The Church of God, not The Church of Caesar
As a generous mainline Christianity rouses, it must avoid political alliances
In the wake of the November 7 midterm elections in the US, the expected slew of reports detailing recriminations, successes, and failures, have not failed to live up to their form.
There are plenty of items detailing who should have done what and when; off the record accounts of so and so being really terribly crushed, or just plain terrible, when not in view of the cameras; and the usual calls to end politicking once and for all and usher in a new era of working together, so long as everyone can still deliver gossip and innuendo on deep background. The reviews and prognostications tend to reflect the broad view that there is a good appetite for gossip, silliness, and pledges to work together.
A number of other reports, play up a "resurgent" Christian progressive body.
These can be found at The Christian Century, Ekklesia, USA Today, The Washington Post, and many other outlets and blogs. In general, they present instances of collaboration between Christian progressives and political parties, as evidence of the resurgent progressive Christianity that played leading roles in the civil rights work of the 1950s and 1960s. (Sometimes, the articles conflate "progressive" with "mainline.")
The reports differ on some specifics but tend to go generally like this:
Progressive Christians in the US played essential roles in promoting justice, peace and equality, but after cementing these gains in the 1960s and 1970s, they became complacent. In the 1980s and 1990s and up to the present election, they were outmaneuvered by very theologically and politically conservative evangelicals who formed a close alliance with Republicans as a way of institutionalizing their theological principles. This alliance between evangelicals and Republicans coincided with a decline of membership in mainline denominations that often fed the ranks of progressive Christians, clearing the way for evangelical dominance, right-wing Republican control, and battles over where best to place Ten Commandments displays at public facilities. This all came to an end on November 7, 2006, however, because of two related events: (1) the revelation that many Republican leaders did not in fact share conservative evangelical beliefs and were in fact simply allied with evangelicals out of convenience and a desire for votes; and (2) the resurgence of a progressive Christianity fighting to reclaim authentic Christianity from a politicization of the Word that has corrupted and turned Christianity into a predatory offshoot of right wing politics.
So far, so good. The reports note participation in the electoral process, by Christians preaching the virtues of love, tolerance, charity, and grace. The strength and resilience of a generous, loving, compassionate Christianity that notes that all are welcome to the Lord’s table, because it is His table, and not ours, is something to be celebrated.
This is not the same thing as a Christianity that is a political organ or vehicle, however. Some of the reports tend to suggest that Christian progressives are now organizing themselves into political constituencies, in a way that could corrupt and blind just as well as the too often misguided alliances between evangelicals and Republicans.
"Christian progressive," in fact, may be somewhat of a misnomer in terms of secular politics, apart from its purpose of contrasting with evangelicals who vote Republican. Still, along with "conservative evangelical," the term may enter communities of faith as an extension of political differences. Do we really want to imbed a confessing political component within our status as followers of Christ?
To the extent that such terms occlude actual beliefs and the possibilities for community and reconciliation, they should be avoided. To the extent that such terms move entire portions of the Body of Christ into rigid doctrines and alliances with political bodies who may then try to control the faith community or exploit it for political purposes, they are a wounding of the entire Body.
There is no doubt a usefulness for a shorthand like "progressive Christian" and "conservative evangelical." They can often be used to indicate theological differences, which may unfortunately be used as wells of division. They should not so easily identify political differences, however. These have no place in the Kingdom of God. Whatever the reason for their use, the shorthands should not extend into facilitating and ensuring divisions in the Body based on voting patterns.
We should keep in mind that we are too easily pressured and led by our weaknesses and fears, into divisions that defy the Lord’s assurance that in Him there is only one. The Church is not an extension of political parties and we must guard against the introduction of political categories and mindsets that would color the Lord's Church. It is His church, not ours. It is certainly not the Church of political parties or systems.
A generous, compassionate, mainline Christianity may have taken itself for granted for too long. It may only now be rousing from a slumber that helped to create an echo chamber drowning out core Gospel imperatives. As it stretches forth, it must remember that it is not enough for it to preach love, mercy and grace—it must walk in them, lest it fall prey to the same excesses of zeal and division that have marked too much of the Body for too long.