One reason for this is simple: the majority of Americans subscribe to what is commonly called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Regardless of faith tradition (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, secular), their actual beliefs when surveyed include the notion that:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
This kind of open and relatively noncommittal faith allows any particular religious sensibility to be a Rorschach test onto which people can project their moral or political commitments.
One result, in Christianity, is many Scriptures, many Jesuses, specifically a fractalized gestalt American Jesus.
Perhaps the only thing that overpowers our faith more than politics is That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named: free market capitalism, and our complicity in it. But that's for another post.
There are simple ways to illustrate the point, like the recent survey that indicates 80% of white evangelicals will vote for Trump... or alternatively, that Hillary Clinton will pick up a majority of votes from the "nones" when actually she is a devout Methodist and sees Christian faith as integral to her leadership.
I've seen politics trump religion time and again, in the local congregation and at the national level. There's the old joke: Why do Episcopal churches have altar rails? Answer: To divide the Republicans from the Democrats.
I have friends who pastor churches that are 95% Republican. I belong to a denomination that is aligned much more closely with the Democrat party platform on almost every socio-political measure.
How can this be anything other than party solidarity trouncing the unity in diversity of the gospel?
On average I think Christians increasingly struggle to be part of a congregation that doesn't share their political commitments, but they'll happily rub shoulders with parishioners and pastors who believe all kinds of crazy theological things about Jesus (unless the topic is human sexuality).
I've been doing a bit of self-assessment on this point, and don't exactly know how to proceed. As a Christian pastor, I really do believe it's crucial to keep Christ as our center. Our socio-political worldview is important, and part of our life, but we shouldn't confuse it with Christianity. Towards this end, I'm trying to read more straight up Christology, including most recently the historically fascinating Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ by Aaron Riches.
I'm trying to read the Bible while asking myself repeatedly--in what ways is my reading of this colored by my politics?
I believe that sometimes the call to be more theological, and less political, is a call to whitewash theology and make it part of the dominant culture. White dudes in particular, whenever things get a bit heated and political, try to get everyone to find common ground. On this point, see Henry Rollins.
I learned this point from a black theologian, James Cone, who I kind of think everyone should read before arguing that one can do theology untethered from specific racial or political categories.
But I really do want to focus more on Jesus than politics. Then when I do, I notice how political Jesus was. Then I'm at risk of assuming that Jesus was aligned with my politics. So I have to study Jesus some more. Then I'm challenged to be more political.
This continues in a circular fashion. It's a constant challenge.
Perhaps this has been a long way of relativizing our politics in light of the gospels. It's unlikely we can do much to change the situation, other than become aware of it. And awareness ain't a bad thing. Jesus wanted people to wake up. The politics I subscribe to wants us to #getwoke.
So have I learned my politics from my faith, or have my politics trumped my religion?