During my years of pastoring in central New York state, I was part of a pastors’ prayer group that met weekly to pray for each other and our community. All of us in the group were theologically conservative, what is often called “evangelical.” Sometime in 2011, during our prayer, one of the leaders of the group prayed – and I’m quoting here – that God would “take out” Pres. Obama and New York Governor Cuomo. Now, my colleague may have simply been asking God to remove these two men from their offices. But, let’s be honest, anyone who has ever watched an American action movie or a TV crime show knows perfectly well that the phrase – “to take someone out” – is slang, meaning to kill them. It was hard not to conclude that my colleague, a Christian pastor, was asking God to kill the president of the United States and the governor of New York and doing so primarily because they were both Democrats. There were a few murmurs of “amen” from others around the room.
I am ashamed to confess that I said nothing in response to this “prayer.” I simply left early, before the end of the prayer session, and didn’t go back for a long time. To this day I feel like a coward, and I feel as if I failed my Lord in that moment. In any case, what became very clear to me in that prayer meeting was that something very unhealthy and very dangerous was growing in my part of the Church of Jesus Christ.
As I sit writing this, the American election is five days away. This will be the tenth presidential election that has taken place since I was ordained as a pastor in 1982. Never in any of the preceding nine presidential elections did I sense such deep hostility and division as I sense at work in this current election. In fact, so hostile and divisive have the times become that it is not clear at this time whether all candidates will accept the outcome of the electoral process. That is something new in my now rather long experience as an American voter, and it is troubling to my mind. Even more troubling are rumors and veiled threats from some armed groups that they might consider coercively involving themselves in the process.
Now, I myself do not believe that the violent extremists on both ends of the political spectrum actually represent more than a minute portion of the American people. But the high level of hostility and divisiveness that is present across the board makes the presence of armed extremists in the wings more concerning to me.
My general feeling is that recent years have not been good ones for American civic life. The ideals and principles that are what has made America great have eroded due to assaults from both ends of the political spectrum. America has not, I think, faced such hostile and divisive times in living memory.
And yet, though I am a loyal American, and I value my American citizenship, my highest loyalty is not to America, and my true citizenship is in the kingdom of God, not the United States. Troubled as I am about what American political culture is doing to itself, I am far more troubled by what American political culture is doing to the Church of Jesus Christ. American Christianity is less healthy today than it was nine years ago when I walked out of that pastors’ prayer meeting in New York, and that is because American Christians have allowed secular, partisan politics to invade the Church like a virus.
The importing of secular, partisan politics into the Church is not new in America. For the last forty or fifty years, the liberal, mainline churches, like my former denomination, the PCUSA, have uncritically aligned themselves with the Democratic Party. That partisan alignment has compromised their integrity and gutted their witness. They cannot and will not challenge the unbiblical aspects of the Democratic Party’s agenda, and so they have nothing much to say to the world except to parrot the partisan message of a secular political party while spreading a vaguely religious icing on it. The result is that these mainline churches are withering away.
Sadly, Christians in the evangelical and theologically conservative church in America do not seem to have learned from the mistakes of the mainline churches. Over the past decade or so, evangelical and theologically conservative Christians have in large measure uncritically aligned themselves with the Republican Party. As a result, they too are compromising their integrity and gutting their witness. They cannot and will not challenge the unbiblical aspects of the Republican Party’s agenda, and so they have nothing much to say to the world except to parrot the partisan message of a secular political party while spreading a vaguely religious icing on it. The result is that these evangelical churches have begun to wither away as well, just as the partisanly compromised mainline churches have.
The problem with partisan politics is that the partisan notion of
“Political Liberal<===>Political Conservative”
is just too simplistic, too limited to capture the richness and fullness of the biblical Christian vision for human societies. The biblical Christian vision for human societies will not fit with either political party. The Democrats are dead wrong about crucial, biblically non-negotiable issues. The Republicans are dead wrong about crucial, biblically non-negotiable issues. In order to fit loyally into either party, Christians have to amputate crucial elements of Christ’s vision for the world. We have not right to do that. We can be completely loyal to a political party, or we can be completely loyal to Jesus, but we cannot be both.
Political parties should be highly suspicious of Christians. They should see us as unreliable. They should not be able to depend on our loyalty. The fact that the Democrats can rely almost entirely on the liberal mainline churches and the fact that the Republicans can rely almost entirely on the conservative evangelical churches is undeniable evidence that American Christianity has begun to listen to party bosses more than King Jesus. The virus of partisanship has begun to take us.
I am not optimistic about Christian witness in America in the coming years. The more we embrace party politics and abandon our biblical integrity, the more we will dwindle. It may be that Christian witness in America will only be restored with the help of non-American missionaries, Christians from Africa, Asia, South America who are not infected by American political partisanship.
In any event, these are times for fervent prayer, times for deep soul-searching and heart-felt repentance. Will we continue our willing captivity to the little vision partisan politics? Or will we declare our independence of captivity to Party and enjoy the freedom of Lord Jesus and the Kingdom of God?
(c) 2020 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.