My Thanksgiving traditions include cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, and the question, “So Emily, anybody special in your life?”
As a single young adult, I sometimes wonder if my most significant contribution to holiday meals is not sweet-potato casserole, but a conversation topic other than politics. Not that I don’t enjoy political conversation; I am blessed with a family of lively and different opinions.
Pilgrims, politics, and singleness do not seem so disparate from each other when they become part of a family tradition.
As a child, the story of the Pilgrims resonated with my family's values: the courage that answered obstacle with adventure, the ideal of modest devotion, a commitment to Christian education, prompting a departure from a secularizing culture. These might not be the true “morals” of the Pilgrim story, but they were the messages I took from it, and with them, a desire to be part of a “Christian Country.”
A child’s understanding of Christianity is that it is the social equivalent of duct tape—enough of it will fix any broken system: If we could only go back to being like the Pilgrims. …
I now wonder whether a “Christian America” ever was or could be? And is that even what we should want?
The Singleness Connection
All this does have something to do with being single, too. I often feel I have to justify my singleness. I have heard many routine "To the Single Christians” sermons, most of them urgently comforting. But I am cherishing this time of uncomplicated focus, a simpler attitude of faithfulness.
But I have realized I have been using some of the same words to describe why I choose not to align with a political party.
It seems the Church and State have, at the very least, an awkward relationship. Could the Church reclaim a beautiful singleness in the political sphere? Is that an attitude of faithfulness?
The Church is so often compared to a bride. As I see my brothers and sisters in Christ divide along the lines of political right and left, I wonder if the Church might take some of the advice it has given to Christian singles. I wonder if the faithfulness required of us, as we wait for our wedding feast to begin, is a kind of political chastity.
Church and State
If we consider that the Church has often joined with the state to save it, to do good, the results have been grim indeed.
History shows a pattern of the Church linked to the state and abused in that relationship. She is lured by promises of great goods and noble ends. Of change.
When the Catholic church stepped into the need for societal structure and authority left by the waning Roman Empire, she took its capital, its language, and crowning the heirs of the kingdoms it bore.
She also took the corruption, the economizing of salvation, and the politicizing of priesthood, that would, at least in part, prompt the Reformation.
- The Church co-signed on crusades and inquisitions.
- And America retained a long, ingrown grip on the horror of slavery even as William Wilberforce across the sea fought the slave trade from the conviciton of his faith.
- And the British Empire continued its systematic dehumanization of the people they colonized disguised as evangelism under the banner of Wilberforce’s God.
- And let’s not forget the many ethnic and political conflicts from Northern Ireland to Eastern Europe to Africa, where men and women soaked their shared soil with the blood of people redeemed in their shared baptism.
These things have been done, are being done now, in the name of Christianity.
It seems increasingly unlikely to me that the American experiment will be the exception to this hypothesis tested in this history: the kingdom of God, when reduced to temporal ends, is twisted, broken, and corrupted.
The Bold Choice
Perhaps we should call for a radical decoupling of the Christian Church from the engine of the American state, not as a cowardly surrender of power, but a wise and bold refusal to plummet off the edge after this latest empire in its inevitable fall.
If we move forward in our marriage to the American state, we will have to share our name. If we are a "Christian Nation," we will have to own the actions and consequences of a population who is increasingly anything but Christian and the leaders they elect. One-hundred percent of U.S. Presidents have professed to be Christians. Drilling into the percentage of those Christians who have committed adultery, born false witness, owned other human beings, to say nothing of their responsibility in larger movements of violence and injustice, would be tired and largely irrelevant. None of these men is a greater sinner than you or I, and the weight of their sin is to be appraised by the judgment of God. But the weight of their witness, what their lives tell the world about the name they bear—Christian—sits like a marble in the dough of history and culture. It makes an impression and often drags it down.
I realize that it is not America’s or the American Christians’ responsibility to save Christianity. I have come to realize the danger and inconsistency in the idea of American Christianity. The gospel is not an American export. We are not its sole and sacred keepers. The Church flourishes. Indeed, it thrives in many of the countries where it has also been unequally yoked to states and causes.
“Christian” and “American” have no meaningful connection beyond overlapping periods of influence in history. It is because the state has no duty to Christianity that our allegiance to any version of America will always be one-sided.
Be the Conscience
I am still American and Christian. I must work out how one will influence the other. Isolation and passivity do not make sense to me. To abandon the work of redemption, of faithfulness, seems just as much a death of real Christianity as its consumption in the maw of a political agenda.
I’m still going to vote. I will volunteer on campaigns. And my faith must mediate and guide that. And what of the Christians in office?
Martin Luther King Jr. is frequently quoted to me—“The church must be the conscience of the state.”
Its conscience, but not its concubine.
I’ve attempted to hide in conservatism and liberalism, the flimsiness of my supposed “convictions” evidenced in the flexibility of my beliefs to suit my social circle. This simply demonstrates that no policy mattered more to me than the approval of my friends. I hope this is not the case with my spiritual convictions. It makes sense to cast off the things you do not value enough to defend in favor of what you do.
Like politics for faith.
For a long time, I have been convinced that my problem was I didn’t know enough about politics. I have carried a burden of guilt to read more news, to do more research. But as ashamed as I have been of my ignorance and laziness, it has also been a good excuse to put off engaging others on their beliefs until I know more.
I can talk about the gospel right now, though.
I’ve come to the unoriginal truth that Christian-anything, including politics, must start with Christianity. However simplistic or common, I cannot shake off my attraction to the beauty and freedom of giving up on a Christian America to simply be Christian. I’ve decided, when people ask me what my political party or affiliation is, I will say, “I’m a Christian,” and take up the responsibility of defending or debunking policies against that litmus test.
If I even get to policies, that is. I predict the word “Christian” will launch a set of assumptions and arguments about what “Christian” does or should mean. But I would argue there is no question more worthy of our time than the nature and effect of the gospel.