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Christ and Culture: Politics and the Church

Today, we’re going to continue our series on Christ in Culture. Last week, we talked about the question of truth- what it is and why it’s important. Today will not be as mentally exhausting or philosophical.

But before we talked about truth I laid the foundation for the approach for cultural engagement in this class. And I borrowed from James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World to say that I am operating from the conviction of having “faithful presence within” the world. 

Hunter talks about different strategies for cultural engagement: “Defensive Against,” “Relevance To,” and “Purity From.” The best strategy, he argues, is what he calls “Faithful Presence Within.” 

That framework is helpful for all the issues we will discuss, but I think it’s especially helpful as we think through politics and the Christian, which is what today’s discussion is about. 

Ultimately, when we think about this subject—really what we are getting at— is, how do I live faithfully as a Christian in the political arena? How does faith inform politics? How should my Christian faith lead me to engage in what we would call “civic duties?” 

We should rightly recognize that this conversation is specific to our context in 21st Century America. 

“Politics and the Christian” would have been a very different discussion for the early church facing persecution under Nero or Diocletian. 

“Politics and the Christian” would be a very different conversation for Christians living in China or Iran, or the United Kingdom for that matter. 

Today’s discussion is framed within our American context. With that said, I’m not conflating American democracy with Christianity… but this is simply where we find ourselves. So that context is going to occupy our thoughts.  

I want to start by saying, the Polis is sick. (not the kind of Polis if you’ve ever been to Focustan)… Polis is the Greek word for city. I’m using it as shorthand for our life in common.

 Let me tell you how I’ve structured today’s talk. 

First, I want to diagnose some of our political ailments. There are a lot of things I could have picked but I’ve chosen three… these are not meant to be exhaustive. Again, keep in mind that these are unique to our context… at an evangelical Baptist church in the United States. 

Three political ailments in our current context:

  • Political Ultimacy
  • Politicization of the definition of “Evangelicalism” (is it a political movement or religious?)
  • Christian Nationalism

Now, you might notice one glaring issue that’s missing from this trifecta—Identity Politics! C’mon, aren’t you going to talk about identity politics? And the answer is – yes… but not today. We’ll talk about that on March 16th when we talk about race and critical race theory… I think it fits into that discussion better than it does here. 

So, I first want to address some of these issues and then we move to a constructive biblical way forward for Christian political engagement.

First up, is what I call Political Ultimacy

If something is ultimate, it is seen as the final, highest good or end. 

The Christian would confess God as ultimate. Herman Bavinck’s first sentence to The Wonderful Works of God says, “God, and God alone is man’s highest good.” That’s a great first sentence. You don’t even need to read the rest of the book. 

Political ultimacy, therefore, sees “this-worldly” realities as ultimate. 

Politics is not content with second place. It will always want to be ultimate.

From the outset, I want to warn us against two different attitudes the Christian can have toward politics. One is Apathy. The other is Idolatry. Ultimacy is connected with idolatry.

Politics is meaningless. Politics is everything.

The reality is politics is important, but not as important as you think it is (especially in regard to a single election). 

We live in a time when every election is the “most important election of our lifetime.” In my short political life, since I turned 18, I think I’ve heard that in every election cycle.

We live in a society where politics is ultimate.

I think that as secularization increases, so will political urgency. 

There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that religion gives people a sense of identity, and belonging. 

So, in our context, for most of American history, many people have had some sense of identity as they belong to a religious community—however nominal it may be. They belong to a group. They have a sense of purpose as their lives and ambitions are oriented around their shared commitments and values. 

What we’ve seen with the increase of secularization and the rise of so-called “religious nones” (that’s n-o-n-e, not Catholic nuns in black habits – those who don’t affiliate with any religious tradition), is that people feel uprooted, placeless.

So, I think that these people have turned to politics to fill the place that religion once held in American public life. Their political party gives them a sense of identity, belonging. The party’s platform becomes comprehensive for their entire worldview.

We often talk about “tribalism” in American society now. And this why. Because now we’re not merely debating policy… policy has become so intertwined with our identity and ultimate values. 

Political disagreement is seen as an assault on our person. We no longer make a political judgment against someone’s view on a certain policy but make a moral judgment against them as a person. That person is not just wrong but wicked.  

So you can see how that’s problematic—especially if occurring in the church. I have friends here at River who have different political views than I do. 

That type of contempt for someone else has no place in the church. When it happens in the church, you’ve got your ultimate things mixed up. You’re making an important thing an ultimate thing.

What are ultimate things for the church? The gospel! The preaching of God’s word. Growing in Christlikeness together. Evangelism. 

Because politics is comprehensive it is increasingly urgent. The political is now of ultimate value. And so students in certain university campuses are encouraged not to go to class so they can engage in political activism. They have to “do the work.” Or they quit their job so they can protest – or be a social media activist.

The thing is the “politics of urgency,” or the “politics of emergency” works. However good or bad that may be. If something is a crisis—it gets funding. Now, everything is a crisis. – Then, what are we left with? Well, the boy who cried wolf. 

This urgency exists because politics is connected to eschatology. It is connected to a vision of human flourishing. 

Politics is oriented toward some goal or some vision of the good life, the good society, etc. 

Christian eschatology, is our vision of a future hope.

Eschatology in Christian theology is the study of the end times.

The Bible’s vision of eschatology is one of shalom (peace/wholeness); it’s a future-oriented promise of the fullness of God’s kingdom. The restoration of all things.

Different views of eschatology have shaped Christian political engagement. 

There’s two common traps for Christian eschatology. 

  • Escapist eschatology and an over-realized eschatology. 

An escapist eschatology is typically associated more with the political right. 

Really, we’re just waiting until Jesus comes and “raptures” us and takes us out of this mess. 

We won’t see justice in this life until Jesus comes back. 

There’s not a whole lot we can do right now. 

The problem is sin, anyway… 

The problem is that an escapist theology minimizes the reality of the material world. We can become so focused on what Jesus is going to do in the end that we are blind to what he is up to here and now and where we can join him.

So you could say an escapist eschatology may focus on spiritual needs to the neglect of material needs.

The other trap is an over-realized eschatology. 

This is an eschatology that is ultimately flattened into a this-worldly project. Typically associated with the left and “social justice” movements.

It’s man-centered as opposed to God-centered. 

It becomes our job to bring the kingdom of God through social justice. 

The transcendent aspect of eschatology is turned into a humanistic project.

This is sometimes called liberation theology. 

What begins with gospel concerns for justice, amelioration of the poor, providing medical care to those who need it… can turn into an idolatry. Christianity gets co-opted by political revolution.

And here, there is a focus on material needs often to the neglect of spiritual needs or theological orthodoxy.

But God deals with us holistically

We are body-soul unities. God is interested in transforming our whole person.

We need to navigate the tension of meeting spiritual and material needs. 

When either of those is absent or skewed, people suffer and the gospel suffers. The gospel of Jesus must not merely be reduced to the liberation from spiritual enslavement to sin. Likewise, the gospel of Jesus must not merely be reduced to social amelioration in which the radical evil within the human soul is ignored or forgotten.

Those concerns should shape our politics and the way that we think about many political issues.

The two traps in Biblical eschatology: escapist and over-realized. What’s the corrective? 

Biblically, the proper corrective to both of those traps is the Already, Not Yet Kingdom of God. It is here in part, not yet here in fulness. 

Christians shouldn’t feel apathetic in regard to matters of social justice… but we should also know that God’s kingdom is not a human project for which its realization depends on human effort. 

It’s not on our shoulders. Really, who could bear it? 

God’s kingdom will be consummated in his timing. 

Navigating the Already Not Yet, seems to me to be the appropriate response to political ultimacy. 

The second ailment affecting us is the Politicization of Evangelicalism. 

What is an evangelical? (What kind of evangelical are you?—if you pronounce it evangelical,you may be of this sort… )

Is it a religious movement or is it a significant voting bloc of the Republican party? 

Because of “Evangelical” support and embrace of Donald Trump, some people are wanting to dispense with the term altogether. The term is too politically charged to keep using it. 

For anyone interested in studying a history of evangelicalism, its origins, current crises/issues within it, I would recommend the work of Mark Noll and Thomas Kidd or John Wilsey. All are evangelical historians. Mark Noll is at Notre Dame… and Thomas Kidd was at Baylor but is actually moving to Midwestern Seminary, which is pretty exciting for them. Wilsey is at Southern.

What are we to do with the term? Do we use it or not? 

Well, I think what I can do to answer that is just to lay out theologically what an evangelical is… and then you can decide for yourself if you want to use the label. 

I think it’s helpful in certain contexts. I don’t think we need to be ashamed of the label. Especially if we’re having a conversation about our theological distinctives. 

In that sense, I’m proud to be an evangelical Christian. For me, being an evangelical Baptist is the most faithful way I know how to follow Christ. Yes, I am a Christian first—but being an evangelical Baptist is the most faithful way I know how to be a Christian. 

One of the problems with the label—especially in polling, is that it’s a self-identifying label. Anybody can self-identify as an “evangelical” or a “born-again” Christian. That person need not have any understanding of the historic theological distinctives to take on that label. 

So, let’s jump into what those distinctives are.

Evangelicalism as a religious movement is not something that arose out of Fundamentalism or the 1950s. 

It reaches farther back than that. Most historians note that it arose out of the 18th Century Revivals… The Great Awakenings. 

The movement was marked by at least four distinctives, known as Bebbington’s Quadrilateral:

  • Biblicism – trust in Scripture as totally true and trustworthy
  • Conversionism – an emphasis on personal faith and spiritual re-birth
  • Crucicentrism – a focus on the atonement and the crucifixion of Jesus
  • Activism – a commitment to missional and social engagement

Some scholars would add a fifth element: An emphasis on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. 

Evangelicalism is not tied to one particular denomination. There are evangelical impulses in various denominations: Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans.

Evangelicalism is a global movement. So, I think it’s a mistake to conflate the movement with a pretty narrow understanding of how it’s expressed in the United States. 

So ultimately, I don’t really have an answer for you on whether you should use the term or not. I use it. But you have to define the terms. When you’re having conversations, you have an opportunity to clarify what you mean. Don’t let people carelessly slap around labels. 

The third ailment plaguing our evangelical political life right now is Christian Nationalism.

Again, similar to the issue with evangelicalism, I think the question is “who frames the argument?” How are we defining the terms? 

I think when we hear “Christian Nationalism” some people think of a bunch of white people in red hats storming the Capitol. 

Or, are we simply just talking about a love of nation, a sense of national loyalty and duty…what some might call patriotism

Some people are uncomfortable with recognizing that America is a “Christian Nation,” thinking that such a statement makes one a Christian nationalist. 

But even Marilynne Robinson—a liberal, protestant, progressive Calvinist (funny combination), recognizes that America is a Christian nation in some sense… Christian origins.

Let’s define some terms. 

Nationalism is an ideology—a form of group think, in which the nation and the nation’s interests are paramount to the exclusion of any other nation. 

Christian Nationalism, we could say, is the view that America (or any nation) is God’s chosen instrument to bring about his redemptive-historical purposes. 

Many passages in Scripture that applied to Israel are misapplied to America. 

The Christian nationalist is one whose patriotic sensibilities have become ultimate (idolatrous). Then you misread the Bible through an American lens. Basically—it’s a form of syncretism – a blending of American history and Christianity. 

Christian nationalism is unbiblical. 

Patriotism is a love of home. A love of the fatherland. It is a loyalty to our country and what we have in common with our neighbors. 

The Bible allows room for this. We are to submit to the governing authorities as those who have been appointed by God (Romans 13). Jesus told us to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. We are told to pray for our leaders. 

But biblically, we should remember that we are sojourners. We are to live as exiles because our ultimate allegiance is to God and his kingdom. 

So, I affirm patriotism— and with the Founders of our nation, I firmly believe in God’s providence as our country was being founded and in our experiment in ordered liberty. The religious freedom our country enjoys and celebrates is something to be thankful for. 

I believe America is a force for good in the world. I love this country. It’s an honor to serve this country in uniform… You don’t have to be a Christian nationalist to believe that.

My roommate at Officer Training School was a doctor from Ecuador. He actually served in the Ecuadorian army. He immigrated to the United States, became a U.S. Citizen. Worked at a bakery in NYC around the time of 9/11. Went to med school. And then joined the Air Force. Talk about an American story. 

I believe telling our national story is important. Telling it truthfully and honestly. The preamble to the Constitution reads, “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union[…]”

We’ve been given a task. We’ve been commissioned to do this… to form a more perfect union. But what does that phrase presuppose? It assumes that we have imperfections. 

So, I don’t think we need to apologize for American greatness. And we also don’t need to turn a blind eye to our faults and failures. 

In my mind, that is a healthy patriotism. 

So I think we need two correctives. 

If you detest Christian nationalism so much that you shy away from anything patriotic… I think you need to be reminded of the good of patriotism. 

If you think of yourself as a patriotic person, I think you need to be honest with yourself and ask if your patriotism is actually idolatrous. (don’t make something of nothing — but do a heart check). 

There you have it… As I see it, those are three ailments that are plaguing our political life right now. 

So, with the time left, I do want to offer a brief constructive way forward to think about Christian political engagement. 

We are pilgrims awaiting our heavenly home. 

In the meantime, we live as exiles in our earthly home… in the nation. We shouldn’t seek “purity from” the nation as we await the fullness of the kingdom. 

We are to seek the welfare of the city while we are exiles in it (Jeremiah 29:7). 

Historically, there have been different approaches to seeking the welfare of the city… How does that happen? 

During the Reformation period you had the church who was also in charge of civil government. 

Or you have the formation of a national church: The Church of England, or the Dutch Reformed Church of the Netherlands… 

I think the best way for churches to have influence on public life is for the church and state to be separate. 

And indeed, that is the position the American tradition has given us. 

The Separation of Church and State is a good thing. 

However surprising that may sound. The separation of Church and State is actually addressed in the Baptist Faith and Message. 

But there are some misunderstandings of how that phrase is understood today…especially by people who don’t have any religious background. 

Here’s what the phrase doesn’t mean. 

It doesn’t mean that religion has no place in the public sphere. 

The words “separation of church and state” do not actually appear in the Constitution. They are actually found in a letter by Thomas Jefferson sent to a Baptist community of all people explaining the spirit of the first amendment. 

What the first amendment actually did was to say, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 

What this means is that Congress could not establish something like a national church (like the Church of England.) 

And it couldn’t interfere with or disestablish the free exercise of already existent churches. 

This move actually protects religion from government. 

So, this American understanding is very different from a country like France whose official policy is “Laïcité” (secularization official governmental policy). Limits religion to the private sphere.

But again, that is not what the separation of church and state means in an American context.

Here’s what the Baptist Message says about Religious Liberty, Article XVII (17):

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.

Genesis 1:272:7Matthew 6:6-7,2416:2622:21John 8:36Acts 4:19-20Romans 6:1-213:1-7Galatians 5:1,13Philippians 3:201 Timothy 2:1-2James 4:121 Peter 2:12-173:11-174:12-19.

When Church and State are separate, it allows churches to maintain their doctrinal integrity. 

The church, then, is focused on making disciples of Jesus who will live as salt and light in the world and who will live faithfully present within the world. 

So—now I can address the real reason you came to this lecture today… I’m going to tell you who you should vote for.

I’m just kidding. I hope what I’ve done is give you some things to think about as you think about as you think through various political issues. 

What I think you’ll find is that sometimes the Christian viewpoint on a particular issue doesn’t fit well in either political party. And when that happens, we need to be reminded of what we are holding up as ultimate. 

We’ll go ahead and stop here and open it up for questions.

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