I was recently talking about this blog with a young couple in my congregation. The husband reported that politics tends to get him pretty worked up and he agrees with my suggestion that he has at times allowed it to become more important to him than the church. The wife reported that she runs away from politics in the church because the heat—or the possibility of heat –upsets her. With a wry smile she said that one of the reasons she chose to be a missionary in Africa for a number of years is that she wanted to get away from fights in the American church.
Often the only reason churches don’t explode is that Christians of differing politics have already split from each other. Evangelical blacks (who tend to be Democrats) don’t as a rule worship with evangelical whites (who have tended to be Republicans—though that is changing). Evangelicals who are closely linked to academia and are more likely to be Democrats tend to drift from evangelicals who are closely linked to business and are more likely to be Republican.
Why are we so divided? Why do we disagree so much? Why is the heat in our disagreements so often indistinguishable from the heat in the broader culture? Aren’t we supposed to be different?
One reason, well documented by sociologist James Hunter, is that many Christians have joined the broader culture in the mistaken assumption that public life is the same thing as political life. For this reason we tend to think that the only, or best, way to change the culture is through politics. But politics is intrinsically coercive, using power (rather than persuasion) to bring about change. And forced change tends to turn up the heat in public life; it tends to polarize people, transforming ideas into slogans, discussions into shouting matches, and the opposition into demons. This is the case even when Christians are involved; perhaps more so since Christians tend to feel that they have a mandate from God in their efforts. Christians need to rediscover that “public” is much larger than “political.”
But why do we seize on solutions, political or otherwise, with such polarizing energy? There is more to the problem than too narrow a definition of public life.
The heart of the matter is the heart. Our hearts tend to drift away from their proper center in God. We are, in other words, idolaters, prone to setting our deepest hopes and identities in things other than God. And these false hopes are so fragile that we become angry and afraid when they are threatened, as they so often are by politics. For one reason or another people of differing politics threaten the leaders, strategies, or ways of life that we have come to rely upon too heavily. If, for example, we have built our lifestyles and future plans around a largely deregulated economy, we will tend to become angry (even infuriated) over a political administration that pushes hard for regulation. If on the other hand we have built our lifestyles and future plans around certain governmental social benefits, we may find ourselves growing nervous and angry—even furious—over a political administration that aims to remove or diminish entitlements.
The most immediate and perhaps the best thing any of us could do for America is to take Psalm 97:7 to heart (All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols”), searching our lives and attitudes carefully and repenting of our complicity in the idolatries of our time.
Think for example of the economic woes of 2008–2009. Many Americans rejoiced to see Bernard Madoff, architect of a $50 billion Ponzi scheme that ruined the lives of many, brought to justice. But how many of us were prepared to admit to our own headlong pursuit of money? Mr. Madoff was a hero as long as he was producing money for us; he became the villain only when he didn’t. At the heart of the financial meltdown was what one of my church leaders (himself an executive in one of the firms that came near to collapse) called a “tsunami of debt.” Certainly greedy bankers and lazy regulators were key players in this, but vast numbers of us contributed to the problem. How many of us were not drawn into the worship of the “good life” that the world of easy credit offered? How many of us spent far beyond our means simply because we thought we could get away with it?
“Pick your poison” a friend of mine says regarding the idols available to us. Some of us may feel free from the worship of money. But what about other obsessions: celebrity mongering (a recent survey indicated that a distressingly high percentage of teenage girls would rather be “the personal assistant to a famous singer or movie star” than a U. S. Senator or the president of a great university), or sexual addiction (pornography seems to be as much a problem for the church as it is for the rest of the culture). We pour money and energy into sports, into body image, into professional success, and into the acquisition of power. We grow angry at anyone or anything that threatens our freedom to spend as we please or to express ourselves as we please because we have become worshipers of unbridled freedom.
More talk next post on idolatry