As a practicing Christian, there are few seasons in America more dangerous for the life and witness of the Church than a presidential election cycle. Every four years latent disagreements turn into a religious civil war with Christian sisters and brothers turning against one another. Many line up in Camp Republican, while others march to Camp Democrat. Religious conservatives speak and act as though God is on their side. And though liberals may not be crass enough to say the same thing back, but what they say and do suggests they are thinking it. In all of this, both sides make missteps in the way they engage with each other and the broader society in governmental politics.
While I could offer myriad critiques of the ways Christians politick in America, perhaps one of the most significant mistakes made is the most subtle: using the wrong scriptural metaphor to understand the relationship between the Church and the United States. Bluntly speaking, too many Christians either tacitly or explicitly assume that the U.S. is like a new Israel, a Christian nation, when in reality the better metaphor is America as Babylon. Operating in the wrong metaphor frustrates Christian expectations and hopes for the land they live in and also leads to us at times harming our neighbors who have different beliefs, values, and perspectives from our own. Of course, seeing this land as a place for a Christian country is as old as the early European settlers.
The view of America having a special destiny before God can be seen in the earliest days of the English Puritan colonies on the East Coast. In 1630, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, famously described their new endeavor in a sermon he wrote on the ship Arbella while heading to the New World. He referenced a phrase from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, saying, “For we must consider that we shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Winthrop immediately went on to describe the wager before the new colony explicitly in the covenantal terms applied to Israel in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 30: If you as a people are faithful to God’s commands in Scripture, as a people you will prosper; if you are disobedient as a people “I (God) declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (Winthrop intentionally re-words the end of this scriptural quote, taking out the Jordan River verbiage replacing it with, “the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it”). Historian Mark Noll notes, “Most of the Puritans who came to New England…held that the Bible teaches a congregational organization, albeit an organization in league with the state (i.e. that churches are organized individually but cooperate with godly magistrates to promote the total reformation of society).” (A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, p. 33)
This sense of America having an Israel-like calling from and relationship with the Judeo-Christian god is something that has held, going into the creation of the United States and beyond. It is not uncommon for evangelical Christian leaders to speak of America as a “Christian nation” and to desire that the leaders they vote for reflect their particular values and social agendas; the interests here are not just in how various people’s churches exist, live, and function in society, but whether Christians values, perspectives, and interested get to remain those of the state. Fearing the growing secularization of U.S. society, such Christians not only want to “make America great again,” but to lead it back in line with God’s call to be a faithful society. In election years, this means finding and choosing leaders that will reflect and assert their social moral values as particularly understood in Christian tradition.
There is just one problem with the model of the United States as a new Israel or as a Christian nation: America’s founding documents make such a model unintelligible. Plainly stated, nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution does it state the purpose and call of the United States of America as being to recognize and worship Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe and as the second person of the Trinity. Nor do these documents reference that the cause of this new government is to proclaim and embody the good news of Jesus Christ and his kingdom on this earth. Given that Thomas Jefferson was a deist who famously made his own version of the New Testament that cut out all of the miracles and supernatural elements within it, his references to a “Creator” and “Providence,” point more to a generic god than one that resembles the god of Christian faith. Jefferson aside, having myriad Christians involved in the founding of the country or having a populace that was or still is largely Christian does not make the U.S. government or its interests Christian. One can argue that Christian-influenced ethics and concerns influences the nation as its beginning and still hold sway, but Christian-influenced and being Christian are not the same thing. The United States is something else.
The better and more accurate metaphor for Christians living in America would be to see their situation as akin to living in Babylon. For those unfamiliar with the biblical narrative, Babylon was a superpower in the ancient Near East that forcibly made the Kingdom of Judah a client state in the late 7th century BC, and eventually between 597-582 BC deported masses of Judahites out of Judah and into Babylon (and significant to Jewish history, Solomon’s temple was destroyed); historians refer to this as the Babylonian Captivity. Until the Persians conquered the Babylonians and let the Jews return to home in 536 BC, they lived as “strangers in a foreign land.” Certainly Christians as Christians did not have their homeland destroyed and get dragged off into captivity in North America; that is not where the comparison lies and I would not want to disrespect the experience that was Israel’s. Instead the idea is that Christians already have a political and “peopled” identity and it is called the Church. The Church is a people that is spread all across the world in many nations whose allegiance is to the God of Israel. This “politic” is more ultimate than any national identity or destiny. And the Church’s call is to proclaim a King and a Kingdom more determinative than a liberal democracy. With such a citizenship and allegiance, Christians cannot help but be like strangers in America and any other land in which they live. Trying to usher in a Christian kingdom via the means, mechanism, and force of a secular state becomes unintelligible, particularly when one worships a crucified God who willingly eschewed and absorbed the violence and domination of the state rather than adopting them as legitimate.
Such a model is not a call for Christians to withdraw from political or social engagement in America. In a pluralistic society such as ours, it is simply the recognition that America invites us to the political table, but that table is not ours or something that we should try to use to coerce others to worship our god. It is a secular table that invites us and many others to it. And as long as we are allowed at that table and are not asked or expected to violate what God calls us to as a people, then we should be there with everyone else. Perhaps one of the better scriptural paradigms for this is the Book of Daniel. In it, the prophet Daniel and Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego, all were Judahites that had been forced to go to Babylon. The head of the Babylonian King Nebechadnezzar’s palace selected them to be educated and in order to serve in the pagan king’s court (1.3-7). Though they were not in a country of their own that they controlled, they did get training and tried to serve the royal court to the best of their abilities. In this, they did not abandon their identities as Judahites and their worship of their god. When the King’s orders and decrees functionally asked them to abandon who they were for the state’s way, they did not. In several instances in the story, Daniel and his compatriots were threatened with death for not betraying their convictions and were miraculously saved from death each time. In all of this, they were able to serve and try to help the larger, foreign land that they were in without trying to take it over or even avoid the consequences of sticking to their convictions when those went against their host culture. To use a Christian cliche, they were able to be in Babylon without being of Babylon.
Because Christians already have a king and are a part of a political body (the Church) that determines and instantiates how they should live in the world with one another as well as others, they cannot claim the United States of America with its Enlightenment values as something of ultimate importance or that it is of Jesus. In a society like America where there are large numbers of Christians living with and among people of all kind of creeds, beliefs, and philosophies, this should ideally help mitigate some of the difficulties of not agreeing in important ways of constitutes “the good life.” For instance, though Christians can continue to argue with each other about the legitimacy and morality of committed same-sex relationships in the Church, when the state determines that it cannot and should not exclude gay and lesbian couples from entering into the same contractual relationships that come with legal benefits and responsibilities as heterosexual couples do (i.e. a marriage license), that should not be particularly problematic for the Church. Christian communities that are supportive of same-sex relationships can offer marriage rites and have it also be so that such couples can be legally married in the eyes of the state. And those churches that believe same-sex sexual relationships are sinful can continue to teach that, not allow gay marriages in their churches, and still offer hetereosexual marriage rites. The state allowing gay marriage is the same as it is allowing marriage for heterosexual couples, which is to say in both cases it is an act of Babylon. In either case, whether for or against “gay marriage,” from a Christian point of view, the power and authority of the state does not legitimate or make a “Christian” marriage, so a wedding license theologically is a ultimately a matter of indifference.
Undoubtedly the next four years in the U.S. will be full of argument and acrimony when it comes to politics. As far as Christians go, I fear the infighting that will occur will make the Bush and Obama years look like child’s play. Perhaps one of the saddest parts about that will not be the disagreeing (disagreements are a normal part of community life), but the character, harshness, suspicion and cruelty of how the disagreeing will take place. My hope is that during this time, though, there will be voices in the Church that will both argue for civility and remind one another that any great hope placed in a government for bringing ultimate change or justice is a misplaced and idolatrous hope. I am in no way suggesting that churches should not call governments to do right or not call out wrongdoing. I am simply saying that in doing so we need to be aware of whom we are dealing with and to temper our expectations accordingly (“better” is worth striving for even if “perfect” is not a possibility). Governments can do plenty of good in the world and should be asked and compelled to do so. But they will always only be bandages–even if some are really good ones–in a world that cannot help but continually cut itself. Any ultimate healing will only come from somewhere/Someone else and that healing and its proclamation are the Church’s first obligation to embody and proclaim. In the case of America, Christians will only do this well when they acknowledge and accept that they are “resident aliens” within America, not synonymous or coterminous with it.