Well, it’s finally happened.
We have often run the risk of allowing Christian faith to be co-opted into a civil religion of one brand or another, a mere prop for a larger nationalistic project of building a certain vision of “America.” Within civil religion, theology doesn’t matter a great deal because it is only a means to an end. When there is another end other than the kingdom, doctrine serves the purpose of serving “the greater good” of a particular nation-state rather than being an end to itself. The most notorious contemporary examples of this in American culture, at least at one time, were mainline Protestants. There have many times where mainline Protestant bodies have lost their prophetic edge and become a polite, comfortable place for bourgeois religion that fails to either threaten or inspire anyone in particular.
But in recent years, evangelicals have moved towards civil religion at a breathtaking pace. We have accepted the categories given us by the world, that we are broken down into two categories: conservatives and liberals. We are given a narrative in which these labels supersede any particulars of Christian faith as to how we understand who the people of God are in the world.
In recent days, I have watched with interest the fallout of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney speaking at Liberty University’s commencement, which comes on the heels of mini-coronation ceremonies from other evangelical leaders. To be clear, I don’t condemn Liberty for having Romney speak at their commencement. They have had big name “liberals” speak in the past as well. I am responding to the larger sentiment/reaction coming from the ground of “he is really just like us.” One of our most famous megachurch pastors explained in an interview why he thought Mitt Romney, a mormon, really is a Christian. One of the leading Christian evangelists in the world came just short of doing the same, while calling President Obama’s faith into question. It’s an interesting development, since evangelicals and Mormons have had historic enmity with each other, with evangelicals adamantly insisting that Mormonism is a cult, a perversion of orthodox Christian theology.
I have no problem with the fact that many Christians find Mitt Romney a more suitable candidate than President Obama, or feel like he better represents their values. I also understand why many Christians would find President Obama to be more suitable than Mitt Romney, depending on what issues they are most passionate about. To say Jesus is Lord is a political claim that has real life implications for all of our decisions, including the ones we make in the voting booth. So whether Christians choose to vote or not vote and who they choose to vote for, their faith should inform that as it does all of their decisions. But I am not passionate enough about anything in our fractured, reductionistic two-party system to get riled up one way or the other about which party or candidate to get behind. At this point in my life, the project of bringing the kingdom of God into the world in our local cities and communities is too urgent and too different than the concerns of our political process for me to be too entrenched in any of this.
But we’ve been moving in a direction for some time now, where the political platforms given to us are more determinative than theology for people of faith. I saw it four years ago, when a prominent “Christian voting guide” included not only the traditional evangelical concerns of abortion rights and gay marriage as a litmus test in telling us which candidates took the appropriate stands on the issues–but also made it clear that real “Christian” candidates were in favor of tougher immigration laws (?). Or the many times in recent years where I’ve heard evangelical leaders make it very clear that the “conservative” approach to business and economy was the good one, where as “liberal” approaches to economic policies were evil.
It’s no surprise then that evangelical leaders are now going a step further than simply saying a candidate is the lesser of two evils, or this candidate better represents these particular concerns–to now signaling that regardless of theology, this candidate is “one of us.” Because we know “us” (the Church”) from the world by where they fall on our conservative-liberal continuum. We don’t care what anybody believes about the trinity, because we don’t believe what a person believes about the trinity makes a difference in real life. More potently, we don’t believe the trinity can change the world. Who cares whether or not a person partakes of the eucharist, because the body and blood of Jesus is of course trite in comparison to our political platforms–that is where the power is.
We don’t care about theology anymore because we are no longer concerned about being Christians in any particular sort of way. Jesus is unable to save the world, thus the best hope we have now is to embrace across theological lines in service of the true god of conservative civil religion. The stakes are too high to be concerned about doctrine when there are far more pressing matters at hand.
If I sound wound up about this, I’m actually not. And I certainly don’t want people who have signed up for conservative civil religion to sign up for a more liberal civil religion, because neither will bring you to the kingdom of God and thus neither will change the world. I am quite thankful for this new development, because the more we degenerate into civil religion, the more authentic Christianity can stand apart from all of the parodies. I actually think it’s a gift.
This is not an angry editorial written with clenched teeth. No, this is much friendlier. I was just in the neighborhood and wanted to roll down the window and tenderly say, “You do realize you people are making up a new religion, right?”
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