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Cover detail from "Jesus Untangled" by Keith Giles

Disentangling the Gospel from Politics

Keith Giles

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  • MICHAEL NACRELLI

    Not exactly a balanced critique of the grotesque elements in both major party platforms. Excoriating the Religious Right is too easy and rings hollow when the flagrantly godless aspects of the "progressive" agenda are glossed over.

  • Brian Dolge

    This. Is. Truth. My lame comments: No government has the right to claim the allegiance of any Christian while one person remains hungry, homeless, or without healthcare. Christians should not be afraid to support imperfect plans or policies, but we should always be clear that our support is conditional and our only true allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. We may support you in this, but we will support the next step all the more. We will support you in this but oppose you in that. We can support you in this but say in the same breath that it is not enough. Most importantly our eyes will always be on God’s best beloved; the poor, the oppressed, the least of these, the sinners- here, now, before us. They are the only standard Christ gives us-”What have you done for them?”. No doctrine, no corporation, no dogma, contract, constitution or manifesto can stand between us and this question in the end. Most of all the Church must give up the comfortable embrace of Mamon, of Empire, of the World. Liberal vs Conservative, Communist vs Capitalist, Freedom vs Authority, all these and many more play out on a plane which Christ transcends, stands 90 degrees opposed to, and denounces. The Church must do the same. It must be in the World, but it can never be comfortable in the World; this will be hard, a church which does not bring you into conflict with your job, your neighbor and your government is not the True Church. Will we lose members? Blessed are the pure in heart. Will we lose money, buildings and land? Blessed are the poor. Will we lose friends, political power and the right to practice our faith without breaking the law? Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness sake. I do not claim to be a member of such a church, but I can see it through a glass darkly, and I know it is our true home.

Plough has been hosting an ongoing discussion among Christians about the proper role of the believer in politics and public life. (See especially Plough Quarterly No. 11Alien Citizens – The Politics of the Kingdom of God”). Here is another refreshing perspective.

During Christianity’s first three hundred years Christians were not entangled with politics nor tempted to advance their cause by passing laws. Interestingly, however, there were many Roman soldiers and political officials who converted to the faith. In fact, this happened often enough that several early Christian teachers gave instructions on how to respond to this trend.

Hippolytus of Rome says: 

A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God. (Apostolic Tradition)

And Origen explains: 

It is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but so that they may reserve themselves for a more divine and more necessary service in the Church of God – the salvation of men. And this service is at once necessary and right. (Against Celsus)

The early church had plenty of opportunity to take advantage of a growing number of political converts in positions of power throughout the Roman Empire. So why didn’t they capitalize on that? Why not infiltrate the military command and turn the sword away from the throats of their martyred brothers and sisters?

Why not? Because they saw that political entanglement was a snare, a distraction from their main mission. They refused to waver in their devotion to Jesus. No kingdom but his mattered.

 

If the early Christians understood who they were and what their mission was so clearly, why do Christians today find it so hard to imagine following Jesus apart from political affiliation?

One well-known reason has to do with the birth of the Religious Right and how it aligned itself with the Republican Party to help elect Ronald Reagan, which has had effects to this day.

But that’s not where the current politicization of American Christianity began. As Princeton historian Kevin Kruse details in his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, already in the 1950s business leaders plotted to link Christianity, Republican politics, and libertarian economics tightly together. Why? To help drive a wave of public piety and create a feeling of solidarity between Christians and corporations who might both see “big government” as a common enemy.

This is when the line “One nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance (1954), and a new national motto, “In God We Trust,” was emblazoned on all our money (1956). The goal was simple: to entangle Christianity with conservative politics in order to benefit big business.

As Kruse explains: “The reason [corporations] start making this argument about freedom under God is that it’s a much more effective way to push back against the regulatory state and the labor unions. It’s no longer businessmen making the case for businesses. It’s ministers.” And why Christian ministers? Because they were better at propaganda. “They’re very effective at making this argument that a state that restricts capitalism will inevitably restrict Christianity. They link economic restrictions with religious restrictions. It requires a bit of a leap of faith, but it’s one that they effectively sell,” says Kruse.

Other historians agree, including Kim Phillips-Fein, whose book Invisible Hands also documents this unholy alliance between 1950s corporations and Christian leaders. Both Phillips-Fein and Kruse credit a Reverend Fifield – whose large Los Angeles congregation included many millionaires – as one of the most effective ministers in this capitalistic Christian movement. “Fifield disregards all of Christ’s warnings about the dangers of wealth,” says Kruse. “He completely disregards the injunction to look out for one another. To love your neighbor, to be your brother’s keeper. He discards all of those messages. It becomes a faith of individualism.”

In order to make it all work, the teachings of Jesus had to be downplayed, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ commands were effectively moth-balled in favor of sermons about individual faith, civic duty, and paying taxes. Christianity began to mirror the ideals of capitalism, and Jesus was re-branded as the poster boy for the American Dream. 

Rev. James Ingebretsen, president of a group known as Spiritual Mobilization (created by Revered Fifield to further this same cause) later admitted: “Fighting the forces that wanted to abolish the free enterprise system was my mission, not promoting Christ.”

This well-funded crusade gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s. Conservative ideology, with its aim of rolling back the New Deal, found ready allies among evangelicals, which, as Kruse explains, resulted in “a new sort of religious nationalism” – one that is still alive and well today.

 

I confess that I was a victim of this unholy alliance between faith and politics. Raised in a Republican home, I voted in every election since I was old enough to vote. And as a good Christian, I always voted “straight ticket” Republican. I listened to Rush Limbaugh and read his books. I cheered for Republican presidents and griped about those liberal Democrats who were ruining our nation and threatening to bring down the wrath of God upon us. Along with millions of others, I fell for a well-funded, decades-long campaign to twist evangelical Christianity into an easy-to-control voting bloc. 

Of course there are Christians on the other side of the aisle just as entangled in seeking political power, and just as likely to use the pulpit to further their political ends. All the more, it is imperative for all of us, left and right, to open our eyes and return to our true roots. Like the first Christians, we need to throw off the chains of worldly politics and give our allegiance solely to Jesus, who alone is Lord and whose kingdom we are to seek above all else.

Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1).

No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer” (2 Tim. 2:4).

They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.” If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning (2 Peter 2:19–20).

Isn’t it time for some honest self-examination? Isn’t it time we finally and completely untangle ourselves from all that hinders us from following Jesus, and Jesus alone?

Here’s an idea: Sit down tonight with your Bible. Open up to the Gospel of Matthew. Find the Sermon on the Mount. Read it slowly. Listen to Jesus and what he commands with a new heart. Allow him to crucify your nationalism and, yes, even your political affiliation. Allow him to put to death anything and everything that confuses his authority with any other. I invite you to follow Jesus totally untangled from the powers of this world.

Cover of book Jesus Untangled by Keith Giles
Contributed By Keith Giles

Keith Giles, a former pastor who walked away from the pulpit to follow Jesus, lives with his wife and two sons in Orange County, California. For ten years he has been part of a house church where 100 percent of the offering is given away to help the poor in the community. He is the author, most recently, of the book Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb, with a foreword by Greg Boyd.

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