Co-opting Christ

The role of religion in American politics is nothing new, nor is its history confined to one party.

Clergy have played active roles in numerous political movements of the “left,” perhaps most famously in the Civil Rights movement championed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And, there have been no shortage of outlets for conservative Christians, especially since the rise of the Moral Majority under the Rev. Jerry Falwell in the 70s.

Liberal or conservative, politicians of all stripes have long turned to faith to inform policy. Religion has a long tradition of flowing into politics.

This is all well and good. It is important for leaders — of any faith, or no faith — to have and rely on a foundation of principles. And, for people of faith, that finds expression in religion. But, the danger all along (which the Founders foresaw) is that the tide would turn, and politics would begin to define faith, instead of the other way around.

As Christians, we find ourselves now in that sad and dangerous place, where ideology has begun to supplant theology in the church.

Scores of prominent Christian clergy profess ideology from the pulpit, making political statements and advancing party over Gospel.

This has given us politically-motivated and theologically untenable statements like “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un,” by megachurch pastor and presidential adviser Robert Jeffress, or Franklin Graham’s claim that “progressive” is just another word for “atheist.”

If Democrats had been plying clergy with money and power (instead of snubbing them) for the last 50 years, we’d probably hear equally egregious and unChristian statements from left-leaning pulpits.

But, this isn’t about one party or another. It’s not about being liberal or conservative. It’s not about any particular denomination. It is about the corrupting influence of power, and the negative outcomes when religion climbs into bed with politics and its many unclean mistresses.

A group of Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Protestant clergy pushed back against those influences last week with a statement titled “Reclaiming Jesus: A confession of faith in a time of crisis.”

The statement, by 23 faith leaders and seminary heads, seeks to “reclaim Jesus” from forces they believe are co-opting Christ for political gain.

“We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches,” they wrote. “We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.”

The statement draws a distinction between faith’s role in inspiring and guiding social and political action, and government’s limited role in guiding the civil sphere.

“The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ,” the signers wrote. “The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13).”

In a six-point outline the signers decried social developments they see as antithetical to Christian theology, including the resurgence of white nationalism and racism; misogyny and sexual assault; policies that would “debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God;” a “pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life;” and “any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule.”

The sixth point affirmed the Great Commission “to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18)” and denounced “America first” as a “theological heresy for followers of Christ.”

Progressive Christians quickly embraced the “Reclaiming Jesus” statement as a counter to the “religious right,” and Reuters used it as a springboard for an article titled “‘Religious left’ emerging as U.S. political force in Trump era.”

For anyone displeased with the current landscape of American politics, this is tempting — to repackage the corrupting influence of ideology and wield the Gospel as a political weapon.

But, tempting as this may be, it utterly misses the point of “Reclaiming Jesus,” and of the Gospel.

The point isn’t to co-opt Christ in another direction. The point is to remind ourselves that the Gospel transcends politics, party and ideology.

We don’t need a “Christian left” any more than we need a “Christian right.” What we need is a Christianity devoted to the Gospel above any ideology, bearing allegiance to Christ before any worldly leader.

Faith, if left uncorrupted, elevates human endeavors. It is here to lift us up. It is not here to be dragged down into the filthy trenches of partisan politics — not on the left, any more than on the right.

One thought on “Co-opting Christ

  1. I remember sitting in a meeting at church where we were supposed to be discussing adult faith formation programs. Instead, two individuals took over the discussion to promote their own agenda (one wanting to focus on social teachings of the Church and the other on teachings of strict morality. Neither seemed particularly interested in “faith” but rather in their theological leaning–and both were equally unattractive. I imagine Jesus sighs deeply with disappointment at how fearful and egotistical we can be.

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