The Idolatry of Political Christianity
Religion & Liberty Online

The Idolatry of Political Christianity

On this eve of the mid-term elections in the United States, it’s worthwhile to reflect a bit on the impetus in North American evangelical Christianity to emphasize the importance of politics. Indeed, it is apparent that the term “evangelical” is quickly coming to have primarily political significance, rather than theological or ecclesiastical, such that Time magazine could include two Roman Catholics (Richard John Neuhaus and Rick Santorum) among its list of the 25 most influential “evangelicals” in America.

When the accusations came to light about Ted Haggard, which led to his resignation from the National Association of Evangelicals and eventual dismissal from New Life Church, the first instinct by many was to see this as primarily a political event. Late last week James Dobson said of Haggard, “It appears someone is trying to damage his reputation as a way of influencing the outcome of Tuesday’s election.” Perhaps the timing of the charges did indeed have political motivations, but Haggard’s admission of guilt carries with it implications that reach far beyond mere politics, into the realm of the spiritual.

It should be noted that after Haggard’s guilt came to light, Dobson did say that the scandal had “grave implications for the cause of Christ,” and Pastor Larry Stockstill, head of the oversight board in charge of Haggard’s investigation, said “that politics played ‘zero’ role in the haste of the process that led to Haggard’s removal, and that the oversight board received no political pressure from anyone.” But even so, the fact that Haggard has been portrayed as a political heavyweight (with access to the President) and the National Association of Evangelicals has been called “a powerful lobbying group,” rather than an ecumenical and ecclesiastical organization, speaks volumes.
‘Do not swerve to the right or the left’

As is appropriate given the binary nature of today’s politics, let’s take a very brief look at the infatuation with political power on the part of both the Religious Left and the Religious Right.

On the Religious Left, perhaps the most egregious example of the tendency to substitute the State for the cause of Christ is in the case of the ceaseless advocacy of the welfare state, under the guise of “social justice.” One of the planks in Jim Wallis’ “Voting God’s Politics” voting guide is titled, “Compassion and Economic Justice,” and encourages voters to consider the following questions, as if these all are primary responsibilities of the civil magistrate: “Does the candidate support measures that provide for family economic success and security by ‘making work work,’ that promote fair and decent wages, that show a serious commitment to lifting children out of poverty, and support policies on aid, debt, and trade that would bring extreme global poverty to an end?”

At its worst this kind of thinking replaces Biblical compassion and individual charitable responsibility with impersonal government bureaucracy. It makes “compassion” something the State does as our proxy. “The Bible teaches that societies should organize so that all members have genuine access to the resources needed to live a decent life and provide for those who are unable to care for themselves,” contends Wallis. It is clear that for Wallis the State is the means by which these societies ought to be organized.

Oftentimes the Religious Right is no better, although it usually appeals to government power on rather different issues. In an excellent column in the most recent issue of Christianity Today, Union University professor David P. Gushee excoriates politicking by Christian conservatives. He writes,

Ironically, we turn to the state to enforce the values we can’t seem to advance in our own churches. We’re rightly concerned about our collapsing families, internet pornography, decadent movies and music, and the weakening of sexual morality. But we often can’t seem to prevent the encroachment of these problems in our own Christian families and congregations. As if in response, we keep trying to change our nation’s laws.

There is perhaps no one better at pointing out the failings of the Religious Right than the Religious Left, and Gushee, who spent three years at Ron Sider’s Evangelicals for Social Action, does an admirable job of it.

Oftentimes it seems as if attacking the Religious Right is all there is for the Religious Left to do; people are “looking for a deeper conversation about the role of faith and politics, rejecting the narrow political options of the Religious Right,” drones Wallis for the umpteenth time.

But Gushee’s critique is not simply another salvo from “progressive” Christianity. It is a valid and scathing critique of all Christian political activism: “The more we find it hopeless to think that we can actually create and sustain disciplined communities of faith, the more we spend our time on political activities. We may not be able to get self-identified Christians to obey the Word of God, but we might be able to leverage our political clout to elect ‘our people’ to Congress.”

I endorse Gushee’s article with two brief caveats. First, he complains that contemporary Christian social ethics is unbalanced in that its analysis “most often results in statements about what government—not the church—should do about the particular problem.” Obviously given the content of this post, I share Gushee’s concern for this lack of balance. But it does not follow from this lack of balance that Christian social ethics has nothing to say to the government. It does have much to say, although in fact far less than many on the Left and Right think today.

Secondly, building off the previous concern, Gushee echoes John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, writing, “There is something quite wrong, they say, when the intended audience for Christian moral reasoning is the secular world and the institutions that govern it.” In some ways this is merely a repetition of the problem I note in my first caveat above. But it also seems to imply that the moral order (if, indeed, there is such a thing) does not apply to the world outside the Church. As such, it is not universal. Gushee is intentionally siding with Yoder and Hauerwas on a question that has long plagued Christian ethics: Does Christian ethics make moral claims only about what Christians ought to do or are these moral claims universal? I think the latter is true, and on this I seemingly part ways with Gushee.

‘The way, the truth, and the life’

The solution, as is so often the case, to the problem of Left vs. Right is to be found in a middle way. No, not the middle way of an “independent” or third-party political Christianity. I’m talking about the “middle way” of the Mediator, Jesus Christ.

“Between father and son, husband and wife, the individual and the nation, stands Christ the Mediator, whether they are able to recognize him or not.”

As seen above, political Christianity, of either liberal or conservative persuasion, tends to place the State as the normative institution to mediate between human relationships. Government, mediating between all persons and institutions, becomes the instrument and means by which we attempt to advance the cause of Christ.

By contrast, writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the only true Mediator is Jesus Christ: “He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality.”

Here Bonhoeffer is emphasizing the scope of the curse that has been inaugurated with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Genesis 3, the consequences of the fall of humanity into sin are spelled out in the form of covenant curses, and in the case of the man and woman, we find that relationships are fractured on at least three levels: between humankind and God (vertical), human interrelationships (horizontal), and between humans and the rest of creation (as in the cultural mandate).

But the good news of the Gospel includes the proleptic (already/not yet) reversal of the curse of sin and brokenness. “Between father and son, husband and wife, the individual and the nation, stands Christ the Mediator, whether they are able to recognize him or not,” writes Bonhoeffer.

In its activist zeal, political Christianity substitutes the State for Christ, the one who in reality stands between all human relationships. The State’s proper role is therefore lost in the expansion of its purview to all social relations. “The order of creation is turned upside down; what should be last is first, the expedient, the subsidiary, has become the main thing,” says Emil Brunner. “The State, which should be only the bark on the life of the community, has become the tree itself.” The State exists for man, and not man for the State.

Abraham Kuyper’s vision of “sphere sovereignty” embodied the truth of these observations, as each social institution relied directly and immediately on God for its mandate and authority, not depending on the intercession or mediation of any other organism. He writes, “We understand hereby, that the family, the business, science, art and so forth are all social spheres, which do not owe their existence to the State, and which do not derive the law of their life from the superiority of the State, but obey a high authority within their own bosom; an authority which rules, by the grace of God, just as the sovereignty of the State does.”

The penultimate nature of politics only receives its appropriate valuation when viewed in relation to the ultimate reality of Christ. Thus Bonhoeffer writes:

There can be no genuine thanksgiving for the blessing of nation, family, history and nature without that heart-felt penitence which gives the glory to Christ alone above all else. There can be no real attachment to the given creation, no genuine responsibility in the world, unless we recognize the breach which already separates us from it.

Christ opens the way for healing of the broken relationships, and in this new reality these relationships receive their rightful due.

In the same way, Anthony Esolen has some telling reflections on the tendency to idolize government: “It’s a law of idolatry that the stark staring idol fails to deliver not only the salvation promised by the living God, but also the paltry earthly substitute for which you have carved it in the first place.” If evangelicals continue to place politics in place of the true Mediator, Esolen’s prediction no doubt will come true.

Let us keep this perspective in place today, tomorrow, and in the future, as we strive to place our faith not in the things of this world, but in the hope of heaven, “where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.