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.