This is the first post of a short series that sums up what I’ve been thinking about regarding politics for some time, but for which this present election cycle provided a flame plenty hot enough to boil it down. These posts to come are primarily directed at the church, but I hope they can at least be seen as reasonable, maybe even helpful, to someone who wouldn’t associate with a church. What do I mean by ‘the church’? Basically, this.
Politics has gotten downright scary. This is puzzling and sad because the American Republic has so often been a model for debate, compromise, and bloodless transition of governance in an otherwise bloodthirsty world. Anyone measuring the state of the Republic lately, though, would have to admit their confidence in continued social stability is waning. This over-heated culture in which people are clamoring, suing, and spewing venom in order to win out their ideals is a pretty crisp illustration of why yearning for power is a bad look for anyone who claims to care about people as beings, not people as instruments. This goes double for the church who have exhaustive reasons—theological and historical—to look sidelong at power. Yet there go so-called Faith Leaders riding the coattails of whomever concocts the best pander and commercials. After watching so many people go cheaply and headlong after power, and this is on the so-called left and right, I have come to believe that representative democracy was a clever little snare for the heart of the American church.
Give us a king!
Certainly, the allure of power has always been a danger for God’s people stretching all the way back to the garden and continuing unimpeded up to this very moment. Power lures with an offer of autonomy. More power equals more doing what pleases you, so the promise reads. This appetite to live unimpeded is deeply human and therefore subject to the same depredations and corruption as anything else human. Autonomy is the Fruit of fruits so pleasing to the eye, and when we do not personally have the power and autonomy we want, we say ‘Give us a king!’ and live out our power dreams by vicarious means. This has been the case basically forever, but American democracy has presented us with something new, or at least took something old and magnified it in new ways. That new thing is the vote.
Christians, taking Jesus as their template, have always been called to long and steady faithfulness to God’s Kingdom that endures deepening difference with power, even to the point of exile or death. That is the exact pattern of Jesus’ life, and so it is the exact pattern of what the Kingdom of God looks like in this world: final rejection. In the days of emperors and kings, the culture within which Christianity arose, this was easy to accept. Power acted as it would and it was unchangeable, unreachable even, by ordinary people. That the Gospel came into the world under these of all circumstances gives a strong indication that it’s fundamentally about loving your neighbor, not influencing your government.
Then along comes representative democracy (albeit a bit later) and the levers to influence the government are apparently lowered within reach of ordinary people. Suddenly there’s this new idea of the church being faithful to its mission, not to the point of ultimate difference with this world, but to the point of ultimate success in controlling this world. A spirit of ‘effectiveness’ spread across the church, it looks to me, like a black fog.
Seeking brief and momentary comfort by cozying up to power has long been the enemy of the church’s credibility as a prophetic voice in human history. The love of Jesus tends to result in a rapture of the heart and mind out of the fulfillment narratives of its native culture—be those narratives of sexual fulfillment, identity politics, or even ascetic ethical codes—and brings our affections to rest on things above. I’m saying, following Jesus will lead to standing out more and more as our citizenship in a new Kingdom takes root because we buy into the logic and promises of this world less and less. Standing apart is awkward at best, and at worst very painful if not lethal. It’s a predicament to be caught between two kingdoms. The conflict between solutions, between assimilation and differentiation, will always stalk the church, so the church should always be alert to it.
With the power of a vote, American Christians find ourselves with the cudgel of law in our lap with its whispers of a third way out our predicament: power and influence. We don’t have to assimilate. We don’t have to stand out. We can win. Would that our love for the restraint Jesus showed might give this development its rightfully squirmy feeling. He did stay on the cross despite invitations to wriggle free, after all. But, we are too human. Legislative clout is an enticing tool by which Christians could hammer out a society into which we could blend seamlessly and painlessly, but also without apparent compromise. That this tool can only be used to hammer the people that comprise a society is conveniently overlooked. The opportunity of a vote raises serious questions, the chief of which is this: is the Law the best means to seek the good around us? Embedded in this question is another question: is the church meant to stand apart by seeking good or to resisting evil? Both questions are important.
I think that the answer to the second question about the mission of the church is obvious. It’s an inextricable situation. You can’t seek good without resisting evil and you can’t resist evil without seeking good. It is good and important work to do both, and like all good work, it is worth spending enough thought to do it well even at the expense of doing it quickly. Is the law of the land the best tool for seeking good and resisting evil?
One argument that I have heard in favor of Christians leaning on the government to enact laws that reflect Biblical morality draws from Romans 13. Here, Paul writes that government is a sub-authority to which God has given the power of bearing the sword to restrain evil. This argument puts a great deal of weight on American Christians to stack the government with the right politicians who will build the right sword to restrain the right evil. That’s a lot of pressure to place on a conscience, and so I can see why this argument is so compelling. What kind of Christian would you be, after all, if you didn’t grab for every scrap of power and use it to bend the world to your will? The weakness I see in the argument, though, is that it’s too linear. It presumes that a vote leads directly to a policy and, in turn, that policy only enacts its intended consequences. So, I would complicate the Romans 13 with two ideas.
First, if you believe the Bible is true, then you have to believe that Romans 13 is true no matter what. Whether the government consists entirely of sage, orthodox theologians or hedonistic Dionysians, it still bears the sword and restrains evil. Romans 13 won’t stop being true if Americans vote wrongly, for one thing because it was true long before most people on Earth had anything even resembling a vote.
See, when we look at what evil we suffer, we forget that we can never know what evil is simultaneously being restrained. We can’t see it because it was restrained and never came about. I would point to 150 years of disagreement and power transfer without war in the streets as a sign that some evil has been restrained in our country (that’s not to say there hasn’t been blood in the streets and plenty of other places, but we have been spared all-out civil war for some time). My point here is that what evil the government restrains might not actually rely on how we vote. It’s not all waiting on us.
The second complication is that we have to vote for people who want power. We never pick the best person for the job of governing, we pick from the pool of people who want the power to govern. Knowing what the church claims about the human heart and knowing even the broad strokes of human history, this calls the whole idea of Christians influencing governing power for good with any certainty into sharp question. I find it too difficult to believe that I can vote the best person into a position of power because the best people I know are highly wary of big power.
Our government itself, by its system of checks and balances, admits that power dangles a lure to corruption in front of any one person. And, despite these checks and balances, there is plenty of abused power to be found in various pockets of the government precisely because you cannot check and balance a broken human heart. The link between vote and policy is a byzantine maze of influence games, pork, and ambition. Human frailty is far too big a variable for me to put any faith in my vote. I still vote, though.
I believe that a cause/effect reading of Romans 13 is emblematic of the temptation for American Christians to pursue their ultimate hope—a Kingdom come—by means of lesser hopes, namely politicians and power plays. We have been lured to over-invest in politics. We thought that government was lying inert like some great marionette waiting for Christians to take up the strings rather than seeing governing power as something very much alive, and at work pursuing an agenda of its own for which it might just have a use for American Christians. We have been rope-a-doped.
I fear that the American church has taken on a role like that of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. With our vote, we think we have the strength and the devices to make a play on the throne of Power. We took our shot because we’re tired of bowing when it says bow. In Milton’s poem, Satan had that same weariness when God declared the angelic host would not only bow to him, but bow to his Son as well. Satan stirred up a revolution, and they had a good go of it for a couple of days. But, when the Son of God got off his throne and into his war chariot, it was a total rout. On that celestial battlefield, there were two powers at play and they did not mix. Brought head to head, they repelled and a whole cascade of angels fell into a hell made just for them.
I think the church can take a lesson from this. The throne of power in this world is not a hill to be taken in God’s name. In entering such a fight, the church would have to exchange the very nature of what power it does have—the subtle and mysterious power of the Spirit—for some attempt to mimic the kind of brute, blunt power that currently lords over our world in endless cycle. The church’s so-called losses in the culture war point to a great repelling resulting from such an exchange, and our influence is in exile, banished in a rout just when it seemed the Moral Majority was winning.
Doubling down on that same quixotic tilt, prominent mouthpieces of the Religious Right have displayed a stunning adherence to bald-faced power even as it has lately been offered in the form of a rather grotesque figure. Not that the political right is the only place certain church leaders have gone headlong after power. I’ve seen plenty of folks on the political left back some alarming ideas an icons in order to stay vassal at the heel of their chosen powers that be.
Something ought to cry out plainly. Power always makes a tool of the church in the end, using ecclesial endorsement to legitimize its own ends. This distorts the church’s distinctive character, making pawns of prophets. The church can never turn the tables by force. Nor should it, for in any attempt to do so, the church swaps out the means of an eternal Kingdom—faithfulness, perseverance, love—in favor of a the means of our present kingdom—deceit, invective, war. Why give up hope for what we wait for in favor of hope in what inevitably dies around us? It’s a bad trade.
Please, allow me to introduce myself…
The notion that democracy is a trap begs the question: who is the trapper? This is where I might just go off the rails for some of you, but I feel like it has to be said. I actually believe that the trapper is the Devil himself. You can’t believe in the supernatural, but only in the nice ones. Now, I don’t think that the Devil had some sovereign hand in the drafting of the Constitution. I believe that our Republic was formed by well-intentioned people trying (and succeeding) to do some good. What I do believe is that the Devil is clever and saw the pitfalls scattered throughout even a good endeavor and set to whispering here and there, sowing corruption.
As the surest sign that this is true, I see people in the American church feverishly worried about this election, just like everyone else. And I see those people acting out of fear, which probably explains why they’re acting so out of Christian character. Dwelling on the bad news of politics, at least in public, almost at the expense of anything resembling good news. A Christian, by my estimation, should act almost bulletproof, a level of confidence that must be at the root of anyone who can repay good for evil. Where is our belief that our struggles are brief and momentary? Where is our offer of drink for thirsty souls? Where did this apocalyptic fear come from? Surely it came from propping up wooden saviors on the stump to speechify and villify our opponents, promising to make America great again if we just believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths, “I’m with her.”
So, I have to walk back the sensationalist claim that democracy itself is a trap and just say that our American democracy is riddled with traps and one of the cleverest is the idea that we can use our vote to wield the sword of government against evil. I won’t read Romans 13 as a call to cast the right ballot for the purpose of disenfranchising errant ideology. Instead, I’ll read it as comfort that no matter how the ballots tally, evil is in check, even in spite of noxious ideologies. Even, perhaps, in spite of our votes.
I find a great deal of freedom in this. I am not shackled to whatever major party panders most to my fears or my arrogances (of which there are many). I don’t feel like I have to make compromises in order to win other battles. I feel safely on the right side of history before anyone even launches a campaign, to say nothing of election day, because my sacred text tells me that evil is restrained and a bigger game than politics is always afoot.
Coming up: If, then, representative government does not put the levers of influence within reach of the church, what does our representative government do? How can we approach this bedeviled democracy without getting snared?
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 Some of this may be due to past sins coming back to reap a payment. It’s an imperfect republic built on the backs of brutalized slaves and given to a dangerous admiration for ambition on the brink of greed and possessed of insatiable appetites that have lead to all kinds of trouble. It’s an imperfect republic that, though it at least manages to hold back domestic war and genocide, is certainly ready and willing for any war abroad. That’s a lot of darkness to try to restrain.
 It’s worth thinking about the time and place of the Incarnation. At the very least, it shows that every technology and every social change that has happened since year 0 is absolutely unessential for the church. This is something that I often see forgotten or ignored as the church seeks to engage the people of the 21st century. Perhaps these are thoughts for another day.
 Another truobling line of thought here is that, if this is true, even Nazi Germany might have been credited with restraining some evil. It’s truly fearsome to imagine what evil might have been restrained when you consider the evil they let loose. And this raises an important point. Government, Power, can cause as much evil or even more than it might restrain. Might even unleash one evil in the name of restraining another. We should consider that carefully when we think about using our vote to empower a government to bear the sword.
 I mean, there are still parental advisory warnings on CDs, even doled out song by song in digital stores.