I am not a big political person. Politics have never been how I seek positive change in culture, even as a pastor. I have never publicly endorsed any candidate or party. Among Christian leaders and ordinary churchgoers of my generation and younger, I am not alone in my attitude. That revelation might surprise the participants in our research, who resoundingly declared Christians too involved in politics.
Throughout our research, we heard people who consistently took issue with Christians “legislating morality” and “imposing their views” through politics. Half of our national phone survey participants (49%) agreed with the statement, “I don’t like how some Christian groups meddle in politics.” Our survey found that men in particular deride Christian involvement in politics, a fact that proved true across our focus groups as well. Men had much more to say than women about their frustration and opposition to Christian involvement in politics.
CHRISTENDOM AND CHRISTIANITY
People outside the church are frustrated when people inside the church fail to see that there should be a clear division between the two. They feel that Christians are out of line when they treat the culture around them as if it were their church. Honestly, as a Bible-teaching pastor I agree to some degree. Some Christians are wrong in how they understand the relationship between church and society.
Throughout the Bible a clear demarcation exists between God’s people and others. God repeatedly tells His followers that they cannot act like their neighbors—non-believers living among them and the culture around them. God has different expectations of His own. The Old Testament records recurring conversations between God and His people that sound like a dad whose children keep pestering him to get away with the same stuff as the neighbor kids. The dad tells them no, explaining that his family rules are different from the family rules next door. In the New Testament the words “church” and “world” mark this split between the two proverbial families. Sin means crossing that line of demarcation. Holiness means abiding by the rules on this side of the line.
Some Christians seem to miss this. Across history and particularly in America, they see their nation as one big church, resulting in a thing called “Christendom.” My book A Call to Resurgence details this problem. Let me sum up what I say there.
For starters, Christendom is not the same as Christianity. While Christianity has existed for a couple thousand years, Christendom popped into being around 500 years ago (the exact date varies depending on which historian you prefer). America was an experiment in Christendom. It was to be a nation established largely by Christian people with Christian principles pursuing Christian purposes. The line between church and the world soon became very blurry. America wasn’t the only place where this thing called Christendom took hold. But it led the nations in basing moral values on biblical principles, so that people more or less shared a common outlook on right and wrong even when they failed to live up to their ideals. Most everyone knew sex was reserved for marriage. Marriage was for a man and a woman. Pornography and casual sex were generally understood to be evil, even if many didn’t practice what they preached. And last but not least, children were viewed as a desirable part of life. All these basic mores and others were part of the common vision of the good life within a good nation that was as understood in Christendom.
At the center of cultural influence within Christendom were religious leaders and houses of worship. They were essential to upholding the moral framework of a good nation. Politicians were expected to believe in God and attend church, and political speeches were supposed to be littered with the language and imagery of Scripture. Places of worship were given benefits such as tax exemptions as a way of recognizing their value to the greater culture in promoting virtue, restraining vice, and helping the needy.
Despite the dividing line being blurred in the extreme, Christendom and Christianity are not the same thing. Christendom is far bigger and broader than Christianity, encompassing non-Christian beliefs like the deism of Thomas Jefferson, the Unitarianism of many high-level politicians, or the beliefs of outliers like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Under Christendom, America created a new national religion that took concepts and images from Old Testament Israel and reappropriated them. In A Call to Resurgence, I say it this way: Think of American civil religion in biblical terms: America is Israel. The Revolution is our Exodus. The Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution compose our canon of sacred scripture. Abraham Lincoln is our Moses. Independence Day is our Easter. Our national enemies are our Satan. Benedict Arnold is our Judas. The Founding Fathers are our apostles. Taxes are our tithes. Patriotic songs are our hymnal. The Pledge of Allegiance is our sinner’s prayer. And the president is our preacher, which is why throughout the history of the office our leaders have referred to “God” without any definition or clarification, allowing people to privately import their own understanding of a higher power.6
In this blatant borrowing, the spiritual symbols were kept and the substance was lost. But it is no wonder people mistake Christendom for Christianity. Throughout some 500 years of history, Christendom and Christianity have been mutually opportunistic, each using the other to advance the cause. Christendom wanted the social benefits of Christianity without the scriptural beliefs. President George Washington said in his farewell address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports…Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” A century and a half later, president-elect Dwight Eisenhower said, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”7
THE DEATH OF CHRISTENDOM
When people care little about the content of faith, it should be no surprise when that faith becomes irrelevant to real life. Christendom as an all-powerful system has died over the course of just a few decades. Nations that were part of Christendom are now over a 500-year infatuation and are largely post-Christendom. The Bible is no longer a highly regarded book, a pastor no longer a highly regarded person, and the church no longer a highly regarded place. Major portions of our society have wildly different responses to this new civil order.
THE REACTIONARY RIGHT
People on the political right who claim to be Christians are gravely concerned about the direction culture is trending. Conservative Christians talk a lot about “taking back America,” with older voices appealing for a return to traditional values they claim led to a more sane and safe world. Their confusion of Christendom and Christianity means they interpret the decline of Christendom as a decline in Christianity, which may not in fact be the case.
THE TRIUMPHANT LEFT
Those on the political Left celebrate the demise of Christendom. They gladly spotlight its failures. They rightly remind us of the rampant unkindness of Christendom toward gays, women, ethnic minorities, and the poor, with whole groups marginalized, ostracized, and demonized in the name of a greater social good. They note the astounding hypocrisy bred by social demands to put up a good public appearance, even if privately you are a politician committing adultery on your way home from church. They are quick to protest the injustice, oppression, and evil that results when the powerful forces of government and religion line up together like two barrels on a gun. For the powerless, the end of Christendom brings an exodus from cruel bondage into a freedom they have never known.
THE CONFOUNDED CENTER
In the middle on a continuum between the Right and the Left you’ll find many an average Christian person or pastor. They’re weary of both sides spending endless hours berating each other on television and talk radio.
Whether you locate yourself on the political Right, Left, or in the middle, Jesus calls you to something more. If He were retelling His ancient parable of a couple lost sons today, the rebellious brother would lean politically Left. The religious brother would lean politically Right. The younger brother would march in a pride parade or a protest. The older brother would picket those parades and protest the protests.
But notice this: Jesus doesn’t join either brother on the Right or the Left. He also doesn’t join the masses trying to duck the issues in the middle.
Jesus is greater than politics. When the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate asked if He had revolutionary aspirations, Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NIV). Jesus the King rules over all kings, and His Kingdom reigns over all kingdoms. But the Kingdom of King Jesus has not yet come in its fullness, and until we see it we are to pray as He taught us: “Your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10). When the Kingdom of Jesus arrives, sin will be replaced with salvation, death with resurrection, sickness with healing, war with peace, poverty with prosperity, and tears with laughter. From the first day we meet Jesus our citizenship in His Kingdom is secure, but until we arrive in heaven we are stuck here. But that doesn’t mean you’re not meant to be here.
Every election cycle we feel a collective ache for Christ’s Kingdom to come. Our world has gone terribly wrong, and everything needs changing.
So political candidates step forward to vie for the role of savior, each casting a vision of the heavenly future they promise to bring. Like worshipers, supporters throng to fund campaigns, filled with hope that things will improve if only the right person wins.
Now, some kings are better than others. That’s just common sense. But no king is the King of Kings, because no human king rules with Christ’s perfection, justice, truth, and grace. Some kingdoms are better than others, but no kingdom is His Kingdom. No kingdom overcomes sin and the curse fully and forever. Only the Kingdom of King Jesus accomplishes what we—and every person we disagree with—ultimately longs for and needs.
6.Mark Driscoll, A Call to Resurgence (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013), 11–12.
7.Patrick Henry, “‘And I Don’t Care What It Is’: The Tradition-History of a Civil Religion Proof-Text,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49, issue 1 (March 1981): 41.