In 2016 I published a short book about the collision of the Kingdom of God and politics. It was taken from a series of sermons that I gave in 2012 before that election, which feels like a different world from the political world we are in now. It was largely written in response to the errors that I had seen in the Religious Right (and in the Religious Left, but much more so in my own personal experiences with the Religious Right) in trying to utilize a political system as the means to achieve kingdom ends. I still believe that is the wrong way to pursue the Kingdom of God, but as with anything, the current cultural moment raises new issues and asks new questions that need to be addressed.
In addressing politics and faith over the years, one thing I have discovered is that when people are reading or listening to me, they have desire for me to equitably attack “both sides” whenever we are discussing something. In these kinds of conversations people will often say something like, “why aren’t you attacking the Democrats (or Republicans) more?”. My concern and calling is not to critique the politics of either Republicans or Democrats or really any political party, but rather to call the church to be the people of God in this present moment. In the places where it seems to me that we are missing that, I will speak up. I am not concerned with trying to have an equal balance of critiquing the donkey or the elephant, but rather continuing to call people to the way of the Lamb.
On January 1, the Washington Post ran an interview with Jerry Falwell Jr that exposed some of the destructive thinking that has become far too prevalent in the church today and it needs to be addressed. I am not someone who feels the need to comment on everything someone says in the name of the church or in every current event, otherwise I would simply spend all of my time responding because the opportunities are endless. However, when something seems to me to be pervasively widespread, continual and destructive to my understanding of who the church is called to be, it merits some kind of response.
Falwell, as the president of the country’s largest Christian University, has been a supporter of President Trump from early on and apparently reconciles the discrepancies of his faith with some of Trump’s behavior and policies that are contrary to that with a description of two different kingdoms – an earthly kingdom and a heavenly kingdom. He describes essentially separating each of those kingdoms and engaging in each of them in different ways. While, I would agree with him that they are separate kingdoms that function in very different ways, I do not believe that the New Testament, nor the way of Jesus in general calls us to treat those as separate ways of engaging the world around us. Nor are they coequal ways of engaging different spheres of our lives. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus expected his followers to operate out of and being agents who are a part of bringing the reality of God’s kingdom to the experience of our lives here and now. For the follower of Jesus, God’s kingdom is not meant to be some kind of spiritual experience that has no bearing on the reality of our lives, but instead is actually meant to be the driving force that affects all of how we live, the choices we make, the way we treat other people, what we value. Jesus would say it this way at one point, “seek first the Kingdom of God and it’s righteousness…”
There is indeed an earthly kingdom. A way in which the world operates and the values it ascribes to. It is also a driving force that affects all of how we live, the choices we make, and the way we treat other people. It is not a value system that the people of Jesus are meant to separate out as another realm where we operate differently. Instead, the people of God are meant to be bringing the way of God’s kingdom into those spaces. At times, it even means operating subversively against the way in which the earthly kingdom operates. A people who operate in God’s kingdom are not just concerned with the ends that are achieved, but also the means by which we get there.
I didn’t realize how pervasive this dualistic view of how we interact with the world actually was until I read this interview with Falwell. It helps to make sense of so many other things that seem to have gotten out of place for those of us who claim to follow Jesus in recent years. For instance, when white evangelical Christians are the group most likely to be against accepting refugees, more than any other group identified in the polling, that runs against the way the church has functioned in caring for refugees and the calling of the Kingdom of God. Or when the opinion of evangelicals regarding immigrants is more shaped by President Trump and political narratives than by evangelical leaders or by the Scriptures. The ability to separate out our faith from our worldview is disconcerting at best.
As Falwell suggests, the United States may not have an obligation to love our neighbors or care for the poor (we can argue that on another day), but followers of Jesus do. For followers of Jesus to desire and pursue things that are contrary to that, is explicitly contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Just because politics are not the means by which we pursue kingdom ends, does not mean that we actively utilize politics in ways that are directly contrary to kingdom ends. I don’t know of any Christians who think in this way who would advocate for policies that would increase abortions or ones that would strip the church of it’s non-profit status and protections, or to disallow Christian colleges from gaining the advantage of federally supplemented loans. While I would argue it’s not the best use of our calling as a church to try and utilize political means to pursue those things, it is not something we actively work against.
When I released “In God We Trust,” one of my concerns was that the broader church that I found myself a part of was too tied into and overly linked with a political party. Some seem to have now gone a step farther, in becoming even more linked with a particular person. Falwell was asked if there was anything that Trump could do that would endanger support from himself or other evangelical leaders. His answer was simply “no.” As a friend of mine put it, “Regardless of who it is, this is what’s called a cult.” I am not sure I understand it or fully get where this blanket support is coming from, but the unquestioning evangelical support of President Trump has me perplexed. In fact, white evangelicals are the only major religious group to continue to have a favorable opinion of President Trump.
The same evangelical leaders who spoke out against Bill Clinton during the Lewinskly scandal saying that his character matters because character is significant in leadership, then defended Trump as a candidate saying things like “his character doesn’t matter because we aren’t electing a pastor”. When things like that happen, you begin to wonder if there are different standards for evangelical leaders depending on whether or not you have an R or a D after your name on the ballot. In fact, one of the most significant swings that has happened in evangelicals’ worldview, is a complete about-face in the way that character matters in leadership. We do not have to hold a President to the same standards as a Pastor of a church to say that character matters in leadership. Nor do we have to change our values in that regard in order to align with specific policy decisions.
There may be policies that Trump supports and advocates that can be within a kingdom framework. I personally was glad to see the prison reform legislation pass and would love to see more work done there. That does not mean, however, that you need to give blanket support to all of his policies. It doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to his dishonorable and immoral behavior as President. It does not mean that we adopt shifting worldviews in order to accommodate our politics or our chosen political candidate. We can be nuanced and thoughtfully Christian without offering blanket support of a political party or of a particular person.
Frankly, I don’t understand what has been happening with the blanket support of Trump and his policies amongst white evangelicals. I’m not interested in “would Hillary have been any better?” kinds of debates, nor am I interested in calling Trump the new Hitler. I’m not interested in rehashing the election or telling you who to vote for. I’m simply interested in the church being the church. I’m interested in the people who call themselves followers of Jesus living in the ways of the Kingdom and letting that shape their worldview. I’m not interested in Christians needing to comment on everything that Trump says and does that is contrary to the way of Jesus. But I am interested in not giving blind allegiance and support to him as he does those things. I would find myself offering the same critique if the larger church system that I find myself a part of offered the same kind of widespread, pervasive support of a different candidate, party or policies that seemed to me to be destructive to the church. I am in no way partisan but rather try to find myself on the side of the church and who she is called to be.
I’m reminded and regularly challenged by a word of caution offered by Jesus, when he said, “what good does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet forfeit their soul?” My calling is not to engage in partisan debates, but rather to point the church to where we may be losing our soul.