The latest season of our favourite reality show came to an end earlier this year. And if you are like me, you were mourning the loss. I’m sure you know which one I’m referring to. No doubt you were devoted to it like everyone else. You eagerly anticipated the next episode, not only watching obsessively but identifying with its heroes and villains. It’s very likely that you spent hours arguing over the next possible twist in the plot. You know which one I’m talking about, don’t you? Do I need to spell it out? It’s called ‘American Politics’.
Many Christians’ attachment to American politics has grown to unhealthy proportions.
I jest. But I’m writing this because many Christians’ attachment to American politics has grown to unhealthy proportions. In South Africa, where I live and minister, interest in American politics extends into the dangerous domain of deeply vicarious emotional investment and devotion. In fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that many South Africans are having their identities formed and their worldviews shaped by American politics. I have even seen Christian families split down the middle over American politics. I also don’t think that this is unique to my country.
What’s Shaping Us?
This is a serious problem for two reasons. Firstly, it’s American. Secondly, it’s politics. As disciples of Jesus Christ, living outside of America, neither of those should be the most formative influences in our lives. But before we go any further, let’s consider the allure of American politics. We need to think about why we find it so seductive. We need to understand the temptation so that we can overcome it.
When it comes to culture, America is a net exporter.
Besides the sheer entertainment value, why do South African Christians find it so attractive? Of course, when it comes to culture, America is a net exporter. Whether we like it or not, we continue to take our lead from them. We read their books, watch their movies, listen to their music, wear their brands, idolise their celebrities, and consume their content. Why should politics be an exception? But, in my armchair analysis, there is something deeper still that sits at the heart of the attraction: the uniquely American fusion of politics and religion.
There is something deeper still that sits at the heart of the attraction: the uniquely American fusion of politics and religion.
America is a deeply polarised society and religion organises itself according to the standard fault lines. So the Church, broadly speaking, divides into conservative Christians on the right and liberal Christians on the left. In a two-party system, that reduces Christians to Republican or Democrat. This fusion is a delicious but highly toxic cocktail. Yet Christians drink deeply from this cup. The latest season of ‘American Politics’ is the case in point.
American Politics As Religion
Because of the traditional fusion, once again, both sides made a religion of their politics and a politics of their religion. Conservatives had Trump as their Messiah. Liberals had Biden. On the other hand, conservatives saw Biden as the Antichrist. For Liberals, Trump was Satan incarnate. Both sides railed against an unforgivable sin: bigotry for Liberals; abortion for Conservatives. Conservatives spewed righteous anger against sins of commission. Liberals called down curses on sins of omission. Everybody cried, “hypocrisy!” And everybody had it right.
Conservatives had Trump as their Messiah. Liberals had Biden.
Both sides offered a way out: justification by personal piety for Conservatives; or justification by social justice for Liberals. Beyond penance, Liberals promised heaven on earth, a brave new world. For Conservatives, Utopia meant reclaiming the golden years. To pull all of this off, both sides had to recreate Jesus in their own image. So Jesus was a hippie. Or Jesus was a military man. That’s the package, take your pick. American Christians did. But the astounding thing for me is this: so did Christians across the globe.
We Just Love Religion
As far as I can tell the choice itself—left or right; Liberal or Conservative—largely comes down to personal temperament. But why are we choosing at all? And why are we choosing so passionately? The reason these options end up being so attractive to us, the reason South Africans can have stand-up shouting matches with our Christian brothers and sisters over American politics is this: it is religion. And human beings love religion.
We love to catalogue which sins really matter, who the real sinners are and who gets to go to heaven.
We love to dictate how we will relate to God. And we love to build towers that reach to the heavens. We love to catalogue which sins really matter, who the real sinners are, what it takes to be righteous, who gets to go to heaven, who is on the fast train to hell, and, therefore, who Jesus needs to be to make it all happen.
So, What Can We Do?
How are we going get ourselves out of this mess? A few suggestions follow below. Some are practical. Others are more important than that.
1. Spot The Difference: The USA vs. Your Country
Without being subservient, we all have some lessons to learn from the USA. Though, no doubt, they could learn a thing or two from the rest of us. That being said, there are also very important differences. Just take a moment, for example, to consider the historic, demographic, cultural, institutional, and economic differences between USA and South Africa.
America is going through a season of deep confusion. Let’s not assume we understand them. They are struggling to understand themselves.
Once you’ve done that, consider the fact that America is going through a season of deep polarisation and confusion. Let’s not assume we understand them. They are struggling to understand themselves. We all live in complex societies. We too are struggling to understand ourselves. But this does not mean we share the same challenges and complexities.
Does it make any sense whatsoever to take all our complexity and overlay it with America’s? Is this really the way we believe we’ll find clarity? It’s like trying to clean your dirty glasses with grease so that you can see. Better to focus on our problems, through our own lenses, and occasionally ask each other: “How’s it going? What have you learnt?”
2. Learn Global—But Think, Pray & Live Local
Jesus said, “each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). I suggest that what he applied to time can also be applied to space. Surely, we have enough trouble in our own countries of residence. Surely there are local issues enough without us having to go abroad to dig our heels in on issues even Americans themselves don’t understand.
There are local issues enough without us having to go abroad to dig our heels in on American issues.
Before we invest ourselves in abstract convictions, we need to ask ourselves: are we praying for our own politicians; serving our own communities; standing for justice and mercy in our own neighbourhoods? I think if we are, we will find we have a lot less energy to fight over vote counts in the State of Georgia.
3. Give To Caesar—But Give To God
In Matthew 22:15-22, Jesus makes it clear where our allegiances should lie. If the coin bares Caesar’s image, the coin belongs to Caesar. But if you bare God’s image, you belong to God. Any allegiance to earthly political personalities or causes is provisional, temporary, relative and passing away. Pay them the honour they are due. But understand this: God demands your total, final, ultimate, and absolute allegiance.
If the coin bares Caesar’s image, the coin belongs to Caesar. But if you bare God’s image, you belong to God.
Put another way, the kingdom of God has its own king. He will not bow and bend himself to your political preferences. In fact, you will bow to his. You will be conformed to him. And guess what, he hates both racism and abortion. God opposes sin in the bedroom and in the boardroom. He cares about crimes of passion and crimes of indifference. Christ demands personal piety and social justice. And, perhaps most importantly, he will not be remade in your image. You will be remade in his. And that includes your politics.
4. Costly Grace
The grace of God in Jesus Christ is free. He comes to us free. But that actually costs us a great deal. It costs us our righteousness. The very fact that Jesus comes to us as a gift insists that we cannot earn him. Our self justification projects are useless. Our righteousness is worthless. Jesus died for our righteousness. Whether your righteousness comes from private piety or your social justice campaigning matters nothing at all—it is worthless.
Whether your righteousness comes from private piety or your social justice campaigning matters nothing at all—it is worthless.
Jesus went to Calvary for your campaign. He was crucified for your personal responsibility. The moment we truly grasp this is the moment we stop identifying as “us” and “them”. It’s the moment we see ourselves in solidarity with every sinner, whether they are standing on the right or the left of the cross. It’s the moment we repent of our tower building and self-righteous anger to instead praise God that he could forgive a sinner like me.
5. The Log In Your Own Eye
If we grasp the grace of God in Jesus Christ we won’t cling with such tight fists to our party colours. We will always be ready to ask, “what do those image bearers, those sons and daughters, my brothers and sisters in Christ, have to say of value? What can I learn from them?” Instead of proclaiming the fires of hell for those on the other side, we will apply the fear of God to our own politics. We will constantly be asking: what does Jesus want me to change about my politics? What is it that we cannot see from over here? Let’s go over there and ask them to help us see clearly.
If we grasp the grace of God in Jesus Christ we won’t cling with such tight fists to our party colours.
Thinking that there is nothing Jesus wants to change about my politics, and that it’s those guys that need to repent is akin to thinking the same thing about sex or money. It’s nothing but the prideful, wilful blindness of hypocrisy. On the other hand, if we do grasp the grace of God in Jesus Christ all our political opinions, conversations, and actions will be governed by a deep spirit of humility. “I was the reason he had to come in the first place, and when he comes again, no doubt, he will have to set me straight.”
American politics is fascinating. We can learn a lot from it. But let’s not live our lives through it and for it.
Let’s Keep American Politics In It’s Place
American politics is fascinating. We can learn a lot from it. But let’s not live our lives through it and for it. Let’s not fall into camps and fight proxy wars with each other. God forbid! God have mercy on us! We live in our own kingdom. We live our lives in and through the king, and him alone.