Competing Christian visions of America

I have been writing in this blog space for over seven years, and a very small number of people have faithfully and lovingly followed much of what I’ve said over that time.  I write for many reasons, but primarily it’s one of the few ways you can really get to know someone short of having an intimate personal relationship with them, and it’s through knowing other people and learning from their experiences and thoughts that we expand our own understanding of what it is to be human.  Hopefully, that leads us to grow and become more loving and better people over time.

We all at least in part view life and other people differently, even if we share core values, because each of us is a unique individual and interprets events in ways that are distinct to us: I am the only person that has all of my experiences and all of my varying beliefs, so the way I see and feel something is going to have a flavor that only I bring to it.  That’s part of the beauty of being human and getting to know people, that despite the many things we do have in common, each of us has intricacies that are found in no one else.

It’s over the course of many years and living through many situations that we change and grow, and to fully appreciate why someone thinks the way they do, you have to have tracked with them through all of it.  That’s one reason why reading just a small portion of things someone has written gives any of us a woefully incomplete picture of all that that person is intending to communicate: I can’t within the space of a few hundred or thousand words take you within my heart and mind to grasp the fullness of why I see things the way I do.  And, of course, even if you shared day-to-day life with me, your picture still would not be perfect, for ultimately there remains a gulf between all of us because no one can live within another – we just do our best to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

I try really hard to empathize with everyone from all walks of life.  As a Christian, I think it’s part of my vocation, because to understand Christ is to know his deep love for every person and to do my best to live that out.  In my best moments, that has been the largest underlying motivation throughout the majority of my life and has been the single most important personal belief that has guided the direction of all others.  To love someone truly is to seek to understand them, and in understanding them, learn how to put on their glasses, so to speak, and see the world through their eyes, even if I don’t agree with the accuracy of their vision.

My experience has shown me that as my empathy for another person grows, so does the tenderness of my heart regarding their personal beliefs, even their beliefs that I strongly disagree with.  Because while I may react strongly and viscerally to an idea in a vacuum, when I learn why a specific person holds onto an idea, I begin to understand why he or she is motivated to do so, and by doing that, I can see how within the same set of circumstances I, too, would believe the same thing.  And within that process, not only does my love grow for that person, but the hard edges to my own beliefs lose some of the pride and hubris they inherently carried as part of the defense mechanisms each of us builds up as walls when we’ve been hurt.  That is necessary if we’re ever going to grow and become better people, because otherwise we’re never going to be able to come to a place where we can emotionally understand how we might be wrong.

I’ve felt misunderstood most of my life.  Maybe it’s in part due to the deeply emotional and traumatic bouts of panic I had as a small child that didn’t make sense to anyone but me as I desperately but impotently struggled to convey exactly what I was thinking and feeling in the hopes that someone would be able to help me.  Maybe it’s in part because my emotions run more intensely than a lot of people, so I’ve very rarely found anyone who I thought could relate to the ways I feel.  Maybe it’s also in part the depression I’ve wrestled with for as long as I can remember, which makes me more perceptive to the existential distance that is inevitably present between each of us, with the exception of God, who nonetheless often feels distant for other reasons.  Regardless, this feeling has been a blessing in some ways, I think perhaps most importantly in that it has helped me be more strongly attuned to empathizing with people than I otherwise would be – the desire to feel understood has helped me also want to understand others.  Maybe that puts me in a position where I’m able to speak in ways that can in some small part help bridge the misunderstandings and confusions that exist between incredibly different people, something that might be helpful in this increasingly polarized world.

But the things I’m writing here in this one post will be limited in their impact according to the level of familiarity and intimacy you have both with my writing overall and with me as a person: I can’t retrace all the related background steps I’ve laid out over the years (though I can link you to some of them), and the impact of my words in many ways will be proportional to how much space you allow me to have in your heart and mind, which is also related to how much you choose to trust me.  If you’ve never met me, asking you to trust me is a tall order, but that’s also another reason I write so much – that by sharing myself in writing, you do get to know me and see part of my heart, and hopefully you choose to trust my intentions, even if you don’t always (or ever) agree with me.  And in the end, putting my words down for you to read is an act of faith on my part that you’ll allow me some small space within the confines of your thoughts and not trample them callously, but do your best to treat them with a similar kind of care and consideration as I did while choosing to write them.

As much joy as I take in feeling like I understand where very different kinds of people are coming from, I confess that I have been saddened by the mighty struggle I’ve had in one area that shames me because I feel like it’s one that ought to be a personal place of strength: political theory.  Political theory is thinking about how people ought to go about organizing the way they live with each other and other groups of people.  If you know me at all, you know I analyze the snot out of everything – I love to think, about all sorts of things.  Philosophy and theology are favorite fields of mine, and political theory was the saving grace to me changing my major in college to political science – I could stomach the thing if I focused on treating the whole enterprise as my efforts to think about how to help other people live the best lives they can.

A person’s politics also reflects what they philosophically believe about life and ties in directly with their views on religion – it’s all connected.  Trying to see how all of it ties together is usually something I enjoy.  But my own journey in life has brought me to a place where I’ve been unable to make sense of the way I see God and Christianity with some specific ways other good Christians I know and love are evidently seeing the same things.  Of all the things that could conceivably be the catalyst in the crucible of the intersection of my faith and politics, I never would have guessed even five years ago that it would be epitomized in the person of Donald Trump.  And yet, here we are.

As is obvious to anyone who is paying attention, American Christians – along with Americans in general – are profoundly polarized when it comes to the current president.  I wrote about him during the 2016 election process a couple times (linked here and here) and also after the election was over (linked here).  Though I strongly disagree, I understand why many voted for him then, but I confess I have until recently been unable to wrap my head around those who continue to support him after all the mistakes, inflammatory remarks, hurtful policy, and complete lack of leadership in times of crisis.  I think, however, in traveling back in my mind and heart to the understanding of Christianity I once had as a teenager and into my early 20s that I’m starting to catch a glimpse at what had previously eluded me.  It shows how there is, broadly speaking, two very different ways for good Christians to understand how we should view the role of nations within a Christian paradigm.  And in taking this thought journey, it becomes clear that the Christian view that champions Donald Trump is in fact itself what is most dangerous and damaging.

My background consists of being raised in a small town in north Florida in a loving family and within a quite good, medium-sized evangelical-leaning Methodist church.  The kind of Christian theology I was raised in would be considered more conservative on a spectrum, but it wasn’t fundamentalist.  I’ve remained an orthodox Christian to this day, a believer in the teachings of the Church that have been passed down from the earliest times.  I love the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches and am attracted to their traditions.  I don’t really have a “brand” of Christianity I identify with, anymore, because I don’t consider myself a Protestant or an evangelical, though my beliefs are still heavily informed by both of those subsets of Christianity.  But, I do think of myself in some ways as a Wesleyan, because I have a soft spot in my heart for John Wesley and his motivations during his life, as well as a fondness for the good aspects of my childhood faith and the many wonderful people who loved me.

One way in which there’s been a tweak in how I approach Christianity has been the relationship I have with scripture.  As an orthodox believer, the Bible is incredibly important to me and is one of the foundations for the things I believe to be true about God.  I accept and trust the teachings of scripture to guide me in life.  What is presented in various ways within Protestantism and evangelicalism, though, is a connection to scripture that I now think is off just a teeny, tiny bit, but enough that it can make some huge differences in one’s outlook.  One of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation, of course, was “sola scriptura,” a Latin phrase which represents a theological tenet that believes that the Bible alone is the sole infallible source of authority and doctrine for a Christian.

Now, as a Methodist, technically I was never raised within a context of sola scriptura, since Methodists – in a similar way to Anglicans – believe that scripture is still primary for a Christian, but is interpreted and understood through other means of authority, such as Church tradition and reason (to this Anglican Triad, Methodists add a fourth leg of authority, experience, in what’s called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral).  But, I’m thankful the church I belonged to growing up leaned more conservative and evangelical theologically, because it instilled in me a love, respect and devotion for scripture that can be missing in what is stereotypically considered theologically liberal churches.  So I definitely leaned much closer to a sola scriptura mindset than otherwise.

But I was always troubled that even those Christians who claimed to believe only in the Bible often drastically disagreed on how to interpret the Bible.  So while it may sound nice and simple to say “I believe in the Bible only,” it’s not as if what is written in the Bible just implants itself the same in every human brain.  We all interpret things differently and, while the Methodist and Anglican mode for the Christian life included appeals to reason and experience, I also realized that those are incredibly confusing because people think differently and have very broad types of experiences.  So, I explored part of the depths of tradition looking for some reliable source of Christian authority.

And, of course, there are lots of kinds of Christian traditions, but as I learned more about the broader history of all the movements and types of Christianity, I began to appreciate the shared core Tradition that Catholic, Orthodox, and orthodox Protestants all cling to and that scripture itself points to.  Christ leaves his authority, according to scripture, with his Church, and the content of scripture – the different letters and writings that comprise the Bible – was put together by the Church, and, yes, the Church also has a whole lot to say about how one is supposed to understand what scripture teaches.  I started to realize that, well, I’ll be, it all points to the same thing, what as a Methodist I’d heard was just one lens to read scripture through but is actually the only way to interpret scripture and not be led down some path that’s a product of my own biases – by being guided by the same Tradition that put scripture together to begin with.

That’s important in order to have a right context for approaching what’s written in the Bible and for understanding ultimately where my loyalties lie.  Number one loyalty is always with Christ himself and the Triune God he’s a member of, but second is to Christ’s Church that he identifies as his own Body and that he empowered to prevail against the gates of Hell.  Scripture represents the written-down portion of the large story of what it is God is about and that he has left for his Church to be.  It’s God, his Church, and that broad story that are crucially important, and scripture finds its meaning as a part of those things.

That being the case, a lot of the existential weight some Protestants place on the Bible that it was never meant to carry is lifted away.  The Bible makes no claims for itself to be absolutely perfect and inerrant, meaning that there are zero factual (scientific, geographic, astronomical, and so on) errors in it, but some Protestants have staked their faith to that belief, and it’s in fact that belief itself that is in error.  The Bible’s teachings and story are authoritative, but I’m in no way compelled to believe that (for example) Adam and Eve absolutely, positively were historically real people or my whole faith is a sham.  The Church teaches that Jesus and his resurrection had to be historically real, but I don’t have to hinge the legitimacy of the Bible on every single iota of its content.

This is relevant because I think the two ways Christians can view the role of nations and governments are heavily influenced by the means with which they choose to approach scripture.  When the words of scripture are treated as the be-all, end-all to my faith in a completely literal sense, every single word in the Bible is treated as personal and directly analogous to every contemporary event in my life.  And in one sense, yes, scripture is certainly personal and analogous in a lot of ways to our life – but it doesn’t absolutely have to be.  What do I mean by that?

Specifically, many Christians who have learned to look at the Bible with a lens of interpretation colored by sola scriptura / inerrancy identify every reference in the Old Testament to the nation and people of Israel as necessarily applying to the country they live in.  They view every statement about nations in general as paralleling directly with our current situation.  To illustrate, here are several examples from scripture:

  • “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen for his inheritance.” (Psalm 33:12)  Literal interpretation: the United States has to officially follow God in order to be blessed.
  • “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” (Proverbs 14:34) Literal interpretation: the United States has to conform to all literal Biblical moral standards in order to thrive.
  • “So the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence.  Only the tribe of Judah was left, and even Judah did not keep the command of the Lord their God.  They followed the practices Israel had introduced.  Therefore the Lord rejected all the people of Israel; he afflicted them and gave them into the hands of plunderers, until he thrust them from his presence.” (2 Kings 17:18-20) Literal interpretation: God will destroy the United States if it doesn’t follow Biblical commandments.

But this is not good exegesis.  Proper interpretation is more complicated and has a lot more context and nuance while not negating the gist of what scripture states.  The writings of the Old Testament were written for the ancient Jewish people, the people of Israel.  They are the primary target audience, which doesn’t mean the Old Testament has no meaning to me as a non-ancient Jewish person, but that I need to understand the truths it states within that framework.

When viewing scripture in this manner, it doesn’t negate every aspect of the literal interpretations mentioned above, but it allows room to understand that it’s not an absolute requirement that the words written for a 2,500-year-old nation-in-exile will always directly translate in every way to all nations throughout all of human history.  But it also doesn’t mean the other extreme, that because the text was originally directed at an alien culture over two millennia ago it has nothing to say to me today – I don’t have the luxury to play God and pick and choose what I want to accept from scripture and how I want to interpret it: I do believe it is all God-breathed, as Paul writes to Timothy, and as I’ve said, the only faithful way to view it is through the lens of Church Tradition.  And ultimately as with all things Christian, Jesus revolutionizes our approach to everything, including how we view God’s interaction with nations.

Jesus repeatedly taught in the Gospels that his Kingdom of God is counterintuitive and subversive, that it doesn’t operate like human nations through the power of force but instead wins hearts through love, service and humility:

  • “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.  Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)
  • “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)
  • “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
  •  “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to?  It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Luke 13:20-21)
  • “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.  But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36)

The overall arc of scripture moves from God creating a political kingdom of people, tearing that kingdom down, and raising himself out of its ashes to establish a kingdom of the heart to reconcile every single person who chooses him in love to himself and each other.  The trajectory of the New Testament for the Church points to spreading the love of God through service and sacrifice in order to grow a kingdom of people that are attracted to God and life with him and his people voluntarily.  That is our calling as a Church, and that is the vision God has for his kingdom until Christ’s return.

With that in mind, the proper Christian vision for a nation isn’t to make it a brand new ancient Israel – that didn’t exactly end well for Israel itself, if you recall.  Our context is completely different: America is not a single ethnic group explicitly called by God to be a light to the entire world; that was a one-time deal that served its purpose, to bring the Savior of the World here.  We don’t have a black-and-white Christian blueprint for establishing a political nation precisely because we aren’t supposed to be establishing a political nation: we’re supposed to be loving and serving and influencing the politics of the world, not dictating it by decree.  Trying to force other people who either don’t believe in God or don’t want God to be subject to what we think is best for them is abuse, is us being the kind of rulers lording it over others that Jesus specifically told us not to be.  We bring people to the kingdom by winning their hearts, not by bludgeoning them over the head.

That ought to impact our politics.  Many in the Church in America have created a victim mentality, which is utterly ironic considering Christ literally calls us to be victims in service and sacrifice.  This victim mentality has formed a Christian tribalism that is incredibly unhealthy for ourselves and everyone else – we’ve made enemies of those who simply disagree with us, often viewing them as agents of the devil who are seeking to damn the world instead of as people who need our love and service.  We hold onto a myth that America was once a Christian nation (this is categorically false, and a huge topic of its own, one I’ve written about that you can read at this link here), and so we make political liberals who support freedom of expression into such vilified and hated enemies that we celebrate a president who represents in so many ways everything that is exactly the opposite of Christ.  We’ve become the completely worst kind of hypocrite, and we’re oblivious to it.  We’ve let fear and tribalism blind us to what we’ve become and who and what we’re supporting.

I pity and pray for Donald Trump.  He is an utterly broken man who must be filled with all sorts of emotional wounds to behave the way he does.  But we as Christians just can’t support who he is and what he stands for – it’s opposed to everything we believe in.  Now, I understand and agree abortion is a big deal, but we’re fighting it in entirely the wrong way (another large, separate topic, one I cover at this link here).  We’ve been fighting so many political battles in entirely the wrong way.  And by trying to force America to become a kind of Christian theological empire, we’re completely sabotaging the real work the Church is supposed to be doing for the Kingdom of God and undermining the transformative movements of the Holy Spirit.  We’re in many instances actually standing in the way of what God is wanting to do to promote justice, mercy and compassion – racially, socio-economically, and judicially.  We have become the Pharisees.

We have to reframe our understanding of what it means to be a Christian in America.  For Christ to fully realize all the victories he desires through us in the spiritual war we’re battling, we have to stop waging a culture war that we should have never been fighting in the first place.  We change the world through loving and serving people to Christ.  It is truly alright and best for our message and vocation as a Church for America to be the secular state it and every other modern state always has been.  Our goal is love, service, and humility – to operate the Kingdom of God within all the political realms of the world until Christ returns.  We absolutely should influence the policy of these secular states, but not in ways that force people to live according to our standards when they disagree with them.  We gave up our rights when we became followers of Christ – it’s time we stopped trampling on the rights of others to protect something of ours we were supposed to have lost a very long time ago.

*******

Afterword: For more detail, the words and testimony of others outline the specifics for why supporting President Trump is wrong for a Christian far better than I can.  Peter Wehner wrote two excellent pieces for The Atlantic,The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity” last July and “There is No Christian Case for Trump” in January.  Two other stories from The Atlantic highlight the the problem of the evangelical relationship with Trump and the campaign of disinformation and attacks against the credibility of news agencies, Michael Gerson’s “Trump and the Evangelical Temptation” and McKay Coppins’ “The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President.”  Charles Sykes wrote “Donald Trump and the Rise of Alt-Reality Media” for Politico Magazine just after the 2016 election.  Alex Morris’ “False Idol – Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump” for Rolling Stone is a somber reflection from December, and Samuel Perry’s “A War for the Soul of American Evangelicalism” is a good critique from 2018 for the University of Chicago’s Religion & Culture Forum.  Perry also contributes along with Andrew L. Whitehead and Joseph O. Baker to the lengthy but definitive “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election” for the Summer 2018 edition of Sociology of Religion.

Also see the litany of respected Christian voices who have been critical of the president.  Beth Moore, Tim Keller, N.T. Wright, Russell Moore, Pope Francis, John Piper, Matt Chandler, Philip Yancey, James K.A. Smith, John Stackhouse, Andy Crouch, Max Lucado, Ed Stetzer, Tony Evans, Eugene Peterson, Ann Voskamp, Craig S. Keener, Ronald Sider, Mark Galli, Miroslav Wolf, Richard Foster, Richard Mouw, George Marsden, and Stanley Hauerwas to name just some.

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