First published on Christian Converser
Everyone’s seen the disturbing unfolding of seditious political insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6. There’s no real need to go over that here, the main concern for this blog is the fatal attraction that the outgoing administration has held for evangelical Christianity in America and the apparent reluctance of its leaders to recognise that they have overstepped the mark. As previously outlined, the parallels with 1930s German and the backing of the state church for Adolf Hitler when he first came to power are very disturbing and eventually a significant chunk of the German church became complicit in the massive crimes against humanity that the Nazis perpetuated in Europe culminating in the Second World War. Noted historical theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known from this era for his refusal to participate in the state church of Germany and his eventual martyrdom near the close of WW2 for standing up for his true faith and principles. The experience of the German church is similar to other totalitarian or illiberal governmental regimes around the world, for example the present day state church of China under communism or the close relationship the Russian Orthodox Church enjoys with Vladimir Putin’s government, and historically with the Roman Catholic Church’s stronghold over Europe for much of the pre-Reformation church era. These experiences should be enough to dissuade any sane evangelical from seeking a political alliance with the government in a country as free as the USA. Because the proud democratic tradition of that country was really the major influence on the formation of open electoral systems of government worldwide. Democracy as we know it in the modern era was essentially invented in North America, and was strongly influenced by Christian principles and theologies. So how has the evangelical church in America managed to stray so far from the founding ideals and how has it managed to get so fatally entangled with the 45th President?
There are a few different factors that are relevant to this issue. The first is the increasing political polarisation in US society. Unsurprisingly, a significant component of this is the increasing gap between rich and poor, or economic inequality. Clearly the system of government in the US has failed to strike an adequate balance between political and people power and in so doing has created an increasing tilt in favour of the political right and mega-wealthy. This has become prevalent in a lot of Western countries, but those with a Westminster tradition generally have a more even balance between state and personal powers than is the case in the US. At the same time, US society is facing the same problems of having to deal with historical injustices as most major democracies around the world in the face of entrenched attitudes of privilege, for example in racism, particularly in certain battleground states. These same states hold disproportionate political power in the Electoral College and Senate due to the makeup of those bodies and therefore are naturally seen as holding too much power over the governance of the whole country. The entire situation is probably a great deal more complex than that but inequality is almost certainly a major driver and particularly the extent to which the government appears to be tacit pawns of huge global corporations. The problems for the US are that issues are not just historical but are current and future. Many smaller Republican led states are actively engaged in voter suppression and there are indications that this is continuing in the battleground states that were most contested during the presidential election. The US could head to a new civil war eventually over these issues.
Of relevance particularly to the Christian faith is the tendency that a significant chunk of evangelicals have to align themselves with various conspiracy theories and deceptive theologies, dispensationalism obviously being important among these. Most of these are more of a symptom of low levels of knowledge and are typical amongst conservative Christianity which tends to eschew higher education and in which, particularly in Pentecostal fellowships, charismatic spiritual experiences are often regarded as of higher significance than theological knowledge and study. Often these churches will teach their own evolved theology based on personal study of their leadership without obtaining tertiary training, although since the first century of Pentecostalism and its offshoot into mainstream churches through the charismatic movement, the expectations of most evangelical denominations for qualified leadership has been increasing. However, lay leaders within many churches and the leaders of smaller independent churches in many cases still do not have, or tend to seek out, widespread theological knowledge and the dispensationalist type theologies and conspiratorial beliefs are still predominant in many of these fellowships. In the US church the dispensationalist strand attracts the greatest level of support and as previous posts of this blog have outlined, this is a peculiarity of the US church to a much greater extent than in other countries.
This post was originally written several months ago, and was left to see what would develop in the meantime, as it is intended to be the last post on this blog about US politics for a long time. The blog authorship wants to get back to plain old theology and don’t really want to spend a lot of time dealing with the Christian nationalism heresy which is mostly about the US. However it is fair to say we do see this issue cropping up in other countries, and Papua New Guinea has claimed it will now declare itself a Christian country as have a mere handful of others worldwide, possibly opening them up to considerable challenges in the years ahead. New Zealand still sees this sort of nonsense coming out from cultic churches like Destiny, and to a lesser extent it is expressed in conservative evangelicalism, for example over concerns about Parliament’s prayer being changed to have a character that is less Christian, or less exclusively Christian. The concern is that New Zealand is socially heading in the same direction as the US as inequality is becoming more prevalent due to the out of control housing market, and if this occurs the prospect of much greater political division which has become a key factor fuelling Christian nationalism in the US, would also create similar challenges in NZ in the future.