of those with whom I disagree while also trying to stand up for what I deeply believe is right. I am aware of no easy answers. But I also know that the struggle to strike the balance can never be abandoned.
This is at issue with my stance within the United Methodist Church. I deeply believe that the current treatment of, approach to, and status of people within the LGBTQ movement within the theology and polity of the UMC is unjust in the extreme. And yet, I also long for the maintenance of a unity within the believers and grace for a diversity of theological positions and interpretations within our church. It often feels impossible to balance both, and when I am forced to prioritize one over the other, which should I choose? Both rejecting unity and failing to stand up for those who are oppressed seem to be failures. And, in the end, unity isn’t just up to me–if there are some people (and there are many) who will refuse to allow the justice we seek, unity be damned, what can we do then? What must we do to be faithful followers of Christ?
Our country is in the same position. There are those who have peddled lies about election fraud, who have supported racist ideologies, who have voluntarily ignored the existence of injustice, who have placed themselves and their own well-being above all else. Some of those people attacked our very democracy by storming the Capitol on January 6th. And many of the politicians that instigated that behavior are now crying foul because “unity” should be the thing we seek above all else, and holding them accountable for their actions will hurt unity.
Here’s what I have to say about that, and it’s the answer to the issues of the UMC as well: There cannot be unity until there is justice. What those who demand unity without accountability want is for us to prioritize their approval and willingness to work with us over the approval of and unity with the oppressed, the downtrodden, the impoverished, and the exploited. This same cry for “unity” is why we have made so little progress in almost two-and-a-half centuries in regards to racial equality, the disparity of wealth and equality of dignity, why we’ve allowed so much social injustice to persist.
I’ve spent a lot of this post (and it’s a doozy, I realize) arguing that our Christianity requires us to be graceful in our approach to politics in this country. But our Christianity also requires us to adhere to truth and demand that others do the same–and here I mean in facts, not in philosophical truth, Our Christianity requires us to seek justice. If we are forced to choose whether to seek unity with the disenfranchised and downtrodden or those who demand that we acknowledge their rights and superiority, I know where Jesus will be, and I will seek him there.
If we do not seek justice, to whom can we show grace? Without requiring accountability for one’s actions, the only grace we have to offer is the “cheap grace” that Bonhoeffer warns us of. Or, worse yet, what we’re giving isn’t grace; it’s appeasement.
So we have to continue to walk the line, as difficult as it is, offering grace but demanding accountability and justice. We must set an example, never resorting to violence in our demands, but always insisting peacefully. It’s not an easy road, but we can walk it together, calling ever more people to walk it with us.