I received a message from a friend in the ministry the other day indicating that he was stepping back from things, because he was noticing that politics was becoming an idol in his life. The claim at first struck me as odd, but as I thought about it, it started to make sense. I started to think that we live in an age where we have made politics an idol. Idols have a way of separating people from each other; turning mere disagreements into winner-take-all battle royale.
We live in an age where politics are no longer just a thing, we do, but a way of life, something we are willing to give our all to, something we are willing to die for. Few of us will admit it, but we have made politics a god.
Maybe what’s more disturbing is that this sort of politics has slowly crept in our churches and other ways of life. There are pastors that are not shy about expressing their views. People of the cloth become shills for prevailing ideologies. In the wake of Trump, we all know how many evangelical leaders fell in line all to make sure their interests are noticed by the President. What we don’t see as much is how progressive Christians have also succumbed to the gods of this age.
I don’t think anyone intends to make politics their idol. Even the conservatives who have sacrificed their faith to Trump didn’t do it because they loved politics more than God. But the idol of politics has a way of seeping into our lives and starts to be the thing that gives us moral meaning and purpose. It’s not long before the idol takes the place of God with us not even aware this took place.
Writing in late 2017, columnist David Brooks writes about the dangers of idolotrous politics and how to put it back in its proper place:
As Andy Crouch points out in his book “Playing God,” idolatry is seductive because in the first phase it seems to work. The first sip of that martini tastes great. At first a new smartphone seems to give you power and control. The status you get from a new burst of success seems really sensational. But then idols fail. What seemed to offer you more control begins to control you.
As Crouch puts it: “All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price. All idols then fail, more and more consistently, to deliver on their original promises, while ratcheting up their demands. … In the end they fail completely, even as they make categorical demands. In the memorable phrase of the psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover, idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing.”
Politics these days makes categorical demands on people. It demands that they remain in a state of febrile excitement caused by this or that scandal or hatred of the moment. But it doesn’t actually transform life or even fill the hole left by the lack of other attachments.
If politics is going to get better we need better myths, unifying ones that are built on social equality. But we also need to put politics in its place. The excessive dependence on politics has to be displaced by the expulsive power of more important dependencies, whether family, friendship, neighborhood, community, faith or basic life creed.
I think one of the biggest problems in our society today is that politics is front and center in too many people in our lives. The wider culture has walls set up to block those who aren’t like us politically. But the divisions of culture should stop at the doors of the church.
But we don’t. Our churches are split the same way, there are red churches that voted for Trump and blue churches that voted for Hilary.
In some cases, churches are providing places of belonging, but it isn’t grounded in God as much as it is in politics. Liberals find community in liberal churches, conservatives find community in conservative churches.
Upon hearing a National Public Radio report on evangelical pastors getting engaged in conservative politics, Canadian theologian John Stackhouse wrote why pastors should avoid politics. He’s not saying that pastors be apolitical, but he is talking about the place we clergy give politics. Here are a few of the reasons he gives ( Tommy Douglas was a Canadian politician and is consider the founder of the country’s single-payer health care system):
7. Because the Scriptures (your main area of intellectual expertise—right?) are, at best, only suggestive and regulative over the field of politics (a quite different area of intellectual expertise—right? See #10 again).
6. Because you’ll alienate a considerable part of your constituency who see political matters differently, and will hold that difference against you, thus losing the benefits of your pastoral care and authority.
5. Because you need to consider the troubling fact that you’re not alienating a considerable part of your constituency, so why is your church so uniform in its politics?
4. Because governments come and go, and you need to reserve the sacred right to prophesy to whoever is in power.
3. Because politicians come and go, and you need to reserve the sacred right to comfort whoever is not, or no longer, in power.
2. Because politics brings out the worst in people, and you’re supposed to bring out the best in people.
1. Because politics brings out the worst in people, and unless you’re an exception (like Tommy Douglas), politics will bring out the worst in you.
Here’s the thing. If you are a pastor you preach about a guy named Jesus who lived among us and died on a cross. It’s a cross that levels things, because it doesn’t matter who you voted for; the cross shows how far God would go to show love to all of us. We gather around the communion table, again a place where all Christians are welcome to attend.
Justice is important. I’ve marched against police brutality against black men, because my politics is informed by my faith. But my faith isn’t limited to those who agree with me. My politics will place me on the streets, the grace shown by God on the cross, makes me reach beyond boundaries to befriend that Trump voter, it should allow a conservative to reach to their Planned Parenthood loving neighbor down the street.
In 1 Samuel 8, the Israelites complain to Samuel that they wanted to a king. Up until then, Israel was ruled by judges, who would come during certain crises to lead the nation. The people looked at other nations and wanted to follow what they did. God spoke to Samuel and told him that this wasn’t about him as much as it was about him. God is the one being rejected, not Samuel. God then tells them to be careful what they ask for: a king will take and take and when they have nothing to give, the king will still take:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Politics can take and take. Right now, there are pastors on both sides of the political divide that are making politics their god, and the thing is that god will require everything from you, even when you have nothing left to give.
At the end of the day, we have to learn how to engage in politics with a Christian mind-set. It is a politics that puts God first freeing us to love each other even when we are passionate on the issues. We need to learn to show Christ-like love on social media, where it is too easy to act like little devils.
I think the church has to learn how to be a community grounded in the cross in a world that is riven by ideology. We have to find ways to talk about politics in churches that fosters people to think about the issues before them instead of having their ideological views affirmed in churches. Pastors especially, have to find ways to model a ministry that isn’t based on ideology, but based in Christ. We have to model ways where we can create communities of people who have different views and can learn that their views on immigration or the deficit aren’t ultimate, but it is learning to put God first.
We need to do this not just to show a different way of being in the world, but to guard ourselves from watering down Christian theology. The polarized church is always tempted to reduce Jesus to a moral and ethical figure to fit our ideology. As Michael Sean Winters notes, maybe we need to focus on more on how we love Jesus instead falling for the sirens heresy:
the Church is not beholden to an ideology because it does not worship an idea, we worship a person. For those who dismiss dogmatic theology as “medieval hair-splitting,” the proverbial “counting angels on the head of a pin,” I would remind them that the great early Councils, not any medieval Councils, rejected the various heretical understandings of who Jesus is and that the consequences of those rejections remain important, even vital. There may not be any genuine Gnostics around any more, but there remains a gnostic sensibility in certain varieties of spirituality. There may not be any Arians around any more, but there remains the tendency to reduce Jesus to a great ethical teacher and not as the son of God. There may not be any Pelagians around any more, but there remains a pelagian tendency to think if we follow Jesus’ teachings we can earn our way to heaven. There may not be any Jansenists – oops, there are plenty of Jansenists around. My point is that these heretical tendencies are ideological invitations and they are perennial in the life of the Church. We all have our Pelagian or Gnostic moments. The antidote to those moments is the person of Jesus Christ. In Him, all was created, contra the Gnostics. In Him, we discern the Son of God, contra the Arians. In Him, we are saved, contra the Pelagians. Instead of hurling epithets at one another, perhaps we need to create the space for people to answer the question, “Tell me how much you love Jesus” and then see where those conversations lead.
I don’t know if we can learn to talk to each other calmly about issues. But it might be time for some of us pastors to step out and try to reach out to each other, with evangelicals reaching out to mainline Protestants and so on. Because in this divided time, there needs to be a witness to unity and love.