For the past decade two decades (at least), the American political machine has effectively reduced evangelical Christians—unfortunately—to little more than a political contingency. Probably no time has that been more evident than in this year’s presidential campaigns.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have met with faith leaders throughout the course of their candidacies. The perception is that Trump is favored by outspoken leaders associated with evangelicalism. Clinton’s former State Department advisors organized meetings with top Roman Catholic and evangelical leaders to discuss the global development policies of a potential Clinton administration.
There seems to be a real draw for Christians to influence the powerful. And while exerting Christian witness in the public square is generally a good thing, it can also turn bad quickly.
Let’s be clear that the support each candidate has rallied does not represent all Christians. The leaders Trump or Clinton refer to seem to be the vocal and politically minded subset of evangelicalism, which of course is a subset of Christianity whether it’s the Religious Right or otherwise.
My reason for concern is based on conversations these candidates are said to have had with these leaders.
Trump, for example, has outrightly stated that he has urged the leaders to be more vocal in their disdain for a certain political party from the pulpit and encourage their parishioners to vote certain ways.
His reasoning seems to be that such a large community should have enough power to sway political tides—if these leaders and pastors would just guide their congregations toward a kind of political activism. Similarly, we can assume that Clinton’s motivations in meeting with Christian influencers is to gain traction in a demographic that finds her largely unfavorable.
The Church in Power Over the Government
As Christians, we should be concerned about this practice. Jesus states that his kingdom is not an earthly kingdom—but, if it were, then his followers would fight for it (John 18:36). If Jesus’ immediate followers were not instructed to fight for the political power to accomplish Jesus’ goals, why is the modern evangelical movement so determined to take on that fight?
Additionally, when pastors take on politics from the pulpit, they’re essentially placing politics at the level of the pulpit’s primary task—preaching the Gospel.
It’s important to remember the damage that has come from the Church having power over government and governmental affairs. In the story of Christianity, the Crusades and the Inquisition are both dark spots on church history. Centuries of war, torture, oppression and murder in the name of Christianity have driven people away from God’s kingdom.
It is impossible to rationalize these acts with the words of Christ to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). Only by loving our enemies and praying for them do we act as children of God.
Search for Power
The search for the type of power that aligning with political candidates promises—and that some evangelical leaders seem to be seeking—is the same temptation that caused Christianity to be co-opted for political gains in the third century by the Roman emperor Constantine.
The Roman Empire had tried every other way to stop the spread of this new religion which threatened the “deity” of their Caesar and their Caesar’s claim to ultimate authority. At first, in the face of persecution, torture and death, Christians of the first three centuries continually relied on their faith and their communities to endure with the result being a rapid growth of Christianity throughout the empire.
Converts believed that a group of people wouldn’t die for this Jesus if they thought His message was fabricated. But after Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, Christians in Rome were less counter-cultural and more complicit in the acts of the empire. No longer were the Christians a prophetic minority following their beliefs and convictions regardless of their society—now there got swept into a poltical agenda.
We also can’t forget that a desire for national control ultimately led the religious leaders of Jesus’ day to miss Him as the Messiah.
And herein lies the danger for Christians amid election 2016. Have we become so occupied with the search for the power to control the nation that we are missing the work of the risen Lord?
It won’t be through gaining political power or influence that God’s kingdom will advance. It will be through Christians recognizing that the quest for power is not only a lost cause—it’s a wrong cause. Because Christians fight for the kingdom, not this world.