Christianity and politics make an interesting pair.
Many people quickly declare them mutually exclusive. Yet the relationship between the two remains one of the most recurring conversations in American public life.
If you follow national religion reporting at all, you know that sometimes you can’t quite tell when a story is about religion and when it’s about politics. There’s a reason for that.
Twentieth-century America—the world into which most people alive today were born—saw the rise of organizations like the Moral Majority and movements like the religion right in which expressions Christianity took on decidedly political flavors. And whether it means acceptance or rejection of this brand of Christianity, the effects of those movements continue to shape American Christianity in 2017.
This results in an entanglement of Church and politics, one from which Christians need to break free, according to author Keith Giles. His latest book is Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb, and in it, he argues strongly against Christians putting too much stock—if any—in the political sphere.
We talked with Giles about this idea, how the American Church became “tangled” up in politics and how he thinks Christians should move forward.
There’s a lot of talk about Christians—even more common, evangelicals—and politics right now. Is the issue you’re addressing recent?
It’s not something recent.
I grew up in Texas, from the moment I could vote I was a straight-ticket Republican. I was in the NRA. I listened to Rush Limbaugh. My faith was as entangled with my Republican politics as it could possibly be, and I couldn’t imagine following Jesus any other way. Being a good Christian meant being a good American.
I think slowly over time, over the last 10 year especially, I just started noticing in myself and also in a lot of my Christian friends this confusion between what it means to follow Jesus and what it means to be a good American—and noticing that there’s pretty major differences.
The good news, the Gospel, the Kingdom and the Sermon on the Mount don’t really line up squarely with the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and what it means to be an American citizen.
Those are the kind of things I started noticing, so I’ve been blogging about it off-and-on for about 10 years. But I really felt like I needed to write the book, and, of course, when I started writing last year, I had no idea how relevant it was going to be to the political-Christian climate we’re in today.
You start with a pretty bold assertion: You write that nationalism hinders the Gospel. Can you explain that?
One way to express what I’m trying to say is actually to state it in the opposite: Maybe the problem with Christianity in America is that we’re not patriotic enough and that we’re not loyal and passionate enough about our leader.
What I mean by that is our “nation” is the Kingdom of God, and we are designated ambassadors of Him, our leader—who is Jesus, who is a king and His kingdom again does not align with the nations of this world. In fact, it’s something that’s pretty shocking if you read the Scriptures and look at God’s attitude toward the kings of this world—it’s never a positive thing.
Here’s why I think nationalism blinds us: If in your mind Jesus and your nation are going in the same direction—meaning Jesus is headed a certain direction, He has a certain goal and purpose for the world and the way He’s going to accomplish it and then your nation has the exact same goal and the exact same plan for accomplishing it—well then of course you can follow Jesus, because He’s headed a certain direction and your nation is headed the exact same direction and has the exact same plan to get there, well then of course, absolutely, you can do that.
But see, I think that when you read Jesus what you see if, and if you read the apostles and you read the early church documents, what you see is the idea that Jesus is going one way and everyone else is going the opposite way.
Jesus is headed true north and everything else—every nation—on this earth is headed south. You cannot go north and south at the same time, because the nations of the world are not going where Jesus is going, and their plan for transforming the world and changing the world and making the world a better place is not His plan.
You’re a Christian. But also you’re a citizen of a nation. How do you be a citizen of a nation without letting that drift into nationalism?
We are so passionate about what’s going on in politics. We look at the problems that our world has and we say, “The way to solve that problem is if we could just elect the right politician” and “What we need is a great politician and that’ll solve everything.”
That’s the way Christians seem to be behaving.
I think their hearts are right: I think our desire is to make the world a better place. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But, you know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Politics have never led us in the direction of making the world more Christlike.
I think to recognize that Jesus has a plan, and it’s a great plan to make the world a better place and to deal with the actual core problems we deal with as a human race—because our problems are not political, our problems are spiritual. You can pass all the laws you want, but you won’t change anyone’s heart.
For many, saying not to be involved in politics sounds like asking the to be passive about important issues. Is that right?
When I say that we should untangle from politics, I am not saying we do nothing. In fact, I think quite often when I do talk to Christians about this, and I say we should not involve ourselves with politics, most of the time the reaction I get is, “Well, Keith, you’re saying we should do nothing.”
That response betrays the very fact of what I’m saying: What you’re telling me is if I take politics away, you are doing nothing to share the Gospel.
You have Christians who would, at the drop of a hat, immediately engage in an argument about politics but they will not ever share their faith in Jesus with anybody. Right there betrays that entanglement.
How do we engage the culture? We do exactly what Jesus called us to do: We love our neighbor, we care for the poor, we reach out to the single mom who can’t pay her bills who lives on our street, we reach out to people who are in the margins and we share the love of Jesus with them in tangible ways. The gospel is intended to first of all change us into people who look and act like Jesus, and then to change people around us into people who look and act like Jesus.
That’s how you change the world. That’s Jesus’ plan to change the world.
Aaron Cline Hanbury is a contributing editor for RELEVANT. You can follow him on Twitter at @achanbury