This is all new, no?

A comment on the previous post:

It’s only been since the 70’s that many Christians became involved in politics.

This idea was also put forth in the classic discussion of post-9/11 America, The Power of Nightmares. That work offers the (I think correct) opinion that American Neo-Conservatives, and the “religious right” share rather a lot in common with Radical Islam. It fails, I think, in holding the idea that both Muslims and American Christians stayed out of secular politics until the 1970s and that only the political manipulations of the secular right lured Christians into activism.

Although I think it’s true that Reagan was the first Candidate in modern political history to run, as it were, on a religious ticket, Muslims and Christians have been in politics since, well… since before there were Muslims.  The Council of Nicea, although a good thing, was summoned by an emperor – not by the Church – for political reasons: the struggle of the true faith against the Arians was causing political dissention in the Empire.  Constantine called the Bishops together to end the public dissention over the matter of the Son of God being divine or not in order to keep peace in his kingdom.

In American History there were clergymen who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Despite the entirely secular tone (“nature’s God”?) of the Declaration, someone managed to get “Year of our Lord” included in the Constitution.  Most of the 13 colonies had state churches and this held true for a while after the Revolution. Massachusetts had a state church until 1834!  The Civil War was fought by clergy and churches on both sides: what do you think the Battle Hymn of the Republic is? Most US Churches split geographically and took up allegiances as appropriate. Emancipation was a religious enterprise; as was the Temperance movement in the early 20th century.  The passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920 was a action pushed by progressive Christians to save families being destroyed by alcohol.  It was seen as part of the social gospel that also gave rise, eventually, to ideas about welfare and insurance.  Most American Churches have stood with the country in the World Wars and in Korea and Viet Nam.  WW2 was seen as a fight for Christian Culture against Nazi paganism by both Churchill and FDR. There are rather famous anecdotes about Cardinal Spellman turning in altar boys who were draft dodgers.  Churches were up in arms about the social uprising of the 60s.  But a new thing began to happen: some groups, in order to be “relevant”, reached out to the social activists.  ECUSA did, certainly, but the “Jesus People” movement was all about “hippie church”.  Baby Boomers began to make religion to be about praise music and a lack of social convention.

As this started to happen, older folks felt driven out of their churches by rock music and clergy in casual clothing. The Catholics had Vatican Two and guitar masses… the parents of Boomers all around were squeezed out.  It didn’t take long before the morality of the wider Boomer culture was also creeping into the Churches: ordaining women, approving various non-marital sexual expressions, etc, all in the name of “social justice” and “relevance”.

What Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan did was, effectively, use each other for their own ends.  Ronald Reagan, veteran of WW2, revitalized his own generation by using religious language and hearkening back to a time when one didn’t need to “vote religiously” because the entire culture was covered with a Christian veneer. There were Nativity Scenes everywhere at Christmas, there were Christian flags carried by Boy Scouts in every parade.  The whole country looked and felt Christian, no matter what was going on under the surface.  But the 60s and the 70s stripped away that veneer.  President Carter, a Baptist Sunday School teacher, confessed to having “lusted in his heart”.  In the 70s you could freely lust in the open.

So, no: I don’t think Christians playing politics is a new thing. Nor is the idea that some politician (from Lincoln onward) is going to do the moral thing and fix the country at all new.  Many elections have been pushed as a “Come to Jesus” moment. And the American Gov’t is often seen as God’s Tool on the national and international stages.

Unfortunately, the idea of Ceasaropapism plays out fully in American Protestantism.  Although there were exceptions (Spellman and the Kennedy clan first and foremost) most Catholics stayed out of it all and with good reason: throughout much of American History the members of the Roman Church have been held at arm’s length by the Protestant majority.  Kennedy and Spellman were both examples of selling out one’s religion to buy into political power.  They are the same sort of person as modern Evangelicals who get behind a political candidate only because of the issue of abortion – without wondering about his or her stance on social care or poverty.  It was this same buying into mainstream political power that led huge number of Greek Orthodox Christians to be supporters of the Democratic Party without asking questions about its anti-Christian platform planks, just as it was the cold war that made many Serbian and Russian Orthodox into unquestioning Republicans.

The writer then wonders..

Maybe it wouldn’t be that difficult to direct our focus back more fully to where it should be.

Since many of the “convert boom” of Protestants coming into Orthodoxy were in the reactionary parts of their denominations – the parts ‘triggered’ by Reagan and Falwell – it is understandable that they would bring their politics with them. Like Constantine’s sword arm – they hold these parts out of the waters of baptism for fear that they would have to give them up. I doubt it would be easy to get them to give up these ideas. They are married to the idea of having a Christian Country led by the right sort of president.  By this they mean, really, a Christian veneer glued and stapled back on society so we all act right in public and so that their kids won’t ask them embarrassing questions in public.  “Mom, why are those two men kissing?”

To this, this series of posts invites them not to baptize their politics and bring their phobias, guns, and hawks in to the church, but rather, come fully into the Kingdom, leaving that demonic crap outside.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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