A Kingdom Divided: Evangelicalism’s Ambivalence Toward Politics

    This might seem like a curious tack to take in an essay--especially with what’s happening in the U.S. these days, and especially from someone who just posted a piece on Medium about how Evangelicals can’t stop messing with the first amendment. But I came across an article a couple of days ago, written by the vaguely Evangelical-identified Christian writer Philip Yancey, that reminded me of how complicated Evangelicalism’s relationship to politics truly is, and I wanted to respond.

    Yancey’s essay, entitled “Election Reflections: Bridging the Gap”, triggers many thoughts and feelings in me. One is that I am deeply troubled by the relatively unworried, unhurried language with which he refers to Donald Trump. It’s not that he doesn’t criticize Trump (he very much does); it’s that he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the very practical danger the Orange Man poses as the “winner” of the election. I understand that doing so was not the point of the piece he wrote, but it still feels alarmingly calm. That said, I believe the near-neutrality in the essay is itself a symptom of the ambivalence to which I refer, so I will address it in a roundabout way shortly.

    There’s also the whole “love trumps hate”/’unity will save us’ message seeping out of the essay’s pores. While I don’t disagree with--or at least I want to believe in--the sentiment in its most general sense, I and many others are entirely sick of being told that if we all just chose to understand and bear with each other everything would be okay, especially since it’s almost always those who want greater diversity and stronger social welfare being asked to sympathize with those who don’t. Yes, Yancey is specifically asking Evangelicals to unify, but the message is overused and myopic.

    What I want to focus on here, though, is what Yancey's essay on the whole reminded me of: that Evangelicals in the United States--at least white Evangelicals in the United States--are, despite what you might think, often quite reluctant to get involved with politics. Sure, they’ll do their nominal duty of voting in presidential elections, but to spend time truly engaging and trying to effect change via the government is a problematic proposition for this group. Yancey puts it fairly clearly toward the middle of the piece: “Christians have a divided loyalty, committed to helping our society thrive while giving ultimate loyalty to the kingdom of God.”

    I suspect many of you with no experience inside the walls of Evangelicalism are a bit confused. From what we read in polls and hear about from the news, it seems the Evangelical voice (again, at least the white Evangelical voice) could not be shouting more loudly in the political sphere. Yes, they do have their moments; I’ll get to that in a second. The simultaneous truth, however, is that what’s often taught to congregations is that believers should not concern themselves with ‘the ways of this world’, and that includes politics.

    Based on what I know from my own extensive experience, this politically withdrawn orientation of the Evangelical church is based on a few primary assumptions. The first is that Jesus will be returning to the world to save his people--and condemn unbelievers--so there is little point in trying very hard to make it a better place. (This is also the logic that Christians sometimes use to ignore climate change.) The second assumption has less to do with the timeline of things and more to do with one’s concept of citizenship. Evangelicalism preaches “the kingdom of God.” Generally speaking, this is not a metaphor. I mean, it’s a metaphor in the sense that it describes the intangible spiritual realm in a physical, real-world way that folks can relate to. But the Evangelical’s understanding of her allegiance is not figurative. There are two kingdoms--one just happens to be invisible--and her heavenly citizenship supersedes her earthly, nation-based one. As such, she is not to worry too much, really, about what happens in government. God is in control of it and will make sure His will is done. (God’s omnipotence is the third assumption).

    So, in summary, though it is belied in certain moments there is actually a tradition amongst (white) Evangelicals in the United States of remaining relatively aloof regarding the political sphere. What belies it? Every once in a while there is an issue that Evangelicalism finds so incredibly crucial to the well-being of society that it will proceed to put all of its resources into making sure the chips fall in favor of its own interpretation of Biblical code. Throughout my young life, and to this day, that issue was abortion. (More recently, they’ve piled on fighting against LGBTQ rights, too.) I give credit to Yancey for pointing this out in his article and for questioning abortion’s prominence vis a vis the many other social justice concerns that are, or should be, on the table.

    Taking up this thread for a moment, one might (and should) ask: why the banning of abortion? Why does that thing bug them more than anything else? More than, say, immigration reform or prison reform, both of which deal with populations that God specifically commands his people to take care of in the Bible? In my opinion, it has to do with controlling women’s bodies (which is also related, through misogyny, to the issue of homo/trans/bi-phobia). But that’s a long and complicated discussion in and of itself. It is a reality that demands dissection, and it will have to be saved for another post.

    Returning to the idea of Evangelicalism’s political ambivalence, it must be said that it’s not an entirely ridiculous attitude. We are all ambivalent about politics to some extent--and that’s healthy. The system will always be imperfect, and we should always be using our imaginations to come up with better ways of taking care of each other. The United States, for example, literally grew out of and because of white supremacy. Our government is and has been a tool of violent oppression, and as Audre Lorde said (if you'll allow me to take her words slightly out of context), “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” Putting one’s faith in the government to change the things the government has thus far refused to change if the right people are in charge, trusting that with enough good will and reasonable debate systems can rearrange--it is an approach that deserves intense criticism.

    But a secular cynicism regarding the extent to which government can save us or an educated critical consideration of the true limits of the political machine are not the same thing as the attitude with which the politically disengaged Evangelical sets herself apart. Some of us still want to bring about change for our ourselves and our fellow citizens but have found, through exposure to scholars like Lorde, that there might be non-traditional ways of doing it, ways more worthy of our attention than the pre-existing set-up. When I was a full-fledged Evangelical, however, my political disengagement was not due to the fact that I was finding better places for my resources with the same end in mind; it was because I didn’t care. More precisely, I didn’t think I needed to or was even supposed to care.

    The world was ending, essentially, so why bother? Not only that, but what could I do through politics that God couldn’t do on God’s own through a miracle? With this mindset Evangelicalism does, in a way, and quite ironically, give its members an excuse to refrain from taking care of anyone other than themselves and those they can convert. Now I know this is where I’ll receive some pushback, and I’ll hear some “not fairs”. To be clear, I am not saying that individual self-identified Evangelicals don’t care about others, or that they never participate in charitable projects. Quite the opposite is true. But as a group they are not encouraged to see, and are often discouraged from seeing, society as a collection of systems that work to privilege or oppress--systems that we participate in no matter how much soup we serve, houses we build, or clothes we donate, and systems we could perhaps hope to alter or dismantle altogether.

    There is in Evangelicalism--at least as far as I experienced it, in a very white context--a lack of education regarding how to use legislation and other political methods to bring about widely distributed, more sustainable well-being. In fact, even more than an ignorance there is an antipathy, because it means believing the government has power, which feels ‘wrong’ when you’re invested in the idea that no one has power but God. And, to bring us back around to where we started from, if no one has power but God, why worry about Donald Trump? Sure he’s mean and scary and we don’t condone his actions on the interpersonal level because they’re not very nice, but as far as dreading the next four years, there's no need to stress because we have the Lord.

    To be honest, part of me is jealous of the naïveté. I remember when Christianity made it so easy for me to compartmentalize the outside world and all its troubles so I could just worry about myself. I remember not having to care about anyone other than the folks right in front of me (who were largely a part of my own demographic, mind you) because I knew that whatever was directly in front of my eyes was the only thing God wanted me to care about just then. I remember believing that prayer was, quite conveniently, the most powerful and effective thing to be done. And this is not to mention that I also knew the world was so messed up because of people’s unrepentance, and since I was doing the right thing by following Jesus, I was not responsible for any of the bad stuff anyway. Yep, those were the days.

    Now, without a God, it’s difficult to bear the burden of the knowledge of all that needs to be done--and all that can be done--while trying to sustain energy and an atheistic hope. But I wouldn’t trade it. I’m no longer interested in childishly handing over what little power I do have to  a supernatural father figure, who by the way has yet to demonstrate He will or wants to save us. I’m not interested in not knowing how I naturally contribute to systems of oppression on a daily basis no matter how sweetly I smile at the houseless man on the street. Believing that we're all we've got--that it's not sin that hurts us but each other--is scarier, and heavier, but it's worth it.

    Apathy toward government made sense to me inside the chamber of the church, where only certain people following certain rules deserved the privilege we good white Christians automatically had, and where we could wait for a savior we knew was coming soon. I understand why the Evangelical approach to dealing (or not dealing) with government feels good. I only dream that those who say they follow Jesus will stop waiting for the world to end so they can get out of this slovenly place and instead start educating themselves as to how our society is designed to punish innocents and what they can do to change that.