Baptists have long championed a clear separation of church and state.
This is why, as I shared previously, I have been dismayed and perplexed at the naked political ambition and moral accommodations demonstrated by U.S. evangelicals in the power courts of Washington.
That brings me to John Fea’s book, “Believe Me. The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”
My hope is that Fea, professor of American history and chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, might help me understand how those who are avowedly evangelical can align with an administration that pursues policies, has a style of government and supports a president, whose “modus operandi” is inimical to any standard understanding of Christian values and ethics.
Early in the book, Fea explains why he wrote it, quoting James Davison Hunter, an author who describes the recession, marginalizing and distortion of Christianity in the United States over the past decades.
It’s a careful and lucidly written analysis of how the Religious Right has tried to stay influential, relevant and in control of a culture and way of life fast being overtaken by progressive change.
Fea distills Hunter’s thesis to this sentence: “In grasping for political power, evangelicals have made it more difficult to spread the gospel, promote justice for the poor and oppressed and pursue human flourishing in the places where God has called them and placed them.”
Letting Hunter speak for himself: “The proclivity toward domination and toward the politicization of everything leads Christianity today to bizarre turns, turns that … transform much of the Christian public witness into the very opposite of the witness Christianity has to offer.”
That is as damning a conclusion as can be imagined from a sociologist who is a distinguished professor of religion, culture and social theory at the University of Virginia.
The gospel of redemption has been turned into a pursuit for power, and the Kingdom of God identified with the kingdoms of this earth.
In supporting President Trump and believing his promises to bring about the social changes evangelicals seek, his evangelical supporters are adopting the tactics, politics and principles of secular power, but in the service of a Kingdom founded on a cross and built on an empty tomb.
At the cross, and at the tomb, sin is confronted, death has been defeated, hate eclipsed by love, and in the kingdom of the cross and the tomb, those who will be called the children of God are the peacemakers, not the lawmakers.
In pursuing political victory, and policy changes through courting secular power, the gospel of reconciliation, justice, peace-making and neighbor love has become secondary.
Evangelicals giving uncritical support to any government administration have done what Jesus at his trial refused to do: identify his Kingdom and its methods with the kingdom and methods of the empire.
For the many evangelicals who think otherwise, and for Baptists like myself witnessing many prominent Baptist leaders seeking influence in the secular court and power bases, such contradiction of principle takes on the force of a betrayal of core convictions of evangelical witness and Baptist traditions of radical dissent. Baptists are members of a spiritual community committed to Jesus as Lord.
They owe no unthinking or unswerving allegiance to anyone but Jesus. This means that if the political leader one supports pursues policies contrary to the words of Jesus, and irreconcilable with Christian ethics, what is required is not approval, or defense of the secular power, but faithful truth-telling and bearing witness to the ways of the Kingdom of God.
It is out of such feelings of betrayal, and the abandoning of a tradition of dissent in order to further personal agendas by conforming to the ways of the political, secular world of power, that pushes me to try to understand both the motives for such a reversal of convictions and the possible ways back.
Fea’s book points in some hopeful directions. Perhaps in reflecting on Fea’s insights, there will be some light at the end of what seems like an ominously long tunnel, leading into a darker future.