Who Hijacked My Religion?

Ed Guthero September/October 2019

The waters are stirring more than ever throughout American communities. They have been for quite a while. One afternoon way back in the mid-1980s I was startled to see curious brochures placed besidesweekly service bulletins on the welcoming table at my local church. As I flipped through the pamphlet, it was apparent to me that some zealous individuals had taken upon themselves to judge the spiritual meritsof all the hopeful candidates running for a variety of municipal and state offices.

Candidates were graded on how they were perceived to align with a particular religious checklist. Some candidates were summarily dismissed, the not-to-subtle implication being that no conscientious Christian could possibly vote for them. Others were praised and heartily recommended. The sweeping tone and shameless confidence of the brochures remains in my mind until this day.

No doubt fastidious individuals were financing and placing such brochures throughout city churches in good conscience. And what could be wrong with politicizing faith?Well, history has painful lessons regarding that question still blowing in the wind, ripe to be revisited again and again.

Yes, the signs that something uncomfortably powerful was already in motion were resonating in society back then and have not abated. Such phrases as the “moral majority,” “Christian coalition,” and “the Religious Right” have become increasingly familiar terms in the public lexicon . . . an influential Christian television host with political ambitions made a serious run for the presidential nomination, books on moral/political action have been effectively circulated throughout communities of faith, oversimplifications of issues have energized many, and the phenomenon is gaining momentum.

Some publishers have taken a particular slant on the past, somehow binding Christianity and American history together as virtually one and the same thing. Reading these books, one might assume that all the Founders were theological seminary students destined for sainthood. It makes a tidy narrative, yet the struggle for a new nation of liberty was often a painful, conflicted affair in people’s hearts as well as on the battlefield.

Shrewd politicians and campaign strategists were quick to see the benefits of courting churches and communities of faith. In turn, some faith leaders and laypeople became vulnerable to the lure of political power and influence.

And so began the dance: a romance of compromise, labeling, and polarization that would eventually stain all participants. Good intentions snowed under by human weakness and temptations of temporal power. Perhaps the national morality so desired could be legislated?

In some faith circles the focus was narrowed and the big picture was obscured.The foundation message of taking the gospel message of hope and individual redemption to a hurting world has been trampled upon, and even abandoned by some. The fusion of a nationalistic agenda of faith and identity politics was emerging while a considerable section of the faith community and astute politicians played each other like fiddles . . . shamelessly pinning a campaign button on the robe of Christ, wrapping Him in a flag, then parading Him around as a political tool.I do not recognize that Jesus.

What is wrong with this picture? Is this the mission the real Jesus asked of His disciples? Standing before Pontius Pilate, Jesus had said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Regardless, fueled by talk media, whose hosts can seem as much entertainers as political pundits, a curious hybrid of political conservatism and religion has evolved to keep the airwaves humming in a puzzling dialogue of alarm, frustration, anger, and pet mantras. Individuals are labeled and demonized while the devoted audiences are kept on edge in a constant state of irritation and angst.

One thing is certain: such broadcasters know their demographic and which hot-button issues to push—not to mention the side of the toast on which their economic bread is buttered.Their gig seems solid: if they approve of whichever party is in charge, they are cheerleaders.If the opposite occurs, they shift to aggressive rhetoric. Either way, their demographic is hooked: discontent is contagious and lucrative. Knowingly or not, they too play each other like fiddles.

By 2004 the country was in the throes of another election; and I remember casually running into friends, a professional couple whom I’ve always admired, at a local shopping mart.Pleasantries were exchanged, then conversation drifted to the upcoming election.The wife suddenly yet pleasantly said out of the blue, “I don’t know how any Christian could vote for a Democrat.” Rather stunned by the statement, and knowing full well that for decades Christians freely voted Democrat or Republication, I said nothing. The dialogue thankfully changed, but I’ve never forgotten the casual ease and impact of those words.The landscape had been shifting for years, and a segment of contemporary Christianity that would have alarmed such Founders as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (advocates of keeping church and state separate) was exercising sizable political muscle.The courtship between political conservatism and wide strains of the faith community, charged by talk radio/media rhetoric, had morphed into its own type of religion.

Myriads of young people have grown up in this unsteady climate, with the perception that Christianity and a particular strain of political conservatism are one and the same.Yet not all Christians are comfortable with this reality, and wonder if Jesus and the words “My kingdom is not of this world” is being kicked to the curb. What is the fallout? What price has been paid after years of this uneasy dance between faith and the compromise for political influence?

Cornell University historian Isaac Kramwick and coauthor R. Laurence Moore wrote somewhat prophetically in a 1996 American Prospect article: “If God blesses us only as Republicans or Democrats, both politics and religion are in trouble.” In America, somehow many have forgotten that Christianity is neither Republican nor Democrat: there are believers on both sides of the political spectrum.

A growing number of Christians see no resemblance between the political Jesus hybrid and theJesus in whom they have found personal faith, forgiveness, hope, and purpose. While many churchgoers have been lost in America’s politics, believers in distant lands who have embraced the name of Christ are persecuted, often killed, because they follow the Christ who said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”(John 14:6). It is no political game to them. The troubling contemporary news photo of a young boy crucified, nailed to wood, in the streets of Egypt shocked us for a time, but then we forget as the next political crisis floods though multiple media outlets. A reflective pause comparing the situations of political verbosity at home to Christians struggling to live their faith under duress in diverse lands has many believers turning away from the rhetoric and asking: “Who hijacked my Christ? . . .Give me back my religion.”

The Post-Truth Era . . .

Christian writer Michael Gerson, author of the book The Last Temptation, writes in a recent Atlantic article: “It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment. . . . Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way.” It seems that many are rolling the dice for “the highest of stakes: the reputation of their faith.”

The hypocrisy, polarization, hate speech, shameless pandering for political influence, and compromised principles have dragged the name of Christ through the mud. For what? Dominance, temporal power,a place in government, seats on the Supreme Court, an effort to create one’s own kingdom, force God’s hand? Again, something is wrong with this picture.

Almost flying under the radar in this tense contemporary climate are the influential objectives of dominionism—the theocratic idea that regardless of theological camp, means, or timetable,God has called conservative Christians to excercise dominion over society by taking control of political institutions. This school of thought emerged in the 2000s and is essentially seeking through religious/political influence to build their version of a Christian civilization in America.

A branch of the movement, Seven Mountains Dominionism, calls for believers to take control over seven leading aspects of culture: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government. One wonders what would Founder James Madison think about that vision of America.

In the current hurricane of words and defamation, I would ask one thing— do not paint the Christ who said, “My kingdom is not of this world” and “Treat others as you would like to be treated” (see Matthew 7:12) witha political/religious brush that distorts the reality and spirit of Jesus’ teachings.

We’ve been there before—and it never ends well. Politics, nationalism, and religious extremism, no matter the belief system, are a volatile mix.

Consider colonial New England in the 1600s and the unfortunate pilloried citizens locked into wooden stocks in the town square as punishment for lapsed church attendance.

Perhaps this was a fortunate embarrassment; not so the individual who could have their tongue punctured by a metal auger for repeated transgressions of profanity. This was a curious sense of piety and justice dished out by early colonists who themselves had fled religious intolerance in Europe.

Or consider an ailing Roger Williams escaping through the winter woods, laden with driftingNew England snow, in a desperate attempt to avoid capture and deportation back to England. Williams, a gifted young theological graduate, had apprenticed during his youth as a secretary under heralded British lawyer Sir Edward Coke in the legendary British Star Chamber.The young minister was no stranger to government, nor was he afraid to speak his mind on the dangers of combined church/state authority. He respected individual conscience.

To Williams, a forced religion was no religion at all. His views of paying Native Americans for their land, rather than just taking it, probably didn’t help his status in colonial times either. Williams had to go.

His escape through the winter woods proved successful. Williams was sheltered by friendly Indians; eventually he obtained land from the Narragansett tribe, where he founded Rhode Island, America’s first settlement of true democracy. Today Williams’ vision and respect for individual conscience is remembered with honor. Those who persecuted him not so much.

The tragedies that occur when religion and political power unite stain the pages of history. All people, no matter their belief systems, race, or political persuasions, bleed the same.The humanity toward others is trampled when mortals play God.

Peace of Mind or Political Power?

I do not recognize the Christ infused into today’s political/religious quagmire.He bears no resemblance to the Christ of the New Testament: The one who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and “I am come that they may have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). That Jesus is about building up, not tearing down. That Jesus is about hope, new beginnings, and a love so strong for humanity thatit would lead Him to the ignominy of the cross. He did not admonish His followers to overthrow the occupying Roman government, but offered forgiveness, and personal peace for the minds and hearts of humanity.

That Jesus is obscured by today’s religious/political power struggles.I fear that people will think that Jesus is part of the package wrapped totally in the alliances, hate, and intolerance of certain political points of view.

My point here is not to tear down individuals or political parties, but to caution that in attempting to establish moral ground in our nation we may actually be driving people away from God, not toward Him. It is an ironic tragedy to barter and obscure the name of Christianity for temporal political gain.

Does faith need a rebrand?

It’s almost like this modern offshoot has scarred the name of Christ and Christianity to the point that many followers of Jesus have suggested believers use terms other than “Christian” or “Evangelical.” That is tragic. The word “gospel” means good news, The Greek verb euangelizo means to bring good news, the good news of salvation in Christ.

“Political partisanship has hamstrung evangelicalism’s ability to pursue what is supposed to be the core of its mission: to share the good news of the gospel,” states Tom Krattenmaker in a 2018 Religion NewsService article. Elizabeth Dias, in a November 1, 2018, New York Times article, writes that many young people feel the current political climate reflects “a loss of humanity, which conflicts with their spiritual call.”

One concerned young person interviewed, expressed her concerns bluntly: “I’m worried that we’ve done immense harm to the marginalized in the name of God.” You realize it is not good news at allif you are just baptizing certain inequalities or biases. . . . It’s not that you have conservative evangelicals suddenly becoming liberal. It is more realizing that you could be practicing something that isn’t even Christian at all.”

Another young evangelical questioned was wary of politicians “using Christianity as a weapon to get themselves elected. . . . The Jesus that these men depict is not the Jesus that healed the sick and broke down social barriers. We are not a part of those men’s religion and my hope is people will see that.”

Indicating the frustration often confronting family members in a highly charged religious/political atmosphere in which young people feel the contradictions between their own personal faith in Christand a new form of politically weaponized faith, one young believer stated, “I feel that I am in a constant battle with my dad to simply remind him that poor Black people are people. Muslims escaping Syriaare people. And they have inherent value and dignity as children of God.”

“They’ll Know We Are Christians”

In April of 2017 the prominent Egyptian talk show host Amr Adib sat speechless after he watched a colleague interview a Coptic Christian widow whose husband had just been killed in a terrorist attack.Her children by her side, the grieving woman spoke of the attacker in words that stunned the host and millions across the airwaves: “I’m telling him, may God forgive you, and we also forgive you,” she said. The television host stammered and in a cracking voice managed to say: “How great is this forgiveness you have! If it were my father I could never say this. But this is their faith and their religious conviction.”

The ancient writings of Tertullian describe how Roman society was struck by the witness of love in the early Christian church. “Look . . . how they love one another!” he wrote. “Love” is the byword of Christianity. Christianity is a message of love and forgiveness.

It brings to mind the old identifying folk song of young believers during a faith renaissance in the 1970s: “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.”

Let Christ Be Christ

Over 2,000 years ago a Galilean teacher was executed in a distant province of the Roman Empire. The world is still talking about it. Throughout history many have used His name for their own purposes. Others say He defined love, gave them personal peace, hope, and a new direction in life.

This area on the fringes of Rome’s territories bubbled with tempests . . . there were the Zealots (advocates for violent overthrow of the hated Romans), various political and social caste factors, local religious hierarchy and legalism, and multitudes of everyday people coping with the harsh realities of a life surrounded by uncertainty.

In this environment, Christ’s teachings left people dumbfounded. In a society abundant in religious rules, Jesus cut through the rhetoric and spoke to the heart. When a woman taken in adultery was dragged before Him, the accusers were eager to stone her. Testing the upstart teacher, they asked the Christ what should be done.

Jesus looked directly at them and said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). They had no answer, and dispersed. His words penetrated the smokes creens and self-righteousness of the day. He knew the hunger for personal peace that burns in people’s hearts. He said His message was for all people, all classes, all nations. His love, crucifixion, and resurrection are too sacred to blemish. It is hard to hate at the foot of the cross.

I recognize that Jesus. Please, give me my religion back.

Article Author: Ed Guthero

Ed Guthero has had a critically applauded career as a book and periodical designer, artist, and photographer, and a legacy ensured by years as a university lecturer. Here he shows another skill as an author. He writes from Boise, Idaho.