A friend, not a close one, but a friend nevertheless, is the founder and pastor of his own nondenominational church with a growing congregation. He is, as one might expect, a conservative evangelical who is suspicious of the theology and politics of people like me.
Not long ago he cited a passage from “The Screwtape Letters” in which Screwtape advised Wormwood to encourage his “patients” to obsess about politics and the problems of society because it would keep them from focussing on Jesus and their own moral failings. As a priest and political commentator, I have some misgivings about that, no matter how much I admire C.S. Lewis, and this book in particular.
They are misgivings in two parts. One is entirely pragmatic, having to do with observations about the ebb and flow of religious engagement in politics. The other is more theological, based on the political implications of following Jesus, at least as I understand it.
American religious leaders have always had their political say and sway. How could it be otherwise for a country founded in large part by religious colonization? Think of the religious righteousness of Adams fulminating against the godlessness of Jefferson, and how that affected the way the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written. Or consider the religious foundations of the anti-slavery movement that were, oddly enough, opposed by arguments justifying slavery on biblical grounds.
In our time, the religious right, starting with the Moral Majority of the Reagan years, has been overtly Republican, and worked hard to oust moderates from GOP leadership. The old Moral Majority is no more, but its progeny have endured and succeeded in what they set out to do. Advertised as doing God’s work to restore traditional American family values, they claimed moral superiority over dying mainline churches and their anything goes ways.
Perhaps to their surprise, the mainline churches did not die. Their ways were never anything goes. They were always about following Jesus. And they redoubled their commitment to follow Jesus by opening more doors to more people from more conditions in life. It was not without prayerful, sometimes painful struggle, nor was it without recognition of human failure within their institutions. In the meantime, the religious right discovered the infection of unrighteousness in their own ranks. The burden of racism, sexism, and internal corruption has led some conservative traditions to reexamine their souls, and face their own declining membership.
The sad fallout for us all has been the often reported growth of so called ‘nones’, and parallel growth of disrespect for clergy and Christianity in general. One way out is for some, such as my friend, to return to an earlier practice of removing church from the corrupting realm of politics in order to save the faithful. Being more skeptical, I think it’s a well thought out tactic to quit the game while winning is waning. It’s hard to be morally righteous when your own movement has helped generate a Trumpian quagmire of corrupt autocracy. Trying to segregate church from politics is a rear guard tactic to avoid clergy accountability, while giving an encouraging wink and nod to church members to stay the political course, knowing the clergy won’t hold them accountable either.
God has quite a lot to say about politics in both the Hebrew scriptures and gospel records. Prophets were called to challenge idolatrous worship and to illuminate the political sins of the people. Right worship, the prophets warned, required right politics of justice and equity, not only in personal life, but even more in the life of the community and its government. Jesus defined ways of living with one another that can’t be met unless they’re extended to the community and its leaders.
You can’t thirst for righteousness without thirsting for it on behalf of everyone. You can’t be merciful without seeking mercy as a standard for the community. You can’t be a peacemaker without working for peace between enemies. You can’t be the light of the world in a shining city on the hill without building the city and all that’s within it. You can’t let your light shine before others so they see your good works and give glory to God without those good works making society better than it was. You can’t live into any of Christ’s ways as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount without engaging in the political process that governs the whole community.
There is nothing in scripture demanding that one be Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. But there is much in scripture that reveals God’s expectations for what a just society is to be. Doing what one can to influence public policy decisions to meet those expectations is what politics is all about, at least for Christians. The temptation we face is our desire to tell people what to believe and how to behave in properly righteous ways, enforcing them through the coercive power of government. It never works. Never. The harder, but more Christ like way, is to do what we can to create conditions under which others, especially the least of others, are able to succeed and prosper as best they can in a society as just and free as we are able to make it. Some of those conditions are very libertarian in character. Some are very socialist. Some are regulatory in favor of health, education, safety, and freedom. Some are more laissez-faire, trusting in a free market to do good as well as profit.
It gets messy. Not everyone involved in making public policy has noble intentions, but Christians are not excused from entering into the fray in order to stay ritually clean. Jesus compels them to enter bearing the light of Christ, fearlessly illuminating the issues under debate. Can we all be of one mind? Paul hoped so, but it didn’t happen in his time, nor has it ever. That also is no excuse. Prayerful deliberation will eventually come to a place more godly just than it used to be. We muddle through. That’s what we are – muddlers. So, Onward Christian Muddlers.