As we continue to focus as a church family on how to remain faithful to Christ in a politically fractured and divided world, I wish to focus for a moment on why it is so important that the church remain strictly non-partisan. The church, as an institution, has long faced the temptation to cozy up beside kings and emperors and powerful political parties.
Since the conversion of Constantine all the way back in the year 313, the church has found political power and influence quite intoxicating. When Constantine became the first emperor of Rome to adopt Christianity as his own, the church stood to gain a lot… and did: it was named the official religion of the empire, tax revenues were directed to build larger church buildings and to pay priests, and the persecution of individual Christians ceased. But what might seem like a great victory for the church turned out to open up a host of new issues: Jesus became a tool for political power, and the cross a symbol to rally the troops to conquer foreign “pagan” peoples. And in the midst of it all, the humility and self-emptying path of Jesus was forgotten.
You may recall that in the gospels we are told that Jesus faced three temptations while in the wilderness for forty days. One of those was to receive “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Luke 4:5-6). Jesus successfully resisted this temptation and, by doing so, set an example for his followers to shun the pursuit of power and influence as the highest purpose in life. This is not to say that entering politics or civil service is incompatible with the Christian life, but it does call into question the pursuit of power for its own sake as a worthy goal for followers of Jesus.
Sadly, the church has sometimes forgotten this lesson. In the 1920s and 30s in Germany, the predominantly Protestant Christian nation suffered profound economic instability after the shattering loss of the First World War. Seeking strong leadership and someone who would unify the nation, the German church enthusiastically welcomed the rise of the National Socialist Party and, except for a small minority, the bishops, pastors, and church leaders enthusiastically supported the creation of the Deutsche Christen, or “German Church.” By allying themselves with Hitler and the Nazi parties, these churches and their leaders ensured their political relevance and personal power, but history has repudiated these “mainline” Christians for compromising with anti-semitism, Aryan racism, and Nazism.
Thankfully, courageous and prophetic leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth organized a resistance movement known as the Confessing Church, which stayed faithful to the principles of the Christian faith despite severe persecution by the majority. In 1934 these churches came together and signed the Barmen Declaration, which declared in part that “Jesus Christ is the only Lord of all aspects of personal life. There should be no other authority,” and they rejected any claim that the state made as an authority over the church. For his courageous stance, Bonhoeffer would eventually pay with his life under the Nazi regime.
But all of this is more than mere history. We live in a day presently where powerful, corrupt people would gladly use the emblem of the cross and the name of Jesus to advance their own political influence. When I recently polled a large number of teenagers and young adults about why they are walking away from the church, one of the most common answers I received related to how widely the church has embraced right wing politics. I don’t have time to outline here how the evangelical church has largely aligned itself with the religious right since the early 1980’s, but suffice it to say that it has followed a very similar pattern as that outlined above. The fact that Christianity in America has become synonymous with the GOP in the minds of many of our young ought to alarm us, and we should do what we can to correct this perception whenever possible.
In the early days of Methodism in America, John Wesley wrote to several of his leaders across the Atlantic, warning them that they should “addict [themselves] to no political party.” It is good advice. When we do this, we not only compromise our witness, but cheapen the faith handed down through the apostles. The answer, in our chase, is not to swap alliance with the GOP for alliance with the Democrats, but rather to keep a prophetic distance from ALL political power so that we can point to the Lamb Who Was Slain as the true ruler of all.