A Discussion About Political Christianity Vs. Religious Christianity

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Addendum

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.

11 thoughts on “A Discussion About Political Christianity Vs. Religious Christianity

  1. 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:

    Weigh a paid-off porn star against being the first president to address the March for Life live via video feed, and a lot of evangelical leaders insist they can still walk away happy.

    Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

    What happened to turning the other cheek? I ask.

    “You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins says. “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”

    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?

  2. 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.

  3. This is a rather scathing (yet no less accurate in my opinion) op-ed by Michael Gershon. Here’s an excerpt:

    But Graham’s argument is as crudely political as it gets. Because Trump has delivered the goods on protecting Christians, evangelicals should give him the benefit of every doubt on moral matters, even when such doubts are absurdly transparent ploys.

    The level of cynicism here is startling. Some Christian leaders are surrendering the idea that character matters in public life in direct exchange for political benefits to Christians themselves. It is a political maneuver indistinguishable from those performed by business or union lobbyists every day. Only seedier. You scratch my back, I’ll wink at dehumanization and Stormy Daniels. The gag reflex is entirely gone.

    From a purely political perspective, the Trump evangelicals are out of their depth. When presented with the binary choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, I can understand a certain amount of anguish. But that is not a reason to become sycophants, cheerleaders and enablers.

    The whole thing is a worth a read.

  4. 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.

    Edit (2/22/2018)

    Another example, actually I want to say that I have trouble calling this a form of political Christianity, as “Christianity” seems wholly inappropriate:

  5. 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:

    WaPo: You said recently that conservatives and Christians should stop electing nice guys. Aren’t Christians supposed to be nice guys?

    Falwell Jr.: Of course, of course. But that’s where people get confused. I almost laugh out loud when I hear Democrats saying things like, “Jesus said suffer the little children to come unto me” and try to use that as the reason we should open up our borders.

    It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

    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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

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