There has been more than one article of late that rightly describes the progressive politics of our day as a religion. And there is a good case to be made for that perspective. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, progressive political voices have offered up a theology of sin, an approach to repentance, and – in fairly open-ended terms – a vision of a perfected future. For those who like theological labels, that’s a hamartiology, soteriology and eschatology. There are a number of doctrinal considerations missing from that list, but in the current climate it is more than enough religion for many Americans.
This new religion didn’t take shape overnight, of course. Social and intellectual trends have been preparing for this for quite some time now. As religious categories have lost their hold on a growing number of Americans, the basic spiritual needs that those categories represent demanded some kind of substitute. And now they have it, complete with more than one kind of fundamentalism.
To make matters worse, Christians have also contributed to the creation of this new religion. Many Evangelicals lost track of their faith, aligning themselves in unreflective ways with the Republican party and Donald Trump. But so did Progressive Protestants who, over the last six decades, resurrected the Social Gospel movement, but in ways that lack the same theological grounding. As mainline Protestantism gave itself to the chaplaincy of pluralism, rather than a defense of the Christian faith, politics-as-theology or all-theology-is-political has become the mantras.
The polarization of the civic landscape has intensified that trend. And, as a result, Christians on both sides of the divide have lost their ability to speak with any authority to the current situation that is free of entanglement with partisan politics.
So, with apologies to Russ Douthat, who recently argued that Post-Protestant Christianity might offer a common vocabulary and values around which Americans might find a new kind of unity, I am sorry to say that I see little prospect of that happening. Even those who are uninterested in God and theology can easily predict where Christians will line up along partisan lines and that is about all that an ever-larger number of Americans care about.
There is little that Christians can do to counter that trend, but we don’t need to amplify it. And if we are going to be ignored by the culture, we ought to at least be ignored for proclaiming what Paul described as the scandal of the cross (1 Co 1:18-25):
- We will affirm that redemptive work of God is larger than politics and larger than the current political moment.
- We will affirm that ultimately the saving work of God is about the healing of our relationship with God and – inextricably – our relationships with one another.
- We will affirm that for us, that work is done in and through the Body of Christ, as both the instrument of God’s healing work and as the expression of God’s healing work.
- This means, of course, that how we conduct ourselves politically matters, and it means that we are called to hope that our witness will change the world for the better.
- But it also means that we believe that ultimately that work can only be fully realized by God and through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Political realities will never fully reflect what we believe God hopes for us. And to believe that they can distorts and diminishes the work of God in our lives and across history.
- We will witness to a faith that affirms we are all sinners and that we should all repent of our sins. But we will also affirm that all of us can be forgiven and that – in amending our lives – we can begin the journey into God in Christ.
- We will also witness to the conviction that “in Christ” there are no distinctions, no differences in our value, no difference in the degree to which we are loved. No difference in the degree to which we are called to love one another.
- Just as God does not coerce anyone to follow us, neither will we force others to follow Christ. The renewed life that God offers us can only be had by giving of ourselves freely to the work of God, by making ourselves available to the purposes of God, by confessing our own sins, and by giving ourselves to the healing that God makes possible.
That message is going to put Christians at odd angles with every version of politics-as-religion that I can think of. It will put us at odds the civic religion that elides church and state that thinks of those entities as one thing. The civic religion that fails to ask questions about the fate of those who live on the margins of society and endorses political candidates, regardless of character. But it will also be at odds with the politics-as-religion that can be coercive, identifies sin in purely socio-political terms, assigns sin in exclusive terms to some but not to others, and thinks in terms of eschatology as a human and political creation.
That is alright. Paul did not call the cross a scandal without reason. It was then. It is now.