Pastoral Reflections on a Political and Spiritual Crisis
What a mess. The surreal events of last week effectively ended the Presidency of Donald Trump, not just his legal challenge to the legitimacy of the election, but also to the very movement that could be called Trumpism. The image of the bare-chested, tattooed man wearing a Viking helmet bellowing from the dais of the United States Senate that President Trump had in fact been re-elected may well be the lasting image of the movement. Like so many other misplaced passions, this one rendered a man, presumably sane, into a raving madman. Idolatry will do that. Sadly, there are many people who believe it has rendered our movement, the evangelical church in America, similarly unrecognizable.
Baring a catastrophic occurrence, Joe Biden will be inaugurated next week as the 46th President of the United States. We will pray for him and for all the leaders who serve in the important role of governance. But what about our movement as followers of Jesus? What have we learned about the co-mingling of church and politics and what will the impact be on our reputation in the culture and our enduring mission?
I do not write to engage in more political speculation, analysis, or punditry. We’ve had enough of that. Nor, do I write to condemn those who may have supported or voted for President Trump. There are extremes in every movement and there are toxic ideologies on both sides of the political spectrum. Anyone can point fingers outward and engage in “what about-ism”. I don’t have to choose between Antifa or the Proud Boys. I don’t have to choose between socialism or waving a Confederate Flag. Jesus warned about the danger of both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, two warring factions of His day. We would do well to pay attention to the ditches on both sides of the road.
There are a great many people who chose to vote for President Trump for very good reasons. Faced with a binary choice between two imperfect options, there was an intelligent and balanced case to be made for those who supported the President. I reject those who unfairly generalize and condemn more than 70 million people who wanted him to continue as President. I do not condemn those who made that choice, but I am concerned.
My concern is pastoral. Inarguably white evangelicals overwhelmingly supported the President, both fueling his rise to power and enthusiastically wanting his administration to continue. There are defensible reasons for that position, but there are grave concerns about what unhealthy political passions in this recent season have revealed about the state of the church in America.
There has been an unhealthy and dangerous co-mingling of religion and politics. I believe religious people can and should be engaged in the political process. Religious motives are as good a motivation as any and better than most. But people must always understand the distinction between secular, political public policy pursuits, and their religious convictions. When you mix religion and politics together you get politics. Every single time!
Beware of idolatry, even religious idolatry…especially religious idolatry (is there any other kind?). Idols often do not appear to us as idols until we find ourselves bowing down before them and sacrificing our time, talent and treasure. They consume and never give. We then find ourselves protesting when someone challenges them or tries to take them away.
Our political allegiances can become idols when we invest persons and parties with powers they do not deserve. When we believe our candidates can do no wrong and our side is completely right and the other side is completely wrong, we may have fallen into idolatry. In this current divide, if you believe that your side is not part of the problem then YOU are part of the problem. I’m sorry if that stings, but if it does it proves the point.
When professing Christians begin to look to human political leaders to rescue them, to restore or create an imagined social utopia, or to usher in God’s Kingdom on earth, we have traded the real Messiah for a false one.
Sadly, I have heard many Christians speak of President Trump in terms that are highly inappropriate. Many have vested in him a calling, an anointing (a word that is often actually used), to somehow save us from secular forces that war against biblical truth. Many Christian leaders fawned over him in ways that should have made us queasy. We welcomed his support but overlooked his shortcomings. We became partisan connivers instead of biblical prophets. The bride of Christ is not meant to serve as a concubine for any partisan cause or political leader.
Engagement is one thing, but idolatry is another. If you cannot see the shortcomings, confront the sins, hear the truth, accept the limitations, acknowledge the losses, and instead get swept into the most emotional and extreme of movements, then your engagement may have become an idol in your life.
We don’t need Donald Trump to save us. I know one who is quite capable. Many have compared Trump to King Cyrus in the Old Testament. Cyrus was a pagan leader who rose to free the Jewish people and allow them to return to their homeland after a period of captivity. We don’t need a Cyrus. We need Jesus. Have you forgotten to place your trust in Him?
I know this will sound hard to some, but God never called us to Make America Great Again. I understand the sentiment behind the slogan, and it was a masterpiece of political messaging. However, America in its greatest moments has never been perfect. I would argue for America’s greatness and I would do so with a heart of gratitude and even pride. Yet, we must acknowledge that America’s greatness has been tempered by our sins and shortcomings. For our black brothers and sisters, hearkening back to America’s past does not carry the promise and pride that it does for others. We would do well to remember that. We should all hope that America could become greater in her future than she has ever been in her past. However, that is not the mission of the church.
Our mission is to speak of a King who said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” What part of that did we miss? Our mission is to proclaim the good news of the gospel and make disciples of every nation. God’s mission is so much bigger than America and so much greater than any temporary political movement. Sadly, many of America’s evangelicals have traded our birthright for a bowl of porridge. We have forsaken the power of the Holy Spirit in our thirst for political power and influence. We need good laws, but laws alone cannot change a person’s heart. Only the gospel can do that.
Even when the focus narrows from God’s global mission to a legitimate prayer for spiritual awakening and revival in America, the source of that awakening will not come from politics or political leaders. There is more eternal power in the church house than the White House and we dare not forget it.
This current crisis of mission is the product of a toxic mix. It is a product of bad discipleship, horrific theology, and corrupted mission. It is as if Jesus did in fact bow down before Satan because he promised Him the kingdoms of the world. Jesus resisted that temptation of course, but I am not sure we have followed suit.
In too many ways there are American Christians who have embarrassed themselves and their testimony (our testimony) maybe for a generation to come. That people who claim to follow Christ have embraced conspiracy theories like Q-Anon is to our shame. Some of the same people, who hear about other cults and conclude that they would never fall for such nonsense, are the same ones posting and sharing utter falsehoods about orphans trapped beneath cities who are being rescued by President Trump, liberals practicing cannibalism, and the mysterious Q. This is garbage! I thought we were supposed to be the people of truth. We have disgraced ourselves and we have been brought to this sad end by our political passions.
For those who went too far down this road, there is a simple way back. Just practice saying it, “I was wrong. I am sorry.” You aren’t the first to get caught up and carried away. You won’t be the last. But when you fall for a lie the best way out is to admit it and embrace the truth again.
I’m not asking you to change your political convictions. I haven’t changed mine. I am asking you to remember that our identity and our mission don’t come from politics. Put your Viking helmet away and put on a decent shirt and start loving your neighbors again.
This is a time when grace and kindness are needed, along with a heavy dose of truth and character. Join me in praying for our new President as we pray for our country. Let’s trust God with what we cannot control. Let’s get back to being the church. What if we were known more for our prayers than our politics, more for our compassion than our condemnations, more for our integrity than our irascibility? Do we really believe that faith as small as a mustard seed can move a mountain? Then let’s get back to planting seeds of faith, trusting in the living God, and following the path of the one who calls us out of darkness into His marvelous light.