Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Corrupting Influence of Christian Politics

The Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and co-author of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, takes on the manipulation of Christian symbols and theology for the sake of getting votes and consolidating power in a column entitled "Christian politics create unholy alliances." He writes:

Politicians continue to use and abuse the language and symbols of Christian faith in order to win political support. They speak of God, Jesus, Christian faith and Christian values. They bow their heads in prayer at a million chicken dinners. Then Christian voters — perhaps flattered, perhaps reassured — think that these evocations of holy Christian symbols and terms actually mean something.

In playing the God card, politicians often deploy religion as a kind of tribal identification. ... Some conservative Christians are tempted to look for the candidate who is (or appears to be) most clearly a member of their religious-political tribe — rather than focusing on the candidate's résumé, skills, foreign policy proposals or more full domestic agenda. These voters check off the Christian box and look no further, just as some liberals check off a candidate's "pro-choice" or "pro-union" box and do the same. ...

It's not just the politicians' fault. If church leaders and rank-and-file Christians were not susceptible to these appeals, they would not work. Head fakes in the direction of Christian symbols still make many Christians swoon. Religious tribalism gets out the votes. It helps that the promise of access to power still intoxicates. ...

This version of Christian politics is inherently corrupting to Christian faith, ethics and witness. It encourages politicians to take God's name in vain, and to do so routinely. (That would be a violation of the Ten Commandments, if Christians still cared about such things.) It tempts church leaders to abuse their offices and abandon their core vocations as they entangle themselves with politics. It confuses the message of Christianity with that of the politician of the moment. It damages the moral witness of Christians in culture. It makes it harder for millions to even consider the claims of historic Christian faith. It drives many away from God altogether.

This kind of Christian politics is also corrupting of American politics. When a significant minority of the body politic votes mainly on the basis of what amounts to religious tribalism, it encourages everyone else to do the same thing. But tribal politics is toxic. It has destroyed nations from Yugoslavia to Lebanon. And it does nothing to bring to office leaders with the skills to actually solve our everyday problems. We need effective leaders, not religious symbols.

Gushee continues by issuing a challenge:

Precisely as a Christian, I call for my fellow Christians to try an experiment. For lack of a better term, let's normalize, even secularize, our approach to the next election. Ask all candidates to drop the God talk. Recognize and reject all forms of religious pandering. Punish candidates who make base appeals to religious tribalism. Evaluate candidates according to their past performance and current policy proposals related to the major challenges facing our nation. Read the Declaration of Independence and Constitution for a refresher. Pastors, stay home and preach the Gospel rather than being precinct captains. If you want to engage in relevant political reflection, wrestle in your sermons with how constitutional democracy and broad Christian moral principles relate to each other.

Christian politics is corrupting both Christians and politics. Our nation is in too much trouble to endure another round of this sorry spectacle.

Let's do better.

Amen, Dr. Gushee!

Read it all.


Bryan Owen said...

An example of what Dr. Gushee is talking about happened just yesterday in my neck of the woods. See this article entitled "Personhood's Mississippi Moment of Truth," noting especially the reported comments of Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant.

Andrei said...

I'm not sure I totally agree with this.

When it come to photo opportunities in churches and campaigning from the pulpit - absolutely.

But a candidate whose views are formed in the Christian Faith should indeed say so and try to act accordingly.

Rabid secularizaton is just an excuse to reform society into a Godless, amoral cesspool and when we loose sight of God in what we do the outcome is not good and sometimes outright evil.

Recent history shows this fairly clearly I think

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Andrei. Thanks for your comments.

I don't think that Gushee is saying that political candidates who are Christians should not allow their policy views to be shaped by their faith. I say that not solely on the basis of this one article, but also having read the book he co-authored with Glen Stassen entitled Kingdom Ethics. I note, for example, this passage from that book:

"At our best, Christians vote, lobby, campaign, meet with political leaders and become such leaders themselves as a natural outflow of our pastoral concern for the social good under the sovereignty of the God who loves all persons. We are alerted to brokenness, need and injustice through ministry with people or awareness of their needs, and care for such persons then moves us, in part, toward politics. Meanwhile, we are also animated by the rich eschatological vision of the Scripture as we imagine the inbreaking of the holistic shalom that God intends - the city on a hill in which God's way is lived out. Thus we are both pushed into politics through hands-on ministry and pulled into politics through our intoxication with the biblical vision of the kingdom."

Instead of abandoning one's faith, I think Gushee is saying that politicians need to stop abusing the language and symbolism of the Christian faith to manipulate people's feelings in the effort to consolidate power and control, while perhaps demonizing opponents as Satanic in the process (note the link in my previous comment to the recent remarks of Mississippi's Lt. Gov.). That strikes me as more about the Will to Power than genuine discipleship.