It’s no secret that our culture is deeply and bitterly divided right now, particularly along the lines of political partisanship. In fact, Pew research has found that the Democrat-Republican fault line seems to be the single strongest dividing wall in our population right now, no small feat in a country with our history.
As a Christian, and as someone who has recently watched people leave my own congregation over sharp political disagreements, I have particular concerns about how these divisions are impacting the American church. What does it communicate to a watching world when Republicans and Democrats can’t worship alongside each other? When people identify with these partisan groups to such an extent that the ‘other’ must become a hated enemy? Is our only choice, then, to form homogenous, politically-like-minded congregations that all go their separate ways on Sunday mornings? And, most importantly, what does this all this imply about how powerful we believe the Gospel of Jesus really is?
Well, if you can’t be in a Jesus-shaped faith community alongside someone with conflicting political views*, then on a functional level, your country’s political ideologies have more formative power in your life than the Gospel of Jesus. By letting these political antagonisms determine where and with whom you worship, you have effectively handed meaning-making power over to what Paul called the ‘principalities.’
And that, to my mind, is beyond tragic.
To be clear, I understand the temptation here. I even feel it, regularly. I was just as emotionally engaged in the last presidential election as many people, and I also struggle at a deep level when I find out someone in my community voted for a political candidate who is diametrically opposed to what I believe is best for my country. And the struggle has weight, precisely because my political values are formed by my religious convictions (as are, most likely, the values of the person on the ‘other side’). So what are we to do? Pretend the differences don’t exist on Sunday mornings? Swing the pendulum back and completely disengage from thinking about anything deemed “political?”
Historically speaking, we live at a pretty amazing time. It’s not only possible for the average American citizen to have deeply informed political ideas, but it’s also possible to work towards the implementation of those ideas in our own nation-state. We aren’t cut off from the actions of our political leaders, simply trusting in the “divine right of Kings” and hoping for the best. Nor are we living in a feudal society that is rigorously stratified by clan, family name or caste. There’s a way in which we should be thankful for all of this (I’m personally pretty happy that I don’t need to pay fealty to some Lord/Noble that I have no reason to trust, just in order to keep my land and eke out an agrarian existence), but there are other ways in which we should be cautious. I believe the current divisions mentioned above are a result of how we have not been as careful as we should be in forming political identities, particularly in the American church.
In the age of the classically-liberal, democratic, highly-individualistic, nation-state, one great temptation is to believe that my ideas about how political governance should be executed are the most important thing about me. And if the flourishing (however you define that word) of your nation is indeed the most important earthly project you have access to participate in, then this actually makes complete sense.
But if you’re a Christian, you (we) should be operating within a radically different paradigm. The success of the nation-state is decisively not the most important thing we invest our lives in. And this is especially thrown into sharp relief when the success, growth, or even simply ongoing existence, of a nation is advanced through the destruction of other image-bearing humans, who may also be our own co-citizens (to use Paul’s word in Philippians 3) of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus was offered significant political power at the beginning of his earthly ministry (Matthew 4), which is written as a genuine temptation that he had to refuse in order to instead inaugurate God’s Kingdom. Paul was found repeatedly at-odds with the Roman government throughout his life, and was ultimately executed by that Empire, as eventually was every apostle that we have record of. Jesus himself (the one we profess to follow) was put to death through political machinations (see especially John 18) and executed as a treasonous criminal.
So, can one be a Christian and a Patriot? Well, obviously the way you answer that question hangs on how exactly you define those two labels. Paul exhorted us to practice benevolent citizenship in his letter to the Roman church. In the old testament, the exiled Jewish community was to work for “the good of the city” in Babylon, in the midst of a pagan culture (Jeremiah 29). So to the extent that practicing good citizenship is in alignment with Kingdom work: turning the other cheek, or loving one’s neighbor, then by all means, bring Christ-living to bear on your citizenship. Do it for the glory of God.
But zealous national-loyalty (in the form of Patriotism) is not the same as “good citizenship.” And when the demands and values of one’s national identity begin to conflict with one’s allegiance to the King of Kings, one's "hidden identity in Christ" (see Colossians) a choice must be made. We are called to find meaning and purpose, not in the power and ensured success of the nation-state we happen to find ourselves in, but in the one who gave his life for others, forgiving those who killed him, so that we could go and do likewise. In the one who did not consider a short-cut to political authority as a worthy end, but instead emptied himself to unleash the world-renewing power of selfless love.
Jesus has launched a new Kingdom. Will you join?
*Please note how I worded this sentence. It’s one thing to leave a community because of how it is being led, and quite another to leave because you just can’t be in the same room as another peer who thinks differently. It may be a legitimate choice to walk away from a faith community that is being led into dangerous, or harmful ideology that intersects with political partisanship. But that gets complicated fast, and should never be done flippantly.