The doctrine that we set up political authority, as a device to secure our own essentially private, local, and unpolitical purposes, has left the Western democracies in a state of pervasive moral debilitation, which, from time to time, inevitably throws up idolatrous and authoritarian reactions. – Oliver O’Donovan
This observation is from 1996 by Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan, and it rang out like a shot across the bow of my complacent ship. With all the hubbub over the rise of Trump in an increasingly less socially and religiously homogeneous America, I wanted to brush up on my political ethics. So a few months a go I started plodding through The Desire of Nations by O’Donovan and take my pulse and temperature politically and theologically.
I think, like many American Christians, I have taken for granted that worldly politics was best left to politicos while the Church focused on the more egregious forms of corruption or social discord that all political systems of every stripe tend to leave in their wake. But as I saw the growing tendency of Americans to confuse the Kingdom of God with the American Dream, I saw a commensurate embrace of will-to-power as a means to effect social and direct political change by the Church. Whether organizing protests and writing Congress on the left, or funding super-PACs and complaining via pulpit language about the collapse of society’s morals at campaign events on the right, I realized the de facto quasi-Anabaptist hands off approach to the Church’s relationship to the state was completely eroding.
Full disclosure, I am unabashedly not a supporter of Donald Trump. I am convinced he is stirring up the politics of hate and fear using a thinly disguised fascist playbook. And the fact that the Republican Party hasn’t the testicular fortitude to stand up to him is proof of the lack of courage our elected officials have, because power is more important than principle to them. But the deeper problem is the American Church’s embrace of societal idolatry and power-politics. The Church has confused patriotism for piety. This isn’t merely a problem on the right side of the political spectrum, the pejoratively called “God, guns, and apple pie” crowd. The left has also baptized American progressive ideology in practice without so much as requiring a wink or a nod to Jesus.
With no moral center rooted in an external source to which all people are accountable, American politics has devolved into Nietzschean will-to-power plays. And as the Church has ceded its truly prophetic voice – embracing not only the language, but the culture of unredeemed American values – we’ve become neutered in witness. Instead of demanding that Christ is the the one to whom “every knee will bow and every tongue confess” in the way we govern, we’ve taken the most expedient political course for our personal lives, then gussied it up with religious language. It’s time to genuinely start asking ourselves “How Would Jesus Govern?” and conform our political theologies accordingly. Besides, he’s already King of Kings. The question is, will the next President merely pay lip service to the morals and ethics Christ demands in how he or she governs, or will that President genuinely manifest the character and heart that Jesus demands of believing and unbelieving leaders alike? I’d like Dr. O’Donovan to remain a professor, and not be found some prescient prophet. I am anxious that may not be the case this election cycle.