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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Friday, January 18, 2008

Idolatry takes many forms, #7: Politics, Our Saviour

I’ve had a couple of friends over the past few years tell me that I should go into politics. I find this to be rather humorous. While I have been blogging a fair bit more on politics in recent months, the subject matter is one which I have generally despised the better part of my life. I have faint memories of my late father sitting down in front of the six o’clock news every evening without failure, and the experience left a sense which I still carry in my subconsciousness that politics are much ado about nothing. No doubt my reaction to it was partially because of the disinterest that a young child would be expected to have. And in spite of that lingering sense, I now recognize this attitude as wrong. It is a common truism that you shouldn’t mix religion and politics; it just so happens, however, that this truism is actually a falsism. It wasn’t until I came to recognize the inseparable link between theology and politics, or maybe better, between God and politics, that politics became at all interesting.

I find it telling that many Christians will strive to know the ins and outs of the current political climate, and yet despise the suggestion that they should strive to know the deep things of Scripture at least as well. Broadening the idea of Christianity beyond Scripture itself to include culture and history, I am also amazed at how many Christians will read long biographies of American presidents and the histories of wars, and yet would eschew any biography of the great pastors and theologians of the church and any history of Christianity at all. I believe this has been fostered by the concept of Statism that I have been critiquing here, and it has been encouraged by the overpowering Messianic State that we live with in the U. S. today. The idea of Statism is a Modernistic one, and one of its earliest and clearest expressions in the Modern era was in the French Revolution, where a religious state was specifically cast off in exchange for an explicitly secular one. And so the controversy carries on to this day on the place of religion in relation to the State. Yet what seems to be assumed at a deeper level by both sides is that it is the State that determines the issue. I would suggest, rather, on the basis of Scripture, that it is God who determines the issue.

Dealing with the prominence of politics in the Modern mind, Jedediah Purdy, in his book For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment In America Today, writes:

For more than two hundred years, politics has been among the great sources of inspiration and purpose, giving shape to many lives. From the radical period of the French Revolution onward there has stood the promise that politics can change the human predicament in elemental ways. Politics, on this promise, could erase all the foolish, cruel, maddening accretions of history and replace them with fair and humane arrangements where for the first time people would live as free as they are born. For both the revolutionaries whose ambitions convulsed the world and the crusading reformers of Britain and America, politics was the fulcrum on which women and men could move the lever of history. They need only a firm place to stand to take up Archimedes; old boast and move the world.

This extraordinary promise attracted the people with the greatest capacity and need for hope, the ones with the keenest sensitivity to suffering and cruelty and the strongest impulse to work against them. Politics was the means by which those who were most keenly aware of what should be could turn that moral truth into historical reality. Politics in effect took over the role of religion for many people in both this century and the last. It gave purpose to individual lives. Its aim of remaking the world carried the promise of redemption, both of whole societies and of the long labors of the individuals who worked to change them. Politics was the way to service, to heroism, and to sainthood.

Because its ambitions ran so far and so deep, politics posed questions that were inescapable for serious people. The questions of what sort of country to live in, what kind of men and women to be, how to work, and sometimes even how to love were all ones that politics promised – or threatened – to resolve. The German author Thomas Mann expressed a widely shared perception, which was sometimes reluctant and sometimes enthusiastic, when he wrote, “In our time, the question of man’s destiny presents itself in political terms.” Not acknowledging that truth meant avoiding the leading drama of the time.

I haven’t had opportunity to read Purdy’s book much beyond this point. In the next paragraph, he says that this idea of politics has largely vanished from the popular mind, as the general public has come to regard politics, and specifically politicians, with suspicion and doubt. Purdy’s book is a few years old now (written in 1999), and I wonder what he would say today. The current obsession over the coming presidential election would seem to indicate that whereas there is a great measure of distrust shown towards politicians, this distrust isn’t universal, and it is expressed toward the politicians, rather than toward politics more abstractly. This is especially true in Evangelical circles. The question for them doesn’t seem to be whether or not politics is trustworthy, but rather which politicians are trustworthy. Since the Reagan era, if not the Carter era, Evangelicals have spoken and acted as if all would be well if they could only get the right man in office, especially the Oval Office. This belies an implicit distrust in everything related to more directly to Christianity. Prayer is impotent, preaching the Word is ineffective, corporate worship is irrelevant. And don’t even ask about the Sacraments. Essentially, their behaviour communicates the fact that they don’t believe that God has control over anything. God, as it would seem, is either impotent, or doesn’t care. But since most American Christians believe Jesus is returning any minute now, one would understand why they think this way. “Things are growing worse and worse,” they say, misapplying the text. Why they continue to fight in the political realm so vehemently, then, is the question. One would think they would recognize how inconsistent this is with their end times philosophy. But they usually don’t, and I would suggest it is, once again, Statism at work that causes this.

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