This is my second post on theology and politics. You can read the first one here.
I got several complaints about my politics survey. The second most common complaint was that I only used a 4 point Likert scale instead of a 5 point scale. This was very much on purpose because neutral answers are for cowards. Stop whining and pick a side, people!
The most common complaint that I heard was that I hadn’t taken the time to carefully define what I meant by “politics.” This was also purposeful. I wanted people to struggle through what politics means without me directing you to think in a particular way.
I suppose that to many people “political” is another word for “partisan.” It is understandable, if this is our definition, why so many would be repelled by politics since partisanship has us discovering the uncomfortable answer to the question, “Hey, what if we decided to govern the world’s lone political superpower according to the principles of reality television?” But politics is not the same thing as partisanship. Partisanship is quite often the shape of our politics, but it is not the same as politics.
It didn’t really surprise me that when I asked the question whether Christianity is political the answers were all over the place. (1 = strongly disagree, 4 = strongly agree)
Young people answered slightly higher than older people on this question and progressives answered slightly higher than conservatives, but generally, the responses didn’t have much of a pattern.
If we are confused about whether or not Christianity is political, we seem to be more certain that Jesus was political. (Just how Jesus was political, I suppose is up for debate.)
There was not serious disagreement between ages or political orientation on this question either. So the people who completed my survey seem to believe that Jesus was political, but strangely, this doesn’t mean that we should then be political.
What is interesting about this last question – and I’m not sure what to make of it – is that “independents” were much more inclined to answer a 3 or a 4 on this question than any other group. Perhaps that tells us a little about how independents are defining “politics.”
If Jesus is Lord, it would make sense then to reject the notion that the Church and the State are two separate spheres of God’s activity. (Interestingly progressives were much more likely to agree with this statement than other groups.)
Related to this, we are quite sure that God is still at work within the nations.It would make sense if Jesus is Lord over all and that God still works in the political realm (which is what this question is getting at), then we would also want to involve ourselves in the political realm.
My next post will be about a Christian’s role in politics, but there seems to be much agreement that Christians may certainly be political even if we aren’t entirely sure if Christianity is political.
So, back to the original question. Is our religion political? Have you ever noticed that no one really asks the inverse of this question: Is politics religious? Politics, broadly defined is about governing people. Politics is about social order. Religion, broadly defined is about pursuing a meaning-full life through certain habits, communities, and beliefs. So politics is about social order. Religion is about meaning. But it is not very difficult to see how a great many people look to politics in order to find meaning – and the State is only too happy to offer some version of meaning for its citizens. The fact is that politics can’t help but be religious. As one writer put it, “The public square is a battleground of gods.” Religion, similarly is never content to remain in the private realm (to the constant complaint of devout secularists). People who believe in Things also tend to think that those Things should matter for society as a whole. All people (yes, even you atheists) ardently believe in a vision of the “good life” which we may rightly call a religious belief. And such people – not only Christians – who have adopted a particular vision of the good life aren’t likely to remain silent about what will lead to the good life of their nation. They will vote their vision. Just as politics can’t help but become religious, religion cannot help but become political. I don’t mean to say that religion and politics are the same – because they are clearly not. But they will significantly overlap – sometimes conflicting and other times complementing.
So I think we can safely say that a religion that declares “Jesus is Lord” is, to some degree or another, political. Now, Christianity is not merely political. But politics is definitely one of the things that Christianity is about. We announce a Lord and a kingdom. This is not the private, neutered language of spirituality. This is the bold language of politics. How can one announce that Jesus is Lord, and then mute him when it comes to the governance of people?
Jesus is not silent about politics, but Jesus is no politician despite those who every election choose to “vote for Jesus” at the polls. It’s a nice sentiment I suppose. But it is about as worthless as most sentiments. I get what the earnest Christian is trying to say. “Because Jesus is Lord, I will not cast my vote for any mere man or woman.” Fine. But imagine if we applied that logic to all of life and not just the Presidency. Imagine explaining to the electric company that you were sure that Jesus was supposed to take care of the bill this month. Imagine a board of trustees refusing to hire a CEO because “there is no CEO higher than Jesus.” Imagine telling a judge – as some do – that “only Jesus is fit to judge me.” The Lordship of Jesus is not a license for passive aggressive Jesus juking. The Lordship of Jesus is a call for serious engagement in the serious and mundane issues facing our schools, neighborhoods, towns, states, and nations. It also bears mentioning that you don’t vote for Lord. All authority has been given to him. There was no popular or even electoral college vote. This is why associating Jesus with party politics is idolatrous and disastrous. Jesus reigns over politicians and parties. Jesus makes a mockery of our tribal partisan politics. Christians should participate in politics if for no other reason than to keep politicians and parties in their place.
Finally, the Lordship of Jesus also means that dual citizenship is a possibility. We are citizens of the inaugurated kingdom even as we wait for its final consummation. But because we believe in a Lord who has been given all authority in heaven and earth, we cannot accept an ethic of abandonment or isolation from the world and its problems. Being a citizen of heaven is no license to be a bad citizen of our nation. In fact, it is the exact opposite. As citizens of the “now but not yet kingdom” we enact that kingdom in our everyday lives – in our relationships, our schools, our work, and even our politics.
What do you think? Let me know.