In this thread, I want to share my thoughts on how I understand the type of data below about evangelical Christians. (From NPR, 10/23/2016::
In 2011, 30 percent of white evangelicals said that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Now (2016), 72 percent say so — a far bigger swing than other religious groups the poll studied.
To understand what’s going on here, I think breaking Christianity into two forms –political and spiritual–is the most useful way to explain this. (Cultural versus religious could also work as well.) Political or cultural Christianity involves cultural norms and political policy derived or largely influenced by Christianity. My sense is that secular sources can also intermingle and inform these cultural norms and values. Think of something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” As far as I know this idea stems more from secular American sources than Christian ones. In this mode, the objective is to shape politics, culture or society.
Spiritual or religious Christianity primarily involves spiritual matters–e.g., one’s relationship with God, proselytizing non-believers, obedience to God. Pushing for political policy or changing the cultural is generally a secondary concern. In this mode, religious principles and beliefs are not pushed aside to achieve political objectives.
Now let me say a few things about both:
- There isn’t a hard demarcation between the two modes. An individual or group of Christians can move between one or the other, and clearly delineating the two isn’t very easy. However, I think identifying two distinct modes is useful to understanding the type of phenomenon that I mentioned initially. How can Christians criticize and oppose Bill Clinton, on moral grounds, while embracing and voting for Donald Trump? My answer: Politics and culture motivate them more than religion. By the way, in my view, I view Christians that criticize and oppose both as operating in a more spiritual mode than a political one.
- What I’m saying doesn’t only apply to conservative Christians. Progressive Christians can also behave and act for political/cultural reasons, rather than religious ones. A Progressive Christian might support and vote for Clinton, because they don’t expect politicians to be moral in the way that. In my view, this is putting aside religious principles for political ones.
- Off the top of my head, I’d say that a Christian (or any religious practitioner) isn’t wrong for operating in a more political mode–at least when engaged in political activity (like voting). What’s problematic is when people perceive and attribute this mode to Christianity (or any other religion). By the way, I believe this unfortunate misunderstanding occurs often with Muslim, especially those who commit acts of terrorism and violence, often invoking Islam when doing so. In my view, these individuals are generally operating out of political, cultural, social, and even historical factors more than religious ones. Basically, I believe almost political acts stem from a variety of factors, some of which can be, but are not always, religious. it is highly problematic to attribute a political action (e.g. voting, terrorism, etc.) to a specific religion primarily because a religious practitioner was behind that act. This is true even if the individual explicitly claims that his/her religion is the primary reason for that act. Believers can have the wrong understanding of their religion. They are not always able to separate the various influences upon themselves, too.
- I think there are instances when the political and religious merge into one–where political activity stems from religious beliefs, when the two are in harmony. I tend to think these instances are rare, but that is more of a guess.
- How do we know when the two merge in an harmonious fashion? How can we know when a Christian is behaving in one mode versus the other? I haven’t thought about this much (and hopefully I will do that later), but I want to make a related point about that. I’m not very interested in using these two categories as a way to judge Christians (or any person of faith)–determining whether their actions are primarily religious or secular in order to condemn or embrace these individuals. To me, the value in the categories.
There’s a crucial detail that I left out, relating to the difference between political and spiritual Christianity. In my view, the big impetus behind the former involves shaping culture and society in a way that will make the believer feel more comfortable. In my opinion, this is alien, maybe even antithetical to a more spiritual manifestation of Christianity. Christians may seek to change their culture and society, but not so that they are more comfortable. Rather, I tend to believe that a more spiritual motivation behind changing society and cultural would involve obedience and love to God and love for thy neighbor.
Now, I’m not sure about all of this, and I don’t make to make a definitive, blanket statement. God can use Christians in ways that I don’t understand–and some of those ways may fit what I’m designating as more political and cultural actions. I think that’s possible, and I’m not in the position to definitively rule that out.
16 thoughts on “A Discussion About Political Christianity Vs. Religious Christianity”
This Politico article provides a good opportunity to show the way the dichotomy I propose can help make sense of some of the positions and statements made by Christians. Take this statement:
Does this reaction seem to come out of biblical teaching or commitment to scripture? I have a hard time seeing that, and, again, I’m not saying this to judge the indivdiual. I speak and behave in ways that are not consistent with the biblical teaching. At the same time, I hope that when this occurs I can recognize that my words and actions are not products of my faith and relationship with God; or if it is, that speakly very badly of both.
In my view, the reactions above shouldn’t be seen as expressions of Christianity or faith, but political and cultural expressions. Evangelicals feel tired of being pushed around and they support someone punching back for them–that’s a very human response, as opposed to something Christ-like, at least it is to me. And, again, my biggest problem isn’t that response itself, but that these responses are seen as Christian.
Or am I wrong? Can these responses be seen as Christian?
If Trump wasn’t a changed man, would that matter to Graham? Will Graham turn against Trump if the latter has an affair while in office? I tend to think not, which, again, I don’t think is necessarily bad, unless the politician violates standards you claim are important.
To me, though, the sense I get is Graham’s support is partisan or factional. He feels Trump is a member and champion of his cultural group.
This is a rather scathing (yet no less accurate in my opinion) op-ed by Michael Gershon. Here’s an excerpt:
The whole thing is a worth a read.
This review of The Faith of Donald J. Trump by David Brody and Scott Lamb is a pretty good example of what I’m getting at. The review, from The Weekly Standard, written by Erik Erickson made me think of Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis (except not as well-written). Both books touch upon an ugly, darkly comic, P.T. Barnum aspect of American Christianity.
Another example, actually I want to say that I have trouble calling this a form of political Christianity, as “Christianity” seems wholly inappropriate:
The following interview with Jerry Falwell Jr seems like a good example of political Christianity.
On the other hand, a part of me thinks that Falwell Jr. is actually moving away from political Christianity in this interview. I say this because in my view political Christianity involves taking positions in the name of Christianity when the positions are actually based on one’s political ideology, and other factors like culture, history, and social forces. In the interview Falwell seems to be explicitly separating his religious views from his Christian ones–something that I sympathize with because it’s the approach I use. Some examples of this:
I don’t think I’d exclude the principle of loving thy neighbor to the degree that Falwell Jr. seems to above, but I don’t see anything wrong or un-Christian about viewing political leaders and their jobs in a very different way from religious leaders.
Having said this, if Falwell Jr. and other Christians truly believe in this approach, they can’t condemn politicians they don’t like because those politicians aren’t behaving like good Christians. Character and morals can’t matter only when a Christian disagrees with a politician’s policies and political ideology. I do have doubts that Falwell Jr. genuinely sees a separation of his faith and his politics. That is, I wonder if he’s taking this position to allow him to support Trump. For example, did he oppose Clinton because of character issues?
However, if he genuinely believes creating separation between his political positions his Christianity is acceptable and even a good thing, I tend to view this positively. I have more trouble with Christians taking political positions, claiming a Christian basis, when non-Christian factors are more significant.
I’ve been wanting to engage in this conversation because I have rather strong feelings about the heart of the issue, but man is it confusing to me.
Can you talk about what, specifically, is confusing for you?
No, I think that would only make you angry, so maybe I’ll just wade in and as we discuss it things will make themselves clearer.
I wonder if this commentary, labeling Falwell a “theologian of glory” as opposed to a “theologian of the cross” adds a dimension to your topic here.
Yes, I think it does. Thanks for the link. I don’t know if I agree with all the points. Specifically , that truth telling is the main thing that distinguishes theology of glory (TOG) from a theology of the cross (TOC). But I’m not familiar with either term, and that may be the definitions of both. Her definition of TOG is very close to use of worldliness, which is contrasted with a more spiritual approach.
I can’t remember if I wrote about this before, but a spiritual endeavor is characterized by a lack of ego and pride; it is more self-effacing, self-abnegating, even, and humble. There is little ambition for power and control. Instead submissiveness and meekness are present. Fallwell’s approach to politics has this worldly quality to it, in my view.
And again, I actually wouldn’t mind this if he made this clear–that his Christianity wasn’t the primary basis for his politics. Maybe he believes it is, though.
By the way, I believe this kind of approach can be applied to Christianity and any religion, not just politics.
Thread from Beth Moore that I thought was relevant to this topic:
Moore’s “Christian nationalism” would fall within political Christianity, as I defined it above. And I would reiterate that political Christianity is not necessarily a bad thing, although in this case, I think “Christian nationalism” is a bad thing, incompatible with the core American values. But this position of mine is a political one, not a Christian or spiritual one.
A political act is about a desire for worldly power. When it relates to culture, it’s an attempt to seize power to influence and shape culture. When Christians do this in the name of Christianity, the actions likely have the veneer of Christianity.
A spiritual/religious act is the opposite of seeking worldly power. Spiritual acts are about renouncing power–power over one’s self and the world; it involves submitting one’s sense to higher power. Humility is close to the heart of such acts, while pride is close to the heart of actions that attempt to control and influence the world. A Christian act suggests God is in control. A political act is one where the individual, including a Christian, attempts to seize control.
But I’m digressing. Trumpism is beyond the normal seeking of political power–it’s seeking power by putting a cultish faith in one person, treating him like a worldly savior, an idol. The person also happens to be a demagogue, con man, and an authoritarian–three reasons by themselves I would think Christian leaders should warn their followers and speak out against Trump.
This post uses terms–“Christian Evangelicalism” and “Religious Nationalism”–seem to track closely to my sense of spiritual/religious Christianity vs. political Christianity.
Thread from someone named Thom Lambert, a guy who claims to have worked with Josh Hawley. (I’ll comment later.)
This opinion piece seems relevant to some of this conversation.
Finally, read this. Thanks, Mitchell.
For a few years, I’ve clung stubbornly to a church insider’s (I can’t think of a better term for now, but I mean someone in the culture of regular churchgoing who pays attention to broader conversation about church by others in the culture) definition of “evangelical,” the way I have to its definition of “fundamentalism.”
Which is to say a category of Protestant, non-charismatic churches. I don’t remember where I picked this up, but I’m confident this is what we used to mean when we spoke of evangelicals as a category of churchgoers.
Meanwhile, Reid has much more open-mindedly been on a different definition, one much more literal about the word itself. Evangelical to mean a church whose mission is outreach, specifically for conversion. Preaching the Gospel and all that.
This article really helps me get that in the context of national, political conversation, there is now clear definition of evangelicals as a category. You can’t base it on preaching the gospel; nor can you point to a whole denomination and define it that way. Within just the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, there are churches who fall into the evangelical category as we now talk about it, and there are those who don’t.
The concept of a nation blessed by God, or built by God, or something like that, seems to be critical to today’s definition. I don’t know if we can equate Christian nationalism with evangelicalism, but there’s certainly a lot of overlap.
In my Sunday school class several years ago, a class I think we called “young career,” but mostly meant singles approaching middle age, we used to take turns teaching the class. In one of the classes I led (Gregg was there and so were a few others we know), I asked everyone how they honestly felt about separating church and state. I can’t remember what I offered as choices, but the majority of people in that class said they preferred a nation with freedom of religion, but one with Christian laws led by a Christian president and Christian Congresspeople. I suppressed my disappointment (or at least I think I did), but I say all this to suggest that these are the evangelicals: people in favor of freedom to practice whatever religion you want as long as the laws of this country are based on Christian tenets.
Which I find interesting, because if I felt at any time the leadership of this particular Windward Oahu church was leading us in that direction, I’d have bailed pretty much as soon as I was sure of it. So I don’t think you’d call that an evangelical church, the way it’s being defined today, but there were a lot of evangelical Christians in it.
Anyway. It’s all quite disturbing. When Christians in this country are in the minority, and we are definitely moving in that direction, I pray to God (literally) we are not treated by the government the way we’ve been treating people of other faiths.
For what it’s worth, this is mostly my definition, based on the word “evangelism.” But my sense is that this is actually not a proper definition–i.e., one that is commonly accepted.
This seems right, on the one hand. On the other hand, because of the absence of a term used to distinguish evangelical Southern Baptists from non-evangelical Southern Baptists, my sense is that the latter is included in the evangelical category.
We’ve discussed this before, and I think my position hasn’t changed–namely, my main problem is not Christians wanting to elect Christians, but Christian politicians trying to legislate solely on their religious beliefs. I do not mind one’s religious beliefs factoring in on one’s legislative positions, but they shouldn’t be the only or primary basis for one’s positions. Instead, the primary basis should be on principles and reasoning that have a broader more universal appeal, not ones that are exclusively derived from a religion.
The other issue I have now–which seems to be more prominent now then pre-Trump–is the idea that Christians are more valuable or legitimate Americans than non-Christians. To me, this is a big part of Christian nationalism, and I’m totally against this idea.