Religion and Politics Part 2 (Or How to Have Perspective When the Whole World Seems Crazy)

(Note: This is a reflection on American politics from the perspective of one Baptist pastor living in Nova Scotia, Canada. So take my thoughts however you like.)

So for several days I’ve been trying to process what recently happened in the US Capitol last week. In many ways, it seemed both unreal and unsurprising. On the one hand, it felt like the culmination of four years (but especially the last year) of political chaos and partisan in-fighting; on the other hand, who would have believed that a riotious mob would invade the Capitol Building, causing not only injury but the deaths of five people, in an attempt to protest and perhaps overthrow the results of a presidential election?

I began another, altogether different blog post in an attempt to work through my thoughts on the matter. While writing it, I ended up more frustrated, and feeling like I was both saying too much and not enough. Because the events of last week and the whole process of the 2020 US election leading up to it is profoundly complicated.

And now to see the Democrat Party moving towards impeaching President Trump once again, nine days before he leaves office, it’s clear that political partisanship and privilege are going to “trump” reason and humility. So much for moving forward in a manner that might bring healing to a hurting, crippled nation. All this will do is further incite those who remain angry and disenranchised with respect to government.

Enough is enough, isn’t it?

One of the most concerning aspects of the current turmoil overwhelming the American body politic is the alignment of much of so-called evangelicalism with the political right. For many Christians, there is no significant distinction between being a Bible-believing follower of Jesus and being a Republican. Indeed, given that roughly 80% of evangelicals reportedly supported the election of Trump both in 2016 and 2020, this alignment appears to have reached its nadir.

Without having to recap the long, complex history of US politics and religion, I feel compelled to make the following observation: American evangelical Christians have for too long put an unwarranted amount of hope in politics and political leaders.

We live in a climate where, apparently, every election is the election or the most important and consequential election in American history. Make the wrong choice, vote in the wrong president, and it could spell the end of the Republic. Certainly this is the impression we’re given by political pundits in the media.

Don’t buy what they’re selling. Not only because it’s likely wrong and is obviously a script drafted to procure ratings and profits, but because it’s extremely unhealthy for your soul.

This is what really concerns me in all this. If we as Christians get so drawn into politics that we find ourselves simply parroting the political rhetoric of our choice and demonizing those who don’t share it, we will end up dehumanizing ourselves and those with whom we disagree.

I’ve felt this pull. Over the last couple of years as I’ve followed and been frustrated by both Canadian and American politics, I’ve found it temptingly easy to reduce this or that politician to labels. Yes, it’s convenient to be able to summarize quickly someone with a word–“liberal,” “conservative,” “right-wing,” “conspiracy-theorist,” leftist radical,” etc.–but what does this do to us? Not only does it make us more dismissive of others, but it can also make us much less patient and compassionate towards other people. Including those who are different.

In my last post, I mentioned how politics is one of those taboo conversation subjects because it always ends up in arguments. I think this happens especially when we have found ourselves so invested in politics that it ends up, perhaps unconsciously or unintentionally, as our ultimate horizon of meaning. In other words, politics can become someone’s ultimate source of meaning. Only through the political process can we improve the human situation. Politics done rightly is the answer to life’s problems. Partisan politics emerges when, at the very least, there are competing views on how we should solve those problems through the political process. Varying political systems also reflect this: democratic, republican, tyrannical, autocratic, fascist, socialist, monarchist. All are political systems with profoundly different beliefs about how to deal with civic life and the problems we face as a human community.

That leads to the crux of the issue: when any given political system becomes–unconsciously or otherwise–our ultimate horizon of meaning, unrest, division, and turmoil are the likely result. Because no political system, no matter how well-executed and no matter how just, can ever serve as the solution to the human predicament. This is true whether we’re talking about racism, sexism, poverty, exploitation, crime and violence, environmental abuse, or anything else.

Given this, is it any wonder that we are where we are? Aren’t riots, protests, contested election results, and political polarization simple confirmation of what happens when politics becomes the only means by which we believe genuine human transformation–both individual and corporate–can occur?

Why? Because the very people trying to solve the human predicament through politics are themselves the source of the predicament. That means any system we try and set up to solve human problems will inevitably at some level be caught up in and participate in the predicament.

Put more simply, politics can’t save us. Political leaders can’t save us. The next election can’t save us. Loyalty to a particular party or cause can’t save us. The next piece of legislation can’t save us.

And even though most Christians understand this, I don’t think most Christians live this way, act this way, or even talk this way. Not when, as I said, up to 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump in two presidential elections.

Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s complicated. I understand why there are Christians who voted for Trump. I also get why many didn’t.

And I’m not saying we shouldn’t follow or engage in politics. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use the political process to effect positive change. Nor am I saying that we should ignore cries for justice and the need to stand up for truth and for what is right, to live by our convictions.

But like I said, my real concern as Christians engage in politics is that we do so with a sober and humble perspective not only on what we can achieve through this process but on what we think we should try and achieve. The political process is as flawed as the human beings engaging in it.

Let’s not put all of our apples in the political applecart.

We will be disappointed in our politicians. We will see policies we agree with and disagree with come to pass.

Let’s not so invest ourselves in the politics of our time that we end up angry, cynical, and insensitive. Like any other human endeavour, politics comes with profound limitations.

Unlike the Israelites, let’s not demand a human ruler in place of God.

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and went to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Therefore, appoint a king to judge us the same as all the other nations have.” When they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” Samuel considered their demand wrong, so he prayed to the Lord. But the Lord told him, “Listen to the people and everything they say to you. They have not rejected you; they have rejected me as their king. They are doing the same thing to you that they have done to me, since the day I brought them out of Egypt until this day, abandoning me and worshiping other gods. 

1 Samuel 8:4–8

And let’s not trade our eternal inheritance for immediate satisfaction or results like Esau.

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field exhausted. He said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, because I’m exhausted.” That is why he was also named Edom. Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” “Look,” said Esau, “I’m about to die, so what good is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to Jacob and sold his birthright to him. Then Jacob gave bread and lentil stew to Esau; he ate, drank, got up, and went away. So Esau despised his birthright.

Genesis 25:29–34

When human beings lose (forfeit?) the perspective of eternity and transcendence, and we’re left with only the here and now, it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that not only do we more earnestly invest in political answers to the human problem but that we also find ourselves profoundly discouraged and even dismayed when these answers fail us. Many people, it seems, will take to the streets with rage when that happens.

As a follower of Jesus, I have to remind myself, and conduct myself according to the fact, that I live within a much different horizon of meaning, one bracketed by the humble coming of Christ in the manger and the glorious return of Christ at the sound of the archangel’s trumpet blast. Such an ultimate horizon of meaning–based as it is on the kingdom of God–relativizes all earthly rulers and authorities. Bearing this in mind, even while engaging in politics in one way or another, is what not only will give us perspective as followers of Jesus but protect the well-being of our souls in the process.

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