There’s a growing polarization in America. As the gulf between the partisan left and the right continues to expand, there’s very little middle ground to be found.
The Pew Research Center has tracked data since 1994 which clearly demonstrates this growing entrenchment. In 1994, Democrats and Republicans were gathered pretty closely in the middle. In fact, 23 percent of Republicans were more liberal than the average Democrat, and 17 percent of Democrats were more conservative than the typical Republican.
Today, the middle is almost nonexistent. There’s a more significant ideological divide than ever. In 1994, only 23 percent of liberals had an unfavorable view of Republicans, and only 28 percent of conservatives had unfavorable opinions of Democrats. In today’s culture of extreme political tribalism, 53 percent of liberals carry negative impressions of Republicans, while 72 percent of conservatives think that Democrats are a danger to the country.
So why am I picking on conservatives?
There’s no question that conservatives are not solely to blame for this problem. So where do I get off calling them out? That’s a great question.
In the last thirty years, evangelicalism has come under the spell of the Republican party. Through an intentional effort to secure this enormous voting bloc—one that responded positively to Jimmy Carter’s “born again” talk—Republicans focused on painting themselves as God’s party. They were the only ones who cared about Christianity and moralism.
Today, Republicans need the evangelical vote. They’ve come to a place where they rely on this bloc to carry them through elections. By coloring themselves as the choice for God-fearing Christians, they guarantee that poor, white middle America will consistently vote Republican—often against their best interests.
Meanwhile, evangelical Christians are increasingly poisoned by this political association. As Christians have conflated Christianity and conservative politics, they’ve ended up championing things that oppose Christ: nationalism, war, division, racism, hatred.
If conservatives and liberals simply represented two sides of a political divide, I wouldn’t particularly care. Politics are important insofar as they affect real people and for that reason, I try and vote as responsibly as possible. But the fact that people outside of the church are left thinking that American conservative politics and Christianity are synonymous is wrong—plain and simple.
This post isn’t intended to slam anyone with conservative viewpoints. There’s nothing wrong with having a political perspective that skews right. The problem occurs when you believe that your religious and political identity are synonymous. If you think that you’re a conservative because you’re a Christian, this post is for you.
And while this isn’t intended to be mean-spirited, it is pointed. The relationship between conservatism and the church is driving people away from the cross—and here’s what I think Jesus would say about it.
1. “I love you, but I love them, too.”
I live in a relatively small, conservative “Christian” community. People tend to assume that if you identify as a Christian here, you also identify with right-wing politics. Because of this, they openly talk about “liberals” in the most disdainful and often hateful ways. It often seems like conservativism is more about what you’re against (liberalism) than what you’re for—this only exacerbates the fact that religious people struggle with the same problem.
The difficulty is that if you don’t identify as a conservative, you’re automatically a “liberal.” In fact, if you disagree with any accepted conservative position (gun control, welfare, abortion, etc.), you can no longer call yourself a conservative. Sadly, this means that conservatives who are inclined to disagree with some aspects of conservative politics never speak up.
This mean-spirited vitriol pointed at liberals is anti-Christ, plain and simple. There’s no way that you can follow Christ and harbor that level of resentment and hate.
“But wait,” you might say. “Liberals hate conservatives, too!” You’re right. Some of them do. But honestly, that feeling isn’t held as strongly by liberals as it is by conservatives. And even if it was, who cares? Jesus called his followers to love their enemies. If someone holding a different political view than you makes them an enemy, you don’t get to hate them. Jesus calls his followers to a higher standard.
I think Jesus would say this:
“My child, I love you. It’s not because of something you did; it’s because of who I am. There’s not a thing you can do to earn my affection. This should be good news. You are now free to do good because you want to be good, and not because you’re trying to make yourself worthy of my regard.
But you need to come to grips with the fact that I feel this way toward others. Your ‘rightness’ does not make you more deserving of my love. Your self-righteousness does not give you more value. I don’t take it lightly when you look disdainfully upon those for whom I was willing to give my very life. Remember, you’re not the judge, I AM.”
2. “You cannot serve both God and Caesar.”
A big part of the Christian conservatism movement is a we’re-more-patriotic-than-thou posture. Any criticism of the government, the military, or American policies is considered treasonous (unless, of course, there’s a liberal in the White House). It’s kind of bizarre. I mean, one of the biggest arguments they’d give for the second amendment is that they may need to fight the government—yet no one’s allowed to question, criticize, or protest it.
But Christians are called out of the world and turn their attention to a whole new Kingdom. Christ inaugurates us into a kingdom that is both “among us” and “to come.” Christians define themselves by their hope in the supremacy of this Kingdom over the empires of this world—even the very best empires.
But for some reason, instead of inviting others to embrace Christ’s otherworldly kingdom, the religious establishment wants to coerce godliness from others through America’s legislative structure. This behavior pits “good Americans” against “bad Americans” (an oddly anti-American position).
As evangelicalism become more enmeshed with American politics, the imagery begins to synchronize. It’s not odd to sing patriotic songs in churches or to conflate images of the cross with those of the American flag or the symbols of the guns and the Bible. Ultimately, religious expression becomes linked to what’s supremely American. The problem is that this doesn’t make America more “Christian,” it makes Christianity less Christlike.
I think Jesus would say this:
“I have called you out of this world. You now live in your earthly kingdoms as ambassadors for the Kingdom. As ambassadors, you’re responsible for building a relationship between my Kingdom and your host country. But never forget that even the best empires are opposed to me, so don’t be fooled by the lip service and attention paid to your interests.
Those who court your votes have no real desire to make the sacrifices required to recreate my Kingdom. While courting you, they bolster their own wealth, oppress the most vulnerable, and war against other nations. Don’t let them manipulate you to their ends and harden hearts against my Kingdom.”
3. “I have called you to serve, not to be served.”
Throughout history, Christendom has been at its worst when it’s aligned itself with power. Christianity has allowed itself to be a party to colonialism, slavery, violence, misogyny, racism, genocide, and has actively waged war against science. Every single time that Christendom aligns itself with power structures, the cause of Christ is harmed for generations.
The message of the New Testament is that true Christ followers will always be in the minority. There is nothing that remotely suggests that Christianity will be a faith that wields top-down influence. It’s a grassroots movement that grows by individuals touching the lives of others. Every time Christianity has successfully secured itself a seat at the table of power, it’s been disastrous for people—and the church.Inevitably, the deceitfulness of riches and influence corrupts people who might have the best intentions, and every attempt to compel or coerce righteousness out of others leads them to resent Christ. This doesn’t mean that a Christian can’t run for office; it means that they are to do so to serve their most vulnerable constituents, not to secure more leverage for people of faith.
Jesus made it clear that there was only one ambition that he applauds, and that’s the aspiration for service. We are to serve others (preferably those who cannot repay us). Anything else is a perversion of Christ’s intention for the church. Privilege and position poison us. Instead of being servants who are in the minority, we begin to think that we deserve prominence. Recognizing the diversity of the countries we live in makes us angry. If someone wishes us “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” we think we’re experiencing martyrdom.
I think Jesus would say this:
“You have no understanding of the sacrifice that I made to lay aside my crown and put on your flesh. I went so far as to allow my own creation to destroy me. But that’s why I came. Not to be served, but to serve. Not to take what I deserved, but to give my life as a ransom for many. This is my way, and I have invited you to walk in it. You’re not to try and recreate the Law in my name. I have not called you to place yourself over people—I’ve asked you to lift them up.
I don’t care about how much power you have, how many degrees you have, how many congregants you have, how many books you’ve written, or how big your social media platform is. I care about your service. Anything else is anathema to me.”
4. “Be mindful of how you renew your mind.”
A Pew Research Center study from 2014 found that American conservatives largely (88%) trust Fox News over any other news source. While liberals tend to get their news from a variety of sources, nearly half of all conservatives get theirs solely from Fox News. Many also seek out more conservative sources like Breitbart, Blaze, and the Drudge Report. While it would be easy to take aim at these sources, there’s a bigger problem here.
I know many Christians who have Fox News blasting away in their home 24-hours a day. And even if you’re not actively listening, there’s no way that your subconscious can hear a constant stream of angry people like Sean Hannity, Tomi Lahren, Ann Coulter, and Tucker Carlson and believe that it doesn’t affect how you feel about those who don’t agree with you. And if you think that this is a criticism that could be made at the Left, you’re right. The thing is, I don’t know that many people on the Left who are as committed to anything as conservatives are to Fox News.
Just like every other news agency, Fox News is a product. If you think that every other news source in the world is fake but the one you watch, you’re fooling yourself. This Rupert Murdoch media giant has the same goal as any other media outlet, secure advertising dollars. They just made an astute decision to do it by appealing to the crowd that gave Rush Limbaugh huge radio ratings. There is no altruistic reason for the existence of Fox News.
All Christians are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind—and that’s not done by pumping Fox News into your brain all day long. In fact, it might just be the opposite. In the last couple decades, Christians have made a significant switch from focusing on character and morals to aligning with ideology. When the Bill Clinton sex scandal broke, Christians were apoplectic. In their minds, a person’s character was the number one factor to consider when choosing a leader. But all that’s changed. In 2016, when a tape leaked of a potential leader bragging about sexual assault that women let him get away with it because of his celebrity status, evangelicals came out in droves to elect him.
When former Alabama state judge and conservative Roy Moore decided to make a Senate run, news started coming out about years of sexual assault of girls under the age of consent, 37 percent of evangelicals in Alabama said the allegations would make them more likely to vote for Moore, and 34 said it would have no effect. Why? Because Fox News has worked overtime to paint the whole thing as a big liberal conspiracy that just doesn’t matter. When we’ve gotten to the place where we’ll elect officials who are accused of the most egregious acts because we tell ourselves that it’s some liberal machination (who we’re supposed to hate), we’re outside of God’s will.
This isn’t just a case of “garbage in/garbage out.” Whether you watch MSNBC or Fox News all day long, you’re being programmed to think by corporations whose only real aim is to sell you luxury vehicles and kitchen appliances.
I think Jesus would say this:
“I am the head, and the church is my body. I need my body to think my thoughts, and you can only do that as you invest in learning from me. Don’t be fooled by sitting at the feet of people who say that they’re mine but are teaching you to resent and devalue people made in my image. Be cleansed by washing with the water of the word, through prayer and meditation, and through the teaching of spirit-led people who you’ll know by their fruit. In the meantime, focus on what is true, noble, pure, admirable, and lovely.”
5. “I don’t grade on a curve.”
One of the most troubling things about talking to conservative evangelicalism is the alarming amount of whataboutism. This form of counter-criticism seeks to discredit analysis by making sketchy comparisons to things that are usually not very similar. If you need an example of this, read a few Trump tweets. He immediately responds to any criticism with, “What about Hillary . . .” It’s deflective, dismissive, and dishonest.
When the resurrected Christ stood on the shore with the disciples and announced that Peter was going to suffer, Peter responded by pointing at John and asking, “What about him?!” Jesus responded by saying, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:11). Despite the fact that the church enjoys a communal experience and relationship with Jesus, we are all on individual journeys. Each of us will be held responsible for our own behavior based on those behavior’s merits.
The problem that whataboutism poses for Christians is that it trains us to think that our goodness only has to be better than the person next to us. But when push comes to shove, we will stand before God and be judged on the basis of our knowledge, understanding, motives, and righteousness. We’re not going to be able to point at any other person or group and say, “At least we aren’t as bad as . . .” And God isn’t going to be swayed by invoking Hillary Clinton’s emails.
I think Jesus would say this:
“I told you a parable about a day when I will separate the sheep from the goats. The winnowing was based on what people did or did not do. I’m not going to be persuaded to ignore the behavior of a goat because they’re able to point out someone else’s guilt. I will look judge the faith of each of you, and it will be based on my criteria and not yours. Grow your faith, do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with me and you’ll be fine. But you cannot allow yourself the luxury of using the disobedience of others as a cover for your own defiance and dereliction. In the end, you’re going to end up in the same pit that they do.”
Christ desires our unity
Before Christ was killed, he prayed for our unity:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”—John 17:20
Maybe America is the greatest country that ever existed. It doesn’t really matter. We’re called to something else entirely. And while it’s great to be thankful for the place you were born and to take part in the electoral process, politics is not a substitution for genuine communion, confession, and community. If your identity is in your political affiliation and you hate others who see things differently, it’s time to repent.