The Heresy of Politicized Christianity

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Deacon Greg Kandra published a post today describing a “study” that says that “Christian Progressives” are on the cultural ascendancy. 

I put the word study in quotes because all this study amounts to is some yo-yo with letters after his name who went out and tabulated Google searches, dividing them between “conservative Christian” and “progressive Christian.” His criteria: Google searches for “Christian right” vs google searches for “Christian left.” 

Based on this handy-dandy spreadsheet workout, this person has extrapolated to all sorts of predictions and prophecies about the direction of Christianity in the future USA. 

Aside from the fact that this is about as scientific as predicting the future by studying the entrails of a goat, it does reveal quite a lot about the researcher and the way that Christianity is discussed today. 

After I converted to Catholicism, I encountered a lot of talk about which Catholics were “orthodox” or not. I remember wondering what the tar-heel an “orthodox” Catholic might be. I had some idea about what an Orthodox Jew was. But an “orthodox” Catholic seemed to be one of those vague, do-it-yourself monikers that people hang on themselves in order to chastise other people. To this day, I’ve never heard a useful definition of what an “orthodox” Catholic might be, even though I still read about folks who claim to be one and seem to think they know. 

Now that I’ve dipped my toe in the blogging waters, I find myself repeatedly encountering verbiage that attempts to define Christians and Christianity along political groupings. Even here at Patheos we have a portal for “progressive” Christians. I don’t fault Patheos for this. The moniker is out there everywhere and the Progressive Christians themselves seem to think they are members of some clearly demarcated understanding of Christianity that groups them together and separates them from the rest of us who stand at the foot of the cross. 

Not that I’m saying they don’t stand at the foot of the cross. But I guess they would place themselves in a separate group of before-the-cross-standers that distinguishes them from other, non-progressive Christians. Of course, we also have the “conservative” Christians there before the cross, as well. In this Americanized/politicized version of Christianity I guess the rest of us who don’t want to be “conservative” or “progressive” Christians just wander around aimlessly, or maybe circulate back and forth between the two groups.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider this imaginary portrait I just painted. We have the cross, with the crucified Savior of the World hanging on it. And we have His so-called followers standing there in front of it, looking not at Him, but at each other. The “conservative” Christians are standing as far away from the “progressive” Christians as they can get, and vice versa. They are not thinking about or concerned with the God who died for them on Calvary. They are not grieved by what their sins have wrought. They are not caught in wonder at the love God has for them. 

Nope. They are both like the Pharisee who went to pray and spent his whole time thanking God that he wasn’t like that sinful tax collector over there. 

Pharisee

Does anyone remember what Jesus had to say about the Pharisee? If you don’t, you can find it in Luke 8: 9-14.

I wrote a post yesterday, encouraging Christians to engage with the political structure. After reading the comments it garnered, I repented of that post. We aren’t ready. 

Before Christians can engage the larger culture they’ve first got to be all-in for Jesus. That appears to be a major stumbling block for a lot of people. These ridiculous designations of “conservative” and “progressive” Christians are a symptom and an expression of just how far away we are from actually following Christ, or even taking Him seriously at all.

In today’s America, “conservative” and “progressive” are political terms. If we were being honest, we’d just dispense with those terms and say what we mean. On the one side we have people who twist the Gospels to justify themselves for following right wing politics instead of following Jesus, and on the other side, we have people who twist the Gospels to justify themselves for following left wing politics instead of following Jesus. 

They are, both of them, following the world instead of following Jesus. And they are claiming that Jesus not only supports them in this, but He is following them. 

I’m not a theologian. I’m just a pew-sitting Catholic who is grateful that, after the things I’ve done, they let me inside the Church at all. But I love Jesus. 

This disregard of Him, this crude claim of ownership of Him, by people who carry His name hurts me. It stings and bites at me when I think about it. What is wrong that so many people can look at the living God and see a self-justifying reflection of themselves?

I repeat: I am not a theologian. But I think that this twisting of the Gospels to suit fashionable politics and political power is heretical. It is also, evidently, deeply embedded in people’s hearts. 

Diamond cross pendant er41160

If you look at the cross and feel smirky holier than thou self-justification for you and your politics, then I would wager that you are not looking at the cross at all. You are considering a piece of jewelry you’ve hung around your neck that is made of cold metal and, without the real cross that it symbolizes, can not save you. 

Conservative/Progressive/Right/Left Christianity is a human invention. It gives us what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” which is to say self-approval. It makes us self-righteous and mean. 

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If you are interpreting the Gospels in the light of your politics, then you are not following Christ. This business of co-opting the Gospels to fit the world has eternal consequences. 

There is one Jesus; one narrow way; one means of salvation; one cross. 

Our job as American Christians is to believe that one Jesus, walk that narrow way, and to conform our lives, including our politics, to Christ and Him crucified.

I want to follow Christ. I do not want to follow conservative Christ or progressive Christ or right or left or middle of the road Christ. I want to follow and I pray for the grace to follow, Christ and Him crucified by conservatives and progressives and rightists and leftists and all the rest of the crowd who will not follow Him without reframing Him to suit themselves. 

That is why I accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. Not because they are easy or politically correct. But because I’ve tried making God in my own image. I know that I can’t judge, can’t decide, can’t know. Left to my own devices I will do horrible things, just as my heretical brothers and sisters on the left and the right are doing horrible things. 

Standing before the real cross means that you know you are not worthy to be there. You know that your own understanding put Him there. You know yourself for what you are and you realize that without Him you are doomed to the hell you have created and earned; to the hell you deserve.

“Lean not on your own understanding” the scriptures tell us. 

It’s good advice. 

  • Dave

    “That is why I accept the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

    And that, Rebecca, is your definition of an “orthodox” Catholic.

    • hamiltonr

      Dave, do you mean that an “orthodox” Catholic is just someone who accepts what the Church teaches?

      • Dave

        Yes, exactly.

        • hamiltonr

          I guess that makes me at least an orthodox wannabe. I accept the Church’s teachings, although I have struggled and still struggle to understand some of them. I try to follow …. but all I can say about that is thank God for confession. Thanks for the info, btw.

          • Dave

            Struggling with them (especially at first) just makes you human. Sinning does not make one unorthodox either – otherwise Mary would be the only orthodox Catholic around.

            • hamiltonr

              :-)

      • vox borealis

        Yes, that’s it. They very are rare indeed, even among self-identified Catholics.

      • Peter John Resweber

        …and the orthodox Catholic approach to politics was perhaps best expressed by a non-Catholic, Abraham Lincoln, who has been quoted as saying: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

      • Peter John Resweber

        …and the orthodox Catholic approach to politics was perhaps best expressed by a non-Catholic, Abraham Lincoln, who has been quoted as saying: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

  • MeanLizzie

    Becca, there sounds like an element of idolatry in all of this mixing up of faith with ideology. Hmmm…Someone should write a book about that….oh, wait a minute! :-)

  • Deacon Jason Schalow

    Great post. The biggest distraction, in my opinion, from people accomplishing the real work of Christ in our parishes today is too much concern over whether others are conservative or progressive enough (depending on where you are). The effort that is put into this tribalism keeps otherwise good and dedicated Christians from spending their time engaging in the work to which God is really calling them. I loved your image of the groups staring at each other instead of staring at the cross. Spot on!

    • hamiltonr

      Thank you Deacon.

  • pagansister

    Just as there are many religions in this wide world, there are in each, different interpretations of the teachings of each and folks will gravitate towards others who believe the same way. IMO, there is NO perfect faith, none holds sway over another—all have some very wise advice, and some not such good/wise advice. In my case, I draw from all faiths for guidance. This obviously doesn’t work for everyone, as it does for me. Rebecca, you seem to be a very happy person in the Catholic faith, drawing comfort from it’s rituals and teachings. It totally works for you, but for others, it doesn’t. In the end, does it really make a difference what faith a person belongs to, or if indeed they follow one at all? I don’t think so.

  • FW Ken

    When I was received into the Catholic Church, I said words to the effect that “I believe all that the Catholic Church teaches to be revealed by God”. Saying that didn’t make me better than anyone – I’m not – but it did make me a Catholic. I certainly didn’t understand all that the Church teaches, and still don’t, but I trust the source.

    • pagansister

      All that is important is the it works for you. :-)

      • FW Ken

        No. what matters is if it is true. Although it “work for me”, as I recently posted, it’s not about me.

        • pagansister

          OOOK—-

          • TheodoreSeeber

            In fact, religion is at its most powerful, its most influential, when it doesn’t work for us.

            • pagansister

              That is what I’ve heard—-

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    You finally found an angle on this that I support, and I think I support everything you say in there, though you’ve written so much there may be something I missed. I never thought of Catholicism as being Conservative or Progressive. You are right, those are political terms. Catholicism is beyond politics but encompasses all of life, so it is the case that politics gets intertwined. I understand Conservative Catholics to be Catholics who when it comes to politics happen to be on the right; Progressive Catholics I understand to be Catholics who when it comes to politics happen to be on the left. Except for something like abortion, I think either side can make a case for being closer to Church positions. Orthodox and non-Orthodox are better terms for characterizing the religious/theological views of Catholics.
    By the way, I don’t think I would be considered an Orthodox Catholic. Yes, I’m against gay marriage and female priests, but I go against the orthodoxy when it comes to lots of other positions. I’m not for Latin only masses; I happen to think the Church position on non-abortifacient birth control is dumb; I think the church should change its position on the death penalty; I even believe in universal salvation. I’ve argued on these positions. Does that make me orthodox/conservative or what?

    • FW Ken

      Manny -
      Don’t sell yourself short. Liturgical preferences are not a matter of Faith. I’m not much for the Traditional Latin Mass either, although I’m glad those who benefit from it have it. The Church doesn’t have a position on the death penalty, although it’s trending in a certain direction. However, it’s ok to disagree with that trend at this point. As to Universal Salvation, I guess that depends on what you mean. We know that all who are saved come to God through Christ. It’s true that the Church has never definitely stated that anyone is in hell, because we don’t know what might transpire between a soul and God in the moments of death. Very faithful Catholics have opined that the lake of fire was made for “satan and his angels”, and that the mercy of God might touch every human heart in the end. Who knows? As to birth control, I’m a bachelor, so I’ll skip that one. :-)
      The key is to stay open. As I said above, I don’t understand all that the Church teaches. Purgatory and Indulgences were a long time coming, and I still have questions about the latter. But a question is not a doubt, and a doubt is not (yet) a dissent. Following on what I said above: what source do you trust – the Church which is the Body of Christ, or your own self?

      • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

        Thank you Ken. An excellent discssion of Universalism occured here at First Things a few months ago. Read the article and the coments. I am the commentor named “Manny” toward the middle to end of the comments section. It was an excellent dscussion and both sides made their case if you want to form an educated opinion on the issue.
        http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/03/universalism

        • FW Ken

          I think I read that essay and comment thread at the time. It rings a bell. The only universalism I reject out of hand is the sort of religious indifferentism in which God is a doting grandfather who pats us all on the head and declares that it doesn’t really matter what we did. From my perspective, that would violate the justice at the heart of creation. All of that said, I’m well aware of perfectly orthodox theologians who posit that perhaps all will be saved, or how could we pray: Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.

          • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

            I’m in full agreement with you there.

  • Mark Golding

    I was converted to a Christ of miracles. Later I was converted to a Christ of the Bible. Later I was converted to a Christ of Pentecostalism. Then to a Christ of orthodox Catholicsm. Out of the total confusion I have become converted to Christ himself. Image from image. Not image from tradition. The church is in disarray theologically because it has canonized traditions emanating from the Talmud instead of making Jesus Lord.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The only thing I’m certain of, is that I’ve yet to see a country correctly order religion and government. In fact, I’d say the entirety of the Protestant Reformation was about government trying to take a hold of religion (and sometimes failing).

  • Bill S

    “You know yourself for what you are and you realize that without Him you are doomed to the hell you have created and earned; to the hell you deserve.”

    Too extreme. What do you really think being a Christian is all about?

    • hamiltonr

      Jesus is radical Bill. True Christianity is the most radical thing going. It turns your life upside down and re-orients you totally. That begins with accepting that your sins are sins and giving them up. It’s a matter of saying yes to unbounded love and the true freedom — the only freedom there is, btw — of walking with Christ. I am so sorry that you’ve never experienced this.

      • Bill S

        ” It turns your life upside down and re-orients you totally. That begins with accepting that your sins are sins and giving them up.”

        People who go around with that attitude bring nothing but trouble. They accept re-orientation and seeing the world upside down like Peter on the cross. What the world sees as good, they see as bad and visa versa. They impose their upside down views on gay marriage, contraception, abortion, etc. on the rest of society.

        • hamiltonr

          If by “trouble” you mean shining the light of truth on such things as child sacrifice (abortion) and social destruction (gay marriage) then you are right. Converted Christians who have allowed Christ to re-make them certainly are “trouble” for the world.

          As I said, Jesus is radical. It IS radical to tell people who claim that whether or not we should put whole classes of human being outside the protection of the law so that they may be killed with impunity that they are, in fact and in truth, killing other people.

          It IS radical to tell people who claim, as you did on another post, that whether or not human beings have an inherent right to life is a matter of personal “philosophy” that they are, in fact, and in truth, lying to themselves and to everyone who hears them; that they are in fact, and in truth, stone-cold killers.

          It IS radical to tell people the plain and obvious truth and the coupling of two men or two women is not the same as the true marriage of a man and a woman; and that people who claim otherwise are indulging in a politically-correct fantasy.

          You are following the petty gods of this world Bill and by so doing you are proclaiming fantasy as fact and denying the humanity of millions. Tell the truth of who you are Bill, and stop blaming God for your misery about yourself.

          • Bill S

            “stop blaming God for your misery about yourself.”

            I would like nothing more than to try to find some common ground with Catholics and to not be constantly opposing the stands that they take. But it is becoming increasingly more difficult to do because they intentionally go against the grain and think they are doing good all the time. There is no talking any sense into them. They won’t be reasonable. Marcus Aurealus called Christians obstinate and that’s what they are today. They truly think that they represent God and anyone who goes against them goes against God.

            • TheodoreSeeber

              That’s because we have changed our lives to conform to God, instead of reinventing God to conform to our lives.

            • Archaeopteryx

              ‘He that is not with me, is against me; and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth.’

              Our Lord and His apostles were all troublemakers, with many spending time in jail and all but one ultimately martyred.

              The Church, following His example, has never had an easy relationship with the temporal powers because it insists on calling out evil and telling the powers that be ‘No, you shouldn’t do that, it’s wrong. No, you shouldn’t kill him, it’s wrong. No, you shouldn’t declare a whole group of people to not be human, it’s wrong.’ No wonder Caesar and many governments since have declared Christians an enemy.

              Why should we bother mouthing platitudes to the current fads of fickle mortals?

              • Bill S

                ” it insists on calling out evil and telling the powers that be ‘No, you shouldn’t do that, it’s wrong.”

                Exactly. And who is the arbiter of good and evil, right and wrong, etc.?

                This is where Christians can always expect opposition. But, will the opposition always be wrong? If so, why?

                • Archaeopteryx

                  ‘Exactly. And who is the arbiter of good and evil, right and wrong, etc.? ‘

                  ಠ_ಠ

                  ‘This is where Christians can always expect opposition. But, will the opposition always be wrong? If so, why?’

                  We do expect opposition. The world hates the Church and Man despises being told his vices are vices. One things the Church has either inherited and made a dogmatic ruling on a point of morality, yes, any opposition will always be wrong. Because Christ is Truth, and anything in opposition to Truth is, by definition, false.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          I’d rather be upside down from you than right side up in your scrupulosity, where the only right is when you are doing harm!

  • peggy-o

    Great topic please keep revisiting. Given repetition we might come to some great discussions and understandings among ourselves but mostly for Christ.

    I am an orthodox catholic in progress. All that means to me is to know and love Christ in full truth–not my idea or opinion–but the reality of what is true. Like Chesterton, I discovered the joy and freedom of truth in His church–its sacraments and truths enliven the journey and protect me from my own errors.

    Most folks I know came to orthodoxy from a conservative place and I from the left. It was hard at first to relate some folks seemed less pastoral. But the reality is as you suggest that we need to know and live the truth without labels or prejudice.

    I don’t think it means supporting latin only masses as Manny suggests. And it is as radical as Bill suggests wonderfully, radically truthful and loving!

    This is Peg btw, had too common of a name and too old of an ipod. So changed to my old deadhead moniker–hows that for a combo–orthodox catholic and Grateful Deadhead!

    • hamiltonr

      Thanks Peg. It’s great to hear from you. I think this is good advice, btw.

    • Bill S

      “All that means to me is to know and love Christ in full truth”

      That is what separates Christians from the rest of the world. They honestly and truly believe that the Gospels are true.

      • hamiltonr

        You are so right Bill.

      • FW Ken

        So true, although sometimes it’s a hard-won belief. Which of us hasn’t had a crisis of faith? Or two?

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    Do you have any info on the beautiful picture of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector you used in this post?

    • hamiltonr

      I found it on Photobucket. I’ve seen it in a number of places, which leads me to believe that it’s a copy of a rather well-known Icon. But I don’t know a lot more than that. Maybe someone else can help.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Just because you call your scruple an opinion, does not make it less of a scruple- especially when you insist upon it from others.

    • Bill S

      You can redefine the word to your liking if you wish. It’s not worth arguing about.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        No need for redefinition or inferring. One of the big paradoxes of life is the more we deny something, the more we do its opposite.

  • michelekc

    This was a very hard article for me to read. I am what one (not you) might call a conservative Catholic. As someone who starts off reading every article and blog post by first trying to figure out the political leaning of the author, I wanted so much to disagree with you, but by the time I finished I couldn’t help but agree with you. Labels truly are divisive. If the goal of life is to get to Heaven and bring as many people with you as possible, there is no point in figuring out how conservative or liberal you or anyone else is because it won’t help you achieve that goal.

    I think the tendency of many is to equate the word “conservative” with “orthodox.” Here I’m using the word “orthodox” to mean “believes and tries but often fails to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ as conveyed to us by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.” I have started to recognize that that is not true. I have seen blog posts and comments, especially recently by so-called conservative Catholics who sound anything but Christian. I think that is why your article came at a good time in the evolution of my thoughts on this matter.

    Now for the minor quibble I have with your article. :) While I do agree that it is not productive or Christian to put labels on each other, I do believe it is important to call out heterodoxy/heresy when we see it. To do otherwise, leads to confusion and worse. I understand your point about the fact that we all sin and fall short of following Christ as Christians are supposed to do, but at some point sin ends and heresy begins. The heretic is one who not only rejects the teachings of Christ as conveyed by the Magisterium, but actively tries to change those teachings and convince others to do the same. For example, one can hardly be called a Christian if he or she insists that Christ’s command to the help the poor involves providing them with free contraception and abortions. That’s when it is crucial to define the boundaries of Christianity, especially for the people who have been entrusted with teaching us, i.e., our priests and bishops. As pagansister demonstrated in her comments, some of the ideas you presented could be used to support some post-modern “whatever works for you” version of truth: “Hey, we’re all Christians, so let’s focus on that” instead of “Hey, we’re all Christians, let’s help each other get to Heaven.”

    Thank you for challenging me with your article.

    • hamiltonr

      Thank you for writing this nice comment Michele. It’s good to know that I got someone to think. Any idea can be subverted and put to uses for which it was not intended. This happens to everyone. It even happened to Jesus.

      I’ve learned that I can’t write or say anything without that happening. If I expend my energies trying to anticipate every criticism and answer them in advance with endless caveats, I’ll undercut our message and render it incomprehensible.

      Of course those who try to use helping the poor as an excuse for pushing abortion are twisting the Gospels. But so are those who try to use abortion to justify not helping the poor. it goes the same way with most things.

      I’m not saying we should accept those things. In fact, what I’m trying to do with what I write is to push people to stop accepting them. But first we need to stop accepting them for ourselves. We really don’t need to assess our people’s souls. We need to follow Christ ourselves.

      One thing I’ve learned is that when you do that, even if you do it imperfectly (as we all do) and sometimes with a lack of grace or charm, it gets through to people in a way that pointing out their failings never will.

      If Christians would just follow Christ, we could change the world. That’s my message.

    • Bill S

      ” If the goal of life is to get to Heaven and bring as many people with you as possible, …”

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Just saw on Crises Magazine an excerpt from Russell Kirk that’s related to this. It’s a good read.
    http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/conservatism-requires-a-religious-foundation

    I regard Russell Kirk, a Catholic convert, as one of my guiding lights.


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