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Elections and Idolatry: Part Two

10/31/12+ Share

Answering a Fundamental Objection

In part one, I expressed my increasing discomfort with voting in certain elections. I grounded this discomfort in my growing awareness of the nature of nationalism and its idolatrous pretentions. American nationalists are not content to view America as Scripture does—as one among many powers and principalities that God uses to keep a basic level of order within a defined geographic region. Recent debate rhetoric from President Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, provide ample evidence for this. Their bold language is not unique to debate rhetoric. They have spoken this way on multiple occasions. Nor are these men unique in mooching off of the specific status that God accords his people and his Son in Scripture. In his 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush claimed that “there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” This is an obvious allusion to the Christian hymn, “There is Power in the Blood,” which is speaking about the blood of Jesus.

In Scripture, there are many ways to commit idolatry. The most obvious is to worship a god different from the God we know in Jesus. Another way is to worship the Christian God the same way pagans worship their gods. A third way is to use the God of Scripture to serve one’s own purposes. To do so is to bring God down to our own level or attempt to manipulate him just like the Canaanites did with Baal and Asherah. If nationalism (in the strongest sense of the term) amounts to idolatry, and if the leading candidates for the presidency are self-identifying as nationalists, then why would Christians want to participate in nominating an idolater? Such was the logic of part one.

I can hear the objection now: these candidates are not talking about religious salvation or spiritual hope; they are merely talking about politics. They would never suggest that Christians forsake their faith in order to be good patriots. Yet this objection presumes the nationalist lie that Christian faith is concerned primarily with one’s spiritual life—that is, one’s beliefs about deity, afterlife, personal morality, and inner life transformation. Nationalists claim to care only about public matters like economics, education, judicial affairs, national defense, and international relations. John Locke, whose political and philosophical writings are often credited for many of the ideas contained within the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, sets forth this framework in his famous "Letter Concerning Toleration." Repeatedly he asserts that the church should focus only on people's souls and the nation should focus on the public life of the commonwealth.

The problem with this division between spiritual and public concerns is that biblical faith unites the two. What God has brought together, humans over the course of history have sought to separate. Ignorance of this history has led many people to misunderstand the nature and role of God’s people, the proper shape of their witness, and the specific ways they should and should not relate to the states in which they live. Another historical overview is therefore in order, beginning with Scripture, moving through church history, and culminating in contemporary nationalism. In essence, we will be zooming out and locating the phenomenon of nationalism within its wider historical framework. This task may seem overly academic to some, but it is necessary. American Christians all too often go back to the founding of America in order to establish their political bearings, when we must go back to God’s founding of Israel and the church.

A Chronicle of Unlawful Separation

In Scripture, God is forming a distinct people whose life together is ordered both by genuine spirituality and a vision of economics, education, justice, and security that stands in sharp contrast to that of world empires. Biblically speaking, Christian faith is an all-encompassing worldview that relegates the state to the margins of the forward movement of world history. What nationalism scholars have taught us is that nationalism, too, is an all-encompassing worldview—only it seeks to relegate faith to the margins of the forward movement of world history. Who gets to relegate whom? The one who relegates the other is the true religion.

For the church to accept relegation to the margins is to reverse the direction of world history as the Bible sees it. Before God called Abraham to form a people, the states and empires of the world integrated all aspects of human life under the corrupt umbrella of self-glorifying kings. Under their jurisdiction, a minority of the people enjoyed the majority of resources. The masses were forced to battle over what little was left behind. In the Old Testament, God’s people are called to be a separate and alternative political entity to that of surrounding empires. It was clear to the Israelites that the Egypts and Babylons of this world stood at cross purposes with God’s vision of human flourishing. It was also clear to them that God called them out of world empires so they could forge an alternative all-encompassing politics that reflects God’s vision. God did not do so in order to play favorites, but to properly position Israel to be a blessing to the world.

In the New Testament, God’s people continued to be a separate and alternative political entity. A noteworthy development, however, is that they are called to do so only as a trans-territorial entity. They were no longer centralized in Palestine. They were a nation without borders. This had to be in order for them to serve and represent God’s global reign. Jesus completed the formation of God’s people, toppled the walls that divided different ethnic groups, empowered them by his Spirit, and sent them into the world as aliens and strangers whose citizenship is in heaven. Jesus did so in order that the separate life to which he called his followers would be visible in every city, state, and empire of the world. Worldly forms of governance continued to be the foil to God’s people, and God’s people continued to see themselves as offering a superior all-encompassing politics. Leading Bible scholars from all over the theological spectrum have been gravitating toward this sort of interpretation for several decades now. If this is news to you, it is probably time to catch up.

Throughout history, various world rulers have observed and appreciated the strength of the biblical vision. They especially admired (and eventually coveted) the sacrificial commitment of God’s people to live and die for their faith. Beginning in the fourth century, the Roman Empire gradually donned the Christian mantle by overtly claiming to be Christian and by acclimating specific Christian practices to imperial life. The empire itself did not convert to Christian faith, which would have required it to adopt God’s economic, judicial, social, and spiritual vision. This never truly happened. Rather—and this is important—what pagan gods formerly did for the empire, the God of Scripture was now "privileged" to do. The emperor called upon God to grant him victory in battle, to legitimate his reign in the eyes of his subjects, to decorate his coinage, to offer transcendent hope when things look bleak, to furnish a system of sacred days and seasons to order the imperial calendar and channel the people’s religious fervor, and to supply a priestly caste that would officiate at important public and private ceremonies. Of course, the emperor would also have to tweak his empire in specific ways to maintain his image as God’s chosen king. Overtly pagan religious practices would have to stop. Pagan shrines would have to be replaced by Christian ones.  Certain laws that don’t detract from the emperor’s agenda or diminish his power would have to be adapted to fit the masses' newfound religious scruples.

Though sixteenth-century Radical Reformers rejected the church-empire merger with its domestication of Christian faith, the Magisterial Reformers repackaged it in different ways. Martin Luther sought to purify the church by separating religious practices from those of the state. Whereas this had the positive effect of purifying certain religious practices, it nonetheless perpetuated the notion that political, economic, and judicial affairs were concerns of statecraft and not church witness. Luther also encouraged Christians to remain active in state governance, albeit not utilizing the specific resources of Christian faith and Scripture, but drawing upon the generic resources of natural law. John Calvin’s approach was slightly different. He advocated a structure similar to Luther insofar as he acknowledged two kingdoms that are governed by two different sets of standards. However, Calvin distrusted natural law. So he encouraged Christians to govern the public sphere using the Old Testament and the private sphere using the New Testament.

The political experiments of the Magisterial Reformers would have been more interesting had the Old Testament or natural law been interpreted as saying something significantly different from what Roman emperors were inclined to think anyway. But they weren't. It all amounted to human reason, so the political fallout was the same. Governing officials continued ruling the world by human standards in God’s name, and the specifics of Christian faith were relegated to the private sphere. The radical political, economic, judicial, and social impact of the gospel was ignored. The people God commissioned to serve the nations by exemplifying his alternative politics chose, instead, to rule over the nations with principles much like their own. The Christian difference was reduced to theology, personal ethics, and ceremonial practices.

The rise of modern nation-states did not fundamentally change things. They continue to marginalize specifically Christian language and practices from the public sphere and they continue to govern economic, judicial, and social matters according to human reason. Realizing the divisive effects of “religion,” however, they are less inclined to allow overtly religious principles to dictate their political structures and policies. As John Locke puts it in his Letter Concerning Toleration, “The only business of the Church is the Salvation of Souls.” God gives humans collective wisdom to determine what is best for public life and he gives them religion to guide their private lives. This does not stop them, as noted above, from attributing religious significance to the collective identity of their nations. Nation-states may not be “religious” entities, but they came into being by God’s providential hand in order to carry out a specific divine calling that requires religious devotion on the part of their citizens. They may not be carrying out Israel or the church’s spiritual commission, but their existence and mission are equally God’s work. As such, they are just as comfortable as the Roman Emperors calling upon God to grant them victory in battle, decorate their coinage, offer transcendent hope, provide a channel for religious fervor, and supply a priestly caste for public and private ceremonies.

How Could Christians Let This Happen?

This survey clarifies how the western world got to the point when a nation may exercise messianic sovereignty over the public sphere while granting Jesus jurisdiction over people’s private lives. Yet, as noted above, this is a far cry from the biblical vision. Scripture is quite clear that Jesus is Lord over every aspect of the lives of all people everywhere. It is also clear that he has called his followers to bear witness to his comprehensive reign by the comprehensive witness of their life together. Nonetheless, many God-fearing Christians have bought into the nationalist lie that nation-states may receive religious accolades and devotion in public matters as long as they give Jesus full reign over people’s private lives. They do not do so, it is important to note, because they wish to intentionally dabble in idolatry. Nor do they do so because Scripture recommends it. They do so because they have inherited from well-intending Christian teachers a faulty mindset that is rooted in the fourth-century merger of church and state. The public dimensions of biblical faith have been domesticated for so long that it seems natural to the most faithful Christian to believe, contrary to Scripture, that God has always willed it to be this way.

Compounding this problem is that several brilliant noteworthy theologians have also been duped and have supported their faulty view with creative exegetical and logical arguments. How could this happen? A definitive answer cannot be given. Different explanations are appropriate to different persons. It is worth acknowledging, however, that when it comes to social issues, it has been difficult for Christians to imagine that things should be any different than they are. After all, with clean consciences, their most faithful forebears have always believed and acted as such. One need only point to the substandard treatment of women and slaves by God-fearing Christians in America—with the full support of leading theologians. Such treatment goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. How could that be? There are a variety of explanations that space does not allow me to pursue right now, but who can deny it? Sometimes the most humble people and God-fearing and insightful theologians simply miss the mark on an issue that seems rather simple in retrospect.

Toward a Solution

I have taken the time to sketch this history because how we got to where we are has everything to do with how we should move forward. Many have recognized that the church is an inherently political institution. Yet there are many paths forward from this recognition. Some seek to retrieve the church’s political nature by tracing our steps back to the modern separation of church and state. They are fond of highlighting that those who advocated separation nonetheless allowed their faith to heavily influence their politics. Such was the case because many who advocated the separation were Christians, and they did so in the interest of spiritual or ecclesial reformation. The separation therefore had a Christian feel. It was difficult to imagine not moving forward in a Christian sort of way. Yet when that same separation is later inherited and enforced by unbelievers, the outcome is quite different. A similar thing happened with the Reformation. Luther could advocate that the state be guided by natural law and be quite pleased with the results because most state functionaries would be Christians and their convictions about what is natural were deeply informed by Christians faith. But later, as nonbelievers begin occupying state posts, what appears to be natural doesn’t seem so Christian anymore.

This has placed Christians who desire to express their faith publicly in an awkward position. They must attempt to reverse a trajectory that their forebears set into motion without realizing how it would eventually backfire. They are right to emphasize how Christian many of America’s forefathers were, but they are wrong to insist that they didn’t mean what they said when they advocated a separation of church and state. They actually created the most “secular” nation imaginable at the time. They just couldn’t imagine that a separate state would ever begin reasoning in ways that were not deeply Christian. It seems to some as if there are only three ways forward: to reverse this separation, to inundate wider society with Christian convictions until they begin to seem natural again, or to strategically infiltrate the upper echelons of public decision-making and to legislate Christian convictions back into public practice. All three of these options seem highly unlikely, although the third may have occasional success in places where Christians still enjoy a comfortable majority.

These approaches are highly problematic, however, because they strive to exercise public influence in ways that are alien to the biblical story. The problematic turning point—away from the biblical vision—is not the modern separation of church and state or the Reformation separation of church and empire. The problematic turning point, although it had earlier roots, is when God’s people decided in the fourth century that their holistic witness to God’s all-encompassing reign could be grafted into the provincial reign of any state. The way forward is therefore not to recover a power that the church may have gained temporarily when it found a way to ally with the empires and states of this world, but to recover a sense of what it meant to have an all-encompassing witness before the Roman Empire began courting the church. Of course, we cannot exactly stuff the cat back in the bag either. There is no retreating to a pristine pre-Christian world; there is only imagining what an unyoked holistic witness might look like in a post-Christian world.

This prospect need not be frightening. Paul’s teaching on marriage to the Christians in Corinth is instructive. Paul is quite clear, in 1 Corinthians 7, that not marrying has advantages for service to the Lord. Those who are married are concerned with everyday family affairs that need not monopolize the time, energy, and resources of God’s people. Moreover, if one must marry, one may only marry a believer. Elsewise, those everyday affairs may become a deterrent, since one’s unbelieving spouse will not want to order family life according to God’s kingdom. Still, Paul acknowledges that, in their ignorance, people may have found themselves married to an unbeliever, whom they would never have married had they known they would soon commit to the Lord. In such cases, Paul encourages believers to hang in the marriage in order to be a witness as long as they can. Once released by the unbelieving spouse, however, they are free to move forward in single-minded devotion to the Lord. They should not insist upon staying together since God has called them to a peaceful witness (vs. 15).

The church should never have wed itself to the state—yet it did. If there were ever a time when it was appropriate for the church to remain in this marriage for the sake of witness, that time is clearly over. The state in the western world has effectively divorced the church. Now that God’s people are free and still in the relatively good graces of their former mate, the church is in an ideal position to explore what unhindered devotion to its all-encompassing worldview might look like. America has placed few restrictions on the church’s life together. We should not waste that freedom trying to engineer our way back into the illicit alliance. We should use our freedom to explore what God has been calling to us be and do since the beginning. Should the church refuse to let go, should we beg and nag the state to take us back, we might find the state escalating its efforts to send us away. This could lead to bitter blood and greater restrictions on the church’s freedom to be itself.

Furthermore, if the state wants to be the state without the help of the church, then part of the church’s witness is to exhort state representatives to stop co-opting the church’s language to serve state purposes. If the church cannot have it both ways, then neither can the state. As the church renews its identity as God’s set apart chosen people, it must therefore remind the state that it no longer possesses grounds for making this same claim. The hope of the earth is Jesus Christ and his body is the church, not the state. This is good news for the state and its citizens. For it disabuses them of the notion that they will ever find salvation by staring down the edge of the sword, the barrel of a gun, or the face of a ballot.

[Part three addresses more positively what kind of posture Christians should assume in this world if not to help Caesar rule it]

http://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=342

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