Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Political Christian: A Sunday Rumination

Last week, I vented about the inappropriateness of associating specific political positions with the Christian ethos:

There could hardly be anything more blasphemous than for a priest of Christ to state, from the pulpit, that Christians are under an obligation to support certain political parties or public policies. Yet we hear this sort of thing from far too many pulpits...and from far too many persons whose conception of Christ’s New Covenant is shallow, to say the least.

Yet there’s no denying that quite a lot of political blather flows from America’s pulpits. Much of it is collectivist, even Marxist, in orientation. Its advocates often make reference to the earliest Christians, who “held all things in common,” as if the emergency measures First-Century Christians adopted to safeguard their lives while they pursued the Great Commission in a lethally hostile era were equally applicable to us of Twenty-First-Century America.

One such as myself, whose politics falls well to the Right of center, will frequently be appalled by such preachments. Still worse would be to see huge numbers of Christians adopting them, as we in the Right know well the inevitable results of collectivism and dread to watch them at work in these United States.

But lay Christians can hardly charge our pulpits, eject the political preachers from them, and demand an immediate return to strict Gospel exegesis. It would cause talk, among other things. (I know it’s hard, but resist the temptation. I don’t want to have to bail you out of jail.) So what can we do?

Well, if memory serves, Jesus didn’t reserve the study or preaching of the Gospels to the Apostles alone.

It might be apocryphal, but a beautiful saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi runs as follows:

“At all times, preach the Gospels.
When necessary, use words.”

Whether or not Francis of Assisi actually said any such thing, the wisdom of those words is plain, for people respond most reliably to a good example. Indeed, what is more clich├ęd than the condemnation of the sanctimonious hypocrite: he who publicly mouths pieties but privately wallows in vice? Mind you, hypocrisy is not the worst of sins, but to the extent it’s detectable and appears to go unpunished, it’s an important fuel for the degradation of a society. But the larger point is the important one here.

Many years ago, during the period when I was away from the Church, I chanced to spend an afternoon, under social circumstances, with a devoutly Christian extended family that glowed with joy. (That the paterfamilias was an entrepreneur in nuclear medicine probably had nothing to do with it.) Every member of the three generations present that day was quite literally beautiful, and a pure pleasure to have in one’s company. Though I never again saw any one of them, the occasion has remained vivid in my memory ever since.

I have no idea what their politics were. No political subject came up. Politics was entirely irrelevant to that gathering...nor, I suspect, was it relevant to that family at any other time. But neither did any religious subject come up. Apart from grace over a meal, not one of them said a single word about their common faith. If they preached their convictions on that day, it certainly wasn’t with words.

I couldn’t say whether those folks were extraordinary or important in any secular way. I didn’t get to know them well enough for that. Their happiness, as individuals and in aggregate, was dominant in my perception of them.

Return, if you will, to this piece, and reflect on the parallels.

It’s a well known phenomenon of politics that one’s chosen alignment often has much more to do with the sort of person one wants to associate with (and to appear to others) than with a reasoned set of conclusions about rights, justice, and public policy. The same might be true of religious convictions. The inverse seems beyond dispute; at least, I can’t imagine willingly adhering to a faith most of whose members strike me as vicious or personally repellent. (Also, it would account for the popularity of Islam in our prisons.)

The acceptance of a religion is a matter of personal commitment. It’s a voluntary adoption of certain beliefs and an associated code of conduct, not a license to compel others to conform to one’s preferences. The same is true of any other noncoercive system of belief or scheme for living. Thus, politics is utterly irrelevant to religious faith and ethics, and should be allowed no place in our preachments or our pulpits.

Still, I can’t help musing over the predominance of conservative political views among Americans who describe themselves as Christians. If those folks are as persuasive in their persons as that family I encountered so very long ago, it would go a long way toward explaining why the “red states” are also the bastions of American Christianity. We tend to gather with those we find admirable, whether or not our admiration is warranted. We tend to emulate those we deem successful, whatever our metrics for success. Even if we find it difficult to view persons who inspire others solely by example as preachers, it appears to be the style of evangelism best suited to the Christian ethos. If politics matters almost as much to you as your faith, and if it’s also the style of political evangelism best suited to the conservative / libertarian ethos, why not give it a try?

Hey, it might even work on that obnoxiously political priest whose sermons affect you like fingernails on a blackboard.

May God bless and keep you all.

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