I saw a lot of social media activity from religious folks the other day about Donald Trump’s executive order on religious freedom: “Praise God!” “God is on the move.” “I praise the Lord for what He is doing in this land.” And so on.
Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but I get cautious when I sense a lot of overlap and connection between religious faith and the political power structures of a nation.
Christianity has always worked best as a counter-cultural movement. This is the model we see in the New Testament. Jesus and the early church were counter-cultural, opposing the established religious and political power structures of the day.
But throughout history, there has been a predictable pattern: Christianity begins as a counter-cultural movement. Over time, Christianity becomes more and more intertwined with the political power structures of the day. Eventually, Christianity looks more like an Empire and less like Jesus. Once this happens, Christianity loses its relevance and dies out.
This transition has already happened in parts of Europe, where most countries are considered “post-Christian.” And this transition may be happening right now in the United States. Consider the link between (a) the close intermingling of Christianity and conservative politics in the last several decades and (b) the sharp increase in the number of young people identifying as non-religious in recent years.
There’s a troubling passage in the Gospel of John that illustrates the dangers of having a close connection between one’s religious faith and the local political powers. It involved the death of Jesus.
From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.
“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.
But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.
Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. (John 19:12-16)
We have no king but Caesar. There was a close connection between the religious leaders of that time and the existing political power structures. Might the same thing be happening in the United States today? As Christians, are we letting our religious faith get too closely connected with our political identities?
If Jesus was walking around today and challenged us about nonviolence (as opposed to emphasizing war and guns), healing the sick (as opposed to restricting health care), and giving our money to the poor (as opposed to giving tax breaks for the wealthy), would we listen to him?
Or would we dismiss him, yelling, “We have no king but Caesar!”