Longing for the Divine

The Religion of Politics

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

Jeremiah 9:23-24, ESV

Today’s American cultural ethos is much different from that in previous generations. The current political landscape and its chaotic division exposes a corrosion of social norms. There are new dynamics at play. With the erosion of Judeo-Christian principles has come an increasing rejection of universal truths in a increasingly contentious age. The separation of religion and political power has long been supported as a Protestant-based principle based in Jesus’s distinction between God and Caesar. However, this separation has become vital, as the cultural movements of today’s politics go far beyond procedural preferences; they have become religious-like devotions. Politics is the religious impulse of our day. Even the church has become subconsciously converted from lived faith to politics. While religious values and ideals remain intact, they are now mixed with policies to be endorsed by those professing religion. For the most part, the Christianity of Jesus is left behind.

It seems that today’s society is sacralizing politics. Politics is not classified as religion, yet many are completely devoted to their ideologies. People today take their cues from political agendas and various political values, and these ideologies are replacing antiquated truths. The convergence of social, political, and historical factors creates various new identities for people that demand zeal and commitment to saving the world from it’s failings. Whether faith in rational progress and science, national populism and security, or personal identity and responsibility, these ideologies offer devotional expression for those who think they have no religion. With biblical truths badly eroding and no longer considered authoritative, we are living in a world of relative values that form the religion of our day. The question we face is whether such a system of politics can survive without the wisdom and restraint provided by the principles of Christian tradition. Why care about the authority of an antiquated book when you have your own personal feelings and impulses?

Instead of embracing justice and a way of life that makes the world a better place, many people are concerned with a new kind of identity politics. Within the social-justice ideology, shrill voices shout for social action, which may sometimes help address injustice but for the most part, remains incomplete. When these ideologies are socially constructed, they risk competing with lasting justice. Though zealously identifying concerns about overbearing authoritarian power structures, they lack the tools to redress violations of human dignity. Many of the protest movements and riots we now see champion the cause of social justice by highlighting anti-Black police brutality but exclude other injustices. Justice can quickly disintegrate when one’s pursuit of it is nothing more than agitating and reaching beyond one’s sense of identity. It only holds the meaning and value that the social group ascribes. With the emphasis on individual rights, one can easily compete for power and privilege while forgetting about responsibility. Without transcendent values or a moral basis outside oneself or the collective, this approach cannot sustain the dignity or humanity of others. In the end, we are left with injustice.

The power and authority of politics reside in the people or systems that run it. America has a unique form of government in which authority resides in the people. Its core ideology is based in the equality and liberty of the individual, expressed through a representative form of government with its checks and balances. It includes the idea that each citizen has the freedom to pursue a better life. Plurality and diversity of thought through the expression of certain unalienable rights and liberties is a beautiful experiment, but what has been happening to political movements? Power is often corrupting. Citizens see the greed and unscrupulous power grasping of politicians. Instead of representing the people to produce flourishing individuals and communities, these politicians secure their own prestige, seizing power and wealth at the expense and oppression of others. This has led to a declining trust in government. Many now question the truths disseminated by key institutions. We see protesters pouring into the streets. Rioters are attempting to force change, and others are willing to bow to the spirit of the mob.

We are living in very interesting times. There is a clear struggle for power, reflecting a rejection of the Western culture in which religious toleration and civil liberty was built. When matters of justice and identity are biased and unreliable people tend to align themselves with what they believe will give them more power. As the powers compete for dominance and supremacy, what will prevent government from becoming a handmaiden to the present social order? Will flag-waving patriots fight to preserve the status quo? Will military and nationalist forces justify violence in the name of security? Will the government be swayed by social-change forces if society insists on uniting under an umbrella of political empowerment?

When political ideologies and impulses become people’s religion, they tend to accept no compromise. Diversity of opinion only becomes apart of the social struggle when we are intolerant of those who differ from us. So, how might progressives, nationalists, and other identity groups—with their various political interests—come together? Instead of grasping for power we should be a force to improve and transform culture, aiming for less violence, less poverty and less injustice. The current political and social divide is dire. As I previously mentioned, politics have become more like religious expressions that people are converting to, which demands total commitment. The church itself, weakened by its desire for self-serving power, has largely transformed into a political and social identity. Might this climate of religious politics foreshadow the future? 

While we may not see the levers of power behind the curtain, political movements can be characterized by the behaviors they manifest. The Bible provides a relevant description in Revelation 13. Its prophetic voice suggests a final display of religious devotion cast in a political landscape, united under one conglomerate that is capable of rallying obedience. As the world begins to fracture and suffocate in its failure to unify, there may be a drive for stability and morality. A world in crisis cannot survive without a global ethic. In the end, religion will unify the forces, eroding the separation of religion and state. The Bible seems to suggest that this new religious emergence will appear to be genuine, yet the God defined by Jesus for the nations will be left far behind.

How should we conduct ourselves in a world where ideologies and political structures compete for our allegiance? We are currently seeing millions pledge allegiance to specific corners of the political spectrum—whether advocating increased security, personal identity, notions of responsibility or cultural progress. Each of these issues contain truth. To find meaning we must take greater responsibility for our lives and the well-being of others. In fact, belief in human responsibility and progress is a strand of Christianity that finds it’s root in the human vocation given by God Himself in Genesis. Establishing identity and caring for one’s own are not bad. Matters of justice are also a good thing that includes more than law’s and courts. It’s a way of life in which everyone reaches out for the well-being of others. We should speak out against injustice and critique systems of lethal force, but if all we have is protest, there is no room for order. We need good security and a safe environment to remove unpredictability and fear. Police who serve for noble reasons to protect and serve, choosing to be a force of good in the world are important. We work to improve and transform culture not by mocking systems, but by a power that is different from all the other kinds of power (Zechariah 4:6). Our hearts must be born again and awakened to the discrepancies, prejudices, and blind spots in our own thinking. Labeling and blaming others will only divide us and prevent us from hearing the voices and perspectives that we need to hear.

The early church was very careful to avoid involvement in its political surroundings, refusing to compromise its anti-tribal platform of being God’s signpost for the world. Christianity based on the message and teachings of Jesus is inherently different from the Christianity that has been. Today, the church is no longer visible in the same way, but it is a mistake to believe that this is the demise of her glorious vocation. While the modern church has failed to address the challenge, others in the secular world have adopted slogans of protest and become allies of justice. The church needs to reclaim it’s vocation or it will be tempted to drift into politics. The churches greatest danger is the religion of politics. Whether embracing the politics of responsibility, identity, security or the virtue of progress, each approach includes an extreme form of tribalism that prefers its group and excludes others. We thus develop cultural forms that protect our own interests and norms until all we have left is our own gods. Idolatry is defined as taking a good thing from creation and distorting it into the ultimate object of worship.

How can Christians address faithfulness and renewed commitment today? Might Jesus be our new identity and model for the proper structure of human reality? Jesus was a political-spiritual revolutionary who correctly defied unjust and oppressive laws that dehumanized individuals, denying their dignity and freedoms. This can be done without resentment and hatred of others because we realize that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh” (Ephesians 6:12, NRSV). Through this process, we can also find repentance and forgiveness, allowing us to deal with the inner struggles of our own hearts. Jesus mentions removing the beam or plank from our own eyes before trying to change others (Matthew 7:3–5). 

The correction should not be politically centered because politics has no clear center. Christians are called to be centered on Jesus rather than on partisan politics. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight” (John 18:36, NIV). Jesus demonstrates the political ideal in His response to His disciples’ dispute over who will rule in His Kingdom. Rather than turning to the strongest leader for power and protection, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25–28, NLT).  

When Jesus is at our center, anchoring and grounding us in His foundation, we find the wisdom and means to fulfill our human vocation. It is from Him that we acquire truth about culturally creative progress, social responsibility, and the eternal security that brings hope, joy, and peace of mind. Human identity is not lost. Women are valued and treated equally, and men are not seen as expendable. The human identity–created as both male and female–bears God’s image. The goal is not sexual ideologies that create social struggles and threaten public order, but sexually unique men and women learning to becoming complete in their relationships with others. The family is not forgotten either—nor are other kin and minority ethnic groups who want to enjoy their God-given rights. Individual rights based approaches to justice leave people in selfish structures, while God’s rights send ripples of change to the eventual right-making of all things. Instead of leveraging social progress for our own prosperity and comfort, we gain a view of God’s intention for humanity, which will lead to true human flourishing, not society’s peril.

The solution is not to cast off politics or avoid it altogether. I believe there is a good way to be political. Politics is not an evil in itself. The stewardship of power and loving dominion are structures created to help us live and build society—not partisan politics, but politics that are healing and renewing. The last book of the Bible portrays the raging nations becoming the kingdoms of our Lord (Revelation 11:5). Revelation’s close describes many different ethnic groups with various languages and cultures of science, art, and industry standing around the throne. God’s invitation spans every ethnic and cultural background. In the end, these nations will rightly govern because God wants to affirm the deep truth about our diversity and common humanity. God created society for human flourishing. It is precisely because of this biblical vision that we seek the freedom under God that leads to eternal life. In the end, the secular and the sacred will occupy the same space. Connecting human relationships to a flourishing creation reveals a God whose final goal is to see all things restored and reconciled around Jesus (Colossians 1:19–20). In the second chapter of Ephesians, God reclaims human space by removing all the human structures and barriers that divide and fracture us. The nations then walk in the light of God’s eternal presence as the kings of the earth bring their unique distinctions and contributions into the kingdom to come (Revelation 21:24).

While only fully realized in the world to come, kindness and justice are heavens part in life now. Isaiah (65:17–25) describes this ideal and flourishing life, where nothing is needed or broken. There is health care for all, all babies survive, and even the elderly enjoy life to the fullest. Everyone has accessible housing and meaningful and satisfying employment. There is bountiful food. There is authentic and true religion. “They will neither harm nor destroy in all my holy mountain” (v. 25, NIV). This is the true intention of God. It’s a new creation based around His plan for humanity. 

So, where do we go from here? Christians are called to be an alternative community, speaking out against injustice and tyranny of any kind, but our politics are not based on seeking power over others. This community avoids allegiance to political parties but embraces moral imperatives—living out its calling through kindness and generosity. This calling beckons us to become promoters of peace and freedom in our world rather than prioritizing safety, security, and comfort. It rests in Jesus’s formulation of faithfulness and courageous commitment to God’s law of liberty. Whatever does not spring from this noble motive is harmful to the pursuit of morality, freedom and life. May God give us the wisdom to aim in the direction of new creation.

Craig Ashton Jr.

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