America’s Real God
What’s one thing many American Christians love more than Jesus? Power.
The debate over the role of religion in the public square is not new. Following the recent controversy surrounding Indiana’s religious-freedom laws, we’ve heard from Christians on both sides of the political spectrum who believe their faith informs their views on important social issues.
I recently came across an article that talked about how the “New Christian Left” is twisting the gospel. The author unpacked a number of points related to the tension between traditional biblical teachings and contemporary moral values. She also listed three different types of evangelical Christians that have emerged in these unique times–those who stay silent on major cultural issues, those who pick and choose which parts of the bible they want to live by, and those who operate in mercy and grace while still sharing the gospel message with their neighbors. Up to this point I didn’t really have any major issue with what I was reading. Then the author said this:
I know about these three types of Christians because at one time or another I have fallen into each of these three categories. My parents will tell you that even though I was raised in church, I morphed into a full-fledged feminist, told my parents they were ignorant for not endorsing homosexuality and bought into the distorted social justice rhetoric that confuses caring for the poor with advancing socialist or big government systems and demonizing the United States for its free market system.
This passage speaks volumes, not just about the author’s perspective but also about the way we talk and think about Christianity in this country, specifically the viewing of faith through the lens of politics. The author of this article clearly believes there is a natural synergy between political conservatism and Christian teachings. She also seems to believe that Christian progressives advance beliefs, whether related to same-sex rights or the opposition of unjust social structures, that are wrong both biblically and politically. Unfortunately, her perspective is not exclusive to conservatives. Both parties try to use religion in a way that advances their agenda, but straining our faith through our political beliefs distorts the truth of the gospel and reveals our true god: power.
Jesus’ ministry was neither left wing nor right wing. He took a holistic approach that taught about concern for “the least of these” yet also preached about humanity’s sin problem and his role as God’s divine solution. Christians in this country, especially our elected officials, have been mixing faith and politics for so long that we’ve begun to associate the American way of doing things with the “Christian” way of doing things. We acts as if democracy and capitalism are God-ordained political and economic systems, respectively, even though there is little in the scriptures to support either view. The Old Testament provides ample evidence that God’s chosen people were, at different times, subject to rule by religious leaders and kings. There are also passages in the bible that support cooperative economics and teach against greed and the exploitation of the poor. On the other hand, there are passages that also run counter to progressive understandings of equity. For example, the landowner in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt 24:14-30) gave what he took from the man with one talent to the man with ten, not the man with five. Most of us would have a hard time understanding why Jesus would use this illustration, one that seems to run counter to how we think about fairness, to convey a spiritual lesson. But that’s my entire point.
God isn’t concerned about fitting his ways, which are beyond man’s comprehension, into humanity’s logic, theological frameworks, or political systems. Part of being a Christian is believing God is sovereign. We should remember that when we’re tempted to believe that an eternal, omniscient, omnipresent God should be boxed in by people and politicians whose beliefs and party platforms change from one election cycle to the next.
How do you know if you’ve made your faith subordinate to politics? One clue is when the bible is clear on a particular subject that runs counter to your political or personal beliefs and you choose to ignore or dismiss what the scripture says. That’s like having a ruler in your right hand and a broken tree branch in your left and using the latter as your tool for measurement. Another sign is when you believe that God is only on “your side” ( as if that’s how any of this works) and you think people in your “tribe” are the only legitimate believers. Another is when you create or endorse frameworks that are scriptural based, yet too rigid to encompass the totality of Jesus’ life, teachings, or gospel, to advance goals that are primarily political. This is the case whether we’re talking about a theology whose emphasis on the social or political liberation of an oppressed group overshadows that group’s need for spiritual freedom or a conservative platform that includes a “culture of life” that is simultaneously anti-abortion and pro-death penalty.
The easiest way to visualize a politics-centered life is to think about a bicycle wheel that has one hub in the center and many connecting spokes that represent other important aspects of a person’s life–their faith, media preferences, spending habits, and relationships. A Christ-centered life, however, is one that puts Jesus in the center and makes all of those other things revolve around him. What does that look like in practical terms? A God-centered life is concerned more with unity in the Body of Christ than it is supremacy of one political party. It means seeing fellow believers, even those with whom we disagree politically, as being just as Christian as we are. It means asking for forgiveness when we’ve wronged others and practicing forgiveness when we’ve been wronged. It means living at peace with others, as much as it is in our control, and seeking reconciliation when fellowship has been broken. These are all principles that every Christian, regardless of political affiliation, should seek to uphold.
Instead of Christians trying to get God on their side, we should be concerned about getting on God’s side. Sometimes that means going against the grain of culture but that’s the cost of being a believer. Jesus wasn’t universally accepted by the religious leaders or laypeople in his day. But if he endured a tortuous crucifixion for our behalf surely we can endure a little bit of social discomfort on his.
I understand that part of what it means to live in a democracy is to never get your way all of the time. I believe that the church and state play two separate yet complementary roles. Understanding the differences in function should make it a little easier for Christians to reconcile their beliefs with government’s role in expanding and protecting the rights of every citizen, particularly those most vulnerable to discrimination, oppression and marginalization. This country’s laws are governed by the Constitution. They outline what citizens can do. Christian doctrine is governed by the bible. Our faith leaders give us guidance on what we should do. Two different venues, two different guiding documents.
I also understand that our country is more religiously diverse than ever before, so there are many people who don’t share my faith as well as those who feel the government should be free from of any religious influence. But for those who identify as Christian, specifically people who desire a deeper relationship with God, only accepting the parts of scripture that support our political beliefs and creating theological frameworks that fit God into our way of seeing the world is a surefire recipe for compromising our faith. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, any deity that can only exist within man-made frameworks, whether social or political, is a god too small to be worshiped.