After the 2016 Presidential Election (Part 3): Two Kingdoms
Members of the Electoral College have cast their ballots, and it is official, Donald Trump will be President of the United States for the next four years. Some are pleased with the outcome, some are indifferent, and others are devastated.
If you paid attention at all to this election cycle, you know that what Ben wrote in part 2 of this series is so true, “No matter the candidate or year, election season is often a cause for anxiety.” As a former U.S. History teacher, I spent time studying elections and campaigns, and found that in each political season powerful and effective rhetoric is employed to convince the public of one position or another. The goal of political rhetoric is simple, vote “X”. This is how politics work. The process is much more sophisticated but often looks something like this:
Person or party “X” is wrong- either dangerously or ignorantly so
There is one hope to maintain stability, security or integrity- person or party “Y”
You must save _______ by voting for person or party “Y”
Get others on board to save the world- encourage social pressure and shaming
Because, fear, hope, and social pressure are dynamically powerful motivators, I want to begin by inviting you to consider the following questions:
- Who or what do you fear?
- Where do you place your hope?
- How does this affect the condition your heart?
- How does this shape the way you interact with others?
Some Relevant History
The 1970s facilitated a surge in evangelical involvement in American politics. This particular surge was primarily a response to a transitioning national and cultural identity- away from what some believed to be “Christian” to one marked by secular humanism. Throughout this transition, many prominent evangelicals shared a deep conviction that the United States was falling further and further from its “Christian” identity and the proper response was to mount a counterattack to “take America back for God.” This resulted in an array of party alignments, agendas, and affiliations for many evangelicals.
In the early 1980’s, three well respected professors of U.S. history, Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathaniel Hatch, sought to help evangelicals sift through some of the political rhetoric and arrive at a more accurate view of the past. They explore the following questions:
- How Christian is America’s past?
- Was early Christian America a distinct source of Christian values?
- What was the mix of Christian principles and baptized ideology in Puritan New England, the legacy of the Great Awakening, and the American Revolution?
- How much Christian action is required to make a whole society Christian?
- Is the “Christian nation” concept harmful or helpful to effective Christian action in society?
Convinced that a proper view of the past, a) helps us rightly view the present, and b) leads us to effective Christian action in society, Noll and his colleagues published their their research and conclusions in, The Search for Christian America.
In short (sorry for the spoiler, but well worth the read), Noll, Hatch, and Marsden explain that although America has had a generally religious past and it’s history has been liberally sprinkled with genuine Christian influence, the facts of history show that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly, or even predominantly Christian. Furthermore, careful examination of Christian teaching on government, the state, and the nature of culture actually reveals that the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ is very ambiguous concept which is usually harmful to effective Christian action in society.”
If you are interested exploring this topic more, but don’t want to read an entire book, check out this interview with Mark Noll (my apologies ahead of time for the cheesy intro music).
Why does this matter?
First, the aforementioned mentality or sentiment has carried over and shaped the landscape of American evangelical involvement in politics in the 21st century. Noll explains that, “proper perspective profoundly affects the way we approach the public arena,” and “allows Christians to more clearly speak the gospel in evangelism and to put it to work in social concern.”
Second, for many evangelicals it is difficult to differentiate between the Kingdom of God and the American kingdom. And even when find ourselves able to differentiate, it is even more difficult to know how to operate first as citizens of the Kingdom of God and second as citizens of our country.
As followers of Jesus it must be clear to us that, “the kingdom Jesus came to establish is ‘not from this world’ (John 18:36).” It is fundamentally distinct from any kingdom of the world.
Our understanding of the proper relationship of the church to society can be clarified by one of the greatest of the church fathers, Saint Augustine. Augustine lived in the fourth and fifth centuries after Christ in the era just after Christians had just gained access to political power in the Roman empire. Augustine thought that Christians should loyally perform their duties to the powers that be and thank God for any blessings that came from their country, but they should not have illusions about the nature of human governments. Ultimately every human government belongs to what Augustine called the “city of the world,” in which self-interest rules.
Augustine explained that all human governments are resolved to defend things of material and worldly value, and they will unhesitatingly destroy (in some form or fashion) anyone or anything that challenges their authority. Only in the City of God, says Augustine, or in the church, can we find a community that is dedicated not to defending self-interest, but rather to the love of God.
When we die with Christ and are raised again with him, we give up our ultimately allegiances to the principalities and powers of this world-even to the relatively good powers that benefit us. Although we are to be good citizens who value the civil order God has provided, our ultimate allegiance is to a higher power.
In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul wrote, “I am afraid that… your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). Many of us, myself included, have wrestled this political season with having our eyes, hearts, and minds led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. Political participation is a privilege, but with it comes a tremendous temptation to be drawn into and consumed by powerful rhetoric and propaganda. Our political ideologies can become to us our hope – that which saves and delivers us from our fear- taking the place of God.
We must realize that a gulf lies between the church and any human government no matter how admirable or how relatively good it may be. “Despite some overlaps, the church’s goals are never going to be nearly coextensive with the goals of the civilizations of the world. We should work for the relatively better.” We have important obligations to do whatever we can to help our neighbors-promoting just laws, good order, peace, education and opportunity. Nonetheless we should recognize that as we work for the relatively better in the “city of the world”, our successes will be relative.
“The church declares that the solutions offered by the nations of the world are always transitory solutions, themselves in need of reform. Such sobriety about the world should not lead to political cynicism or dissolution. It should however, reinforce the ultimate Christian truth that our final hope rest only on the grace of Christ” (Noll).
The failure of many Christians in the political realm has not been political engagement, rather, a failure to recognize and pronounce Christ and His Kingdom as supreme and independent.
The Truth We All Need
A political party, candidate, or ideology cannot satisfy the longings of our hearts or fully resolve the brokenness that surrounds us. It would serve us well to evaluate the position of our hearts towards the kingdoms of this world, the little kingdoms we make in our individual lives, and the better, true Kingdom that is ultimately demanding of our affections and the only way to true flourishing.
Let me encourage you to spend some time with the following questions. If the Spirit leads, repent (turn from your idolatry, and turn to Jesus) and rejoice in the good news of the Gospel!
- Who or what do you fear?
- Where do you place your hope?
- How is Jesus and His Kingdom better?
- If you believed this, how would this it affect the condition your heart and reshape the way you interact with others?
Don’t forget what Reggie wrote in the first post;
“One day, America and all her Presidents will just be a footnote in History – a kingdom that lasted for just a moment in time. When that day comes, Jesus will still be reigning supreme. One day, King Jesus will return, and the only Great King that has ever existed will rule this earth with the kind of glory that earthly kings can only dream of possessing. Church, let me remind you of what King David said in Psalm 20:7 (ESV): ‘Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.’ Church – don’t put your hope in earthly kings. Likewise, don’t despair over earthly kings. Instead – remember your true king!”