If you are a Christian whose sensibilities and sensitivities are easily rubbed the wrong way by contemporary prophets willing and able to address the “elephants in the room,” and
if you are a Christian whose comfort zone feels assaulted if and when the Church grapples with issues of morality and justice that emerge from the workings of governmental systems and political entities, and
if you are a Christian whose understanding of the “separation of Church and State” implies that the Church should not be in the business of advocating and acting on matters of the State (the “body politic”) – OR – that the United States of America was founded as a white, Christian nation and, therefore, there can be no separation between Church and State in what is essentially an American (Christian) theocracy, then this post may not be your cup of tea. Caveat emptor.
A further reading of this post will confront us with two fundamental questions that deserve serious consideration by all who deem themselves to be ‘religious,’ and specifically those who answer to the name ‘Christian.’
Q: What is the role/goal of religion in 21st century society? Is it not to foster a society/community that works together to restore Creation and advance positive social change, a community that supports a pluralistic society that respects the dignity and freedom of every individual, all created in the Imago Dei (image of God)? If so, then…
Q: Which version of Jesus best portrays that role and best accomplishes that goal? Is it not the authentic Jesus of the Gospels and New Testament epistles, as opposed to the manufactured, disingenuous, Jesus wrapped in an American flag and worshipped by religious zealots on a quest for the ‘holy grail’ of single party rule with nationalist Christianity as the crown jewel in the theocratic diadem?
Will the Real Jesus please stand up!
Back in the middle section of the previous century there was a popular TV guessing game show called ‘To Tell the Truth.’ A panel of celebrities had the task of identifying the one authentic person from two other imposters. After all the panelists made their guesses, the moderator would ask, “Will the real [person’s name] please stand up?” The central character then stood, often after some brief playful feinting and false starts among all three challengers.
Now in 21st century America with the ascent of white Christian Nationalism, Christians and non Christians alike are like those panelists trying to discern authentic Christianity from counterfeit Christianity, trying to identify the real Gospel Jesus from the populist, nationalist, “make America/Christianity great again” Jesus. But unlike the TV show, this exercise in discernment is not merely a matter of frivolous entertainment. This is not a game. This is serious business taking place in a polarized politico/religious climate that places the future of the Christian Church, American Democracy and planetary survival in jeopardy.
Time and time again the posts on this Creation Justice blog seek to wave the red flag, sound the alarm and raise a prophetic voice to keep the critical issues of climate justice and preservation of both liberal democracy and authentic Christianity on our radar screen. To that end I will share a few offerings for those willing to make the time and effort to broaden their knowledge of the threats we face. The first is an excerpt from the University of Southern California Center for Religion and Civic Culture commentary: American Theocracy Is Bad for Everyone–Including White Christian Nationalists.
“As close observers of American religion and public life, we see the current movement toward nationalism and theocracy as dangerous for all Americans—including politically and socially conservative Christians. Laying the foundations of authoritarian government may seem appealing if you’re in the ethno-religious group that most immediately benefits from single-party rule. But once the power of the state is reshaped to serve anti-democratic ends, other groups or movements may seize the reins of power and oppress their former oppressors. Christian conservatives who would fuse the state and their religion should remember that the tools of oppression fit many hands. In the long run, no one benefits from authoritarianism.
Despite preaching small government, these Christians are currently using state power to impose their will on others. Specifically, overturning Roe v. Wade, allowing public school employees to pray (publicly) at school events and requiring public money for religious schools—along with anti-LGBTQ+ legislation at the state level—all represent the imposition of a particular strand of Christian thought upon all Americans. While framed as religious freedom, these policies actually curtail or eliminate freedoms for non-Christian and non-religious people, as well as for Christians whose theology leads them to different conclusions.
Combined with the Republican Party’s faltering commitment to the peaceful transfer of power and fair elections, these developments make us fearful for the prospects of individual liberty and democratic governance if this movement toward theocracy is not averted.”
Such dire warnings that name names (a political party) may not sit well with anyone claiming allegiance to such party. But it is not the intent of these posts to denigrate any political party, but to instead address the ideologies and actions behind the partisanship, no matter the party. This is important to keep in mind as we introduce one of the more ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ contemporary prophetic voices speaking out against the ascendancy of what I refer to as ‘counterfeit Christianity.’
In his most recent blog post, John Pavlovitz satirizes his conversion to what he refers to as “Republican Jesus,” which is the antithesis of “Gospel Jesus.” Because this is a politically charged term, I’m suggesting that the reader consider replacing the term ‘Republican Jesus’ with the words ‘populist, nationalist, make Christianity great again Jesus’ in an attempt to diminish partisan angst.
At its core, John’s post is a satirical expose of the glaring difference between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus that has been co-opted by an ideology of white Christian nationalism, illiberal democracy and authoritarian fascism. Here is a sample of John’s take on what it is like to follow that other Jesus:
“Republican Jesus also frees me up from worrying about the planet heating up or the coral reefs dying or the honeybees disappearing. I can chalk that all up to a “groaning creation” that is well above my pay grade, and simply live with relative abandon, consuming and wasting to my heart’s delight, since the destruction of the planet will hasten Republican Jesus’ return.” Click HERE for his full post.
A more scholarly presentation on this issue can be found at Common Dream’s article by Frank Breslin, Christian Nationalism vs. the Separation of Church and State. Because the hyperlink is faulty, I’m including the complete article below. Those undaunted by its length will be rewarded for their effort.
Christian Nationalism vs. the Separation of Church and State
The Founding Fathers wisely recognized what religion would become in the hands of charlatans: a theatrical performance and political tool to hypocritically showboat their “piety” as a way to manipulate voters for political gain.
Jan 23, 2023Common Dreams
We have a long tradition in America of Separation of Church and State that prohibits government’s promotion of religion on the one hand, and interference with its free exercise on the other. In their refusal to establish a state church or to favor one religion over another, the Founding Fathers didn’t think that religion was bad but that there was something amiss in human nature, a certain tendency, a will to power and a lust for domination, that always bore watching.
It was a virus that lay dormant until its host came to power, whereupon that person or group became suddenly rabid with a mania that sought to convert, punish or persecute anyone not of their fold or persuasion. Paradoxically, the guise under which this malady manifested itself, as the history of Europe made only too plain, was religion.
The Founders thought that religion, something good in itself, could be used toward either good or bad ends, and, unless preventive measures were taken, could induce in the susceptible a madness so malignant and vicious as to destroy the very essence of religion itself. By persecuting whoever refused to accept their religion or whose lives were deemed insufficiently righteous, those in power could impose a religious tyranny so suffocating in its grip, scope and intensity that one involuntarily thinks of barbed wire and concentration camps.
Various theories have tried to account for this bizarre aberration — the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the ascent of man from beasts, innate human depravity, the Freudian “id,” defective genes, or bad social engineering. But more important than those theories themselves is the lesson to be drawn from those institutions that promise heaven on earth.
Given the weak human vessels in which this religious feeling resides, even this noble sentiment could become tragically twisted and unleash on the world unspeakable horror. Immanuel Kant’s words come to mind when considering such would-be utopians and their spiritual gulags: “Nothing was ever made straight with the crooked timber of humanity.”
In government, the need for transparency, accountability and investigative journalists — assuming they haven’t been censored, banned, imprisoned or shot — is not a casual suggestion, but the sine qua non for maintaining even a pretense of institutional integrity. Human nature is self-contradictory and prone to temptation, especially when the camera’s not running or the press isn’t present. And, no matter the institution, it’s always wise to audit the books — both the official ones and the real ones hidden in the back-office safe.
Politicians, as the saying goes, “Campaign in poetry but govern in prose,” so that we had better distrust whatever they’re saying and doing by an ironclad system of checks and balances, fact-checking and vigilant oversight. As soon as they pass a law, they’ll invite a lobbyist to insert a loophole, recalling Juvenal’s admonition, “Who shall guard the guards themselves?”
Even religion can be dragged in the mire by persecuting those of another faith or of no faith at all until, weakened by torture, the unfortunates would end their suffering by conversion or death. So, to prevent these abuses of power as had occurred in Old Europe when Catholics persecuted Protestants, Protestants persecuted Catholics, Protestants persecuted other Protestants, and both Protestants and Catholics persecuted the Jews, the Founders erected a “wall of separation” between Church and State as a safeguard against such outrages.
They wanted to put an end to intolerance, bigotry and sadism that wore the flattering garb of religion and spoke in the sanctimonious accents of self-promotion. They believed that what they were doing was ushering something new into this world, novus ordo seclorum or “a new order of the ages” (see the back of a one-dollar bill).
America was to be a radically new experiment in government which, like ancient Athens itself, would show the world that free men had no need of princes and kings, but could govern themselves. No wonder the royal courts of Europe hoped this fledgling experiment wouldn’t succeed lest the contagion of democracy spread to their people.
The Founders refused to involve government in religion, religious quarrels or animosities that for centuries had convulsed Europe’s political landscape. Under stressful conditions, similar hostilities might also threaten our newfound nation, already a powder keg of sectarian tensions. Lending the power of the state to favor any one denomination or religion over another could exacerbate those mutual suspicions still further that might suggest the beginning of an established State Church.
A wall of neutrality would keep government from pitting one church or religion against another, a policy that had fanned the flames of centuries-old hatreds. Every religion must therefore be allowed to worship in its own way with neither interference nor support from the state. Everyone must be protected from “religious enthusiasm,” as that quaint 18th-century phrase understatedly put it. The only service government could render religion was to stay out of its way as long as one religion didn’t interfere with another.
This was an insight only painfully arrived at after generations of bloodshed, as monarchs imposed their religion on all their subjects (cuius regio, eius religio: whose realm, his religion) to unify and transform their dominions into virtual theocracies to facilitate rule. The Old World was replete with examples of such murderous fury, as competing factions virtuously butchered one another in the conviction that they were “doing God’s will.” Intending to bring their countries together, kings only managed to tear them apart.
The Founders were only too well acquainted with this blood-drenched chronicle, and they resolved to keep such hatreds far removed from our shores. History had taught them that bringing religion into the public arena was to let loose a monster. Still raw in their memory were the anti-Catholic Gordon riots of 1780 that only 11 years earlier had shocked all of Europe as parts of London were left in flames. It was a vivid reminder, if any were needed, of the deadly contagion of “enthusiasm.”
If Gordon had prevailed against the British government, there was no telling whether the outcome would have turned back the clock two centuries when Protestants murdered Catholics only to be followed by Bloody Mary’s retaliation upon her Protestant subjects. It would have been the same sad old tale of religion’s debasement by score-settling, persecution, torture, and death. Religion was nitroglycerin that had to be contained for everyone’s safety.
So, the separation clause was added to the Constitution as the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. It was imperative that government stay out of religion, neither encouraging nor impeding its practice. It makes admirable sense since every religion or even non-religion is thereby protected; every faith is of equal value since government plays a neutral role — a neutral role, that is, except when one religion or denomination harasses or persecutes another faith’s members, who refuse to believe as that religion dictates. Government then intervenes to protect the innocent.
This policy of separation is still on the books, and with good reason: Human nature never changes. There are still groups today whose agenda is converting and persecuting, hating and perhaps even murdering those of other faiths, denominations, or of no faith at all to save them from themselves and the fiery furnace to come — unless these “lost souls” submit and “see the light.”
Or, more exactly, “the light” by submitting to them who claim to know the innermost secrets of God himself, as if the Almighty were only the God of their particular denomination or faith alone instead of the God of them all under different names!
What a sorry little God he would be if he weren’t more open-minded than his closed-minded children who insult him by their demeaning image of him and use that caricature as their puppet who “reveals” to them alone what he wants for their country or political party!
Whether such proselytizing zeal is disguised aggression, megalomania, or repressed self-doubt that feels both threatened and driven to convert others to dispel that doubt, these are very dangerous people and should never be part of government or have their theological views of the Second Coming guide an administration’s foreign policy toward Israel and that tinderbox of the Middle East.
And yet, unbeknownst to themselves, these individuals render the nation an inestimable service by being a constant reminder of the very reason for upholding this Separation of Church and State. The Founding Fathers believed that religion was, and must always remain, a private affair because bringing the volatility of “religious enthusiasm” into the public arena would only trivialize religion and destabilize a nation. They feared the political effects of interdenominational feuding, the polarization caused by doctrinal differences, the demonization of dissenters, and the eruption of religious intolerance and hatred.
There was also a second reason why the Founders feared religion in politics — the rise of religious opportunists who would inflame political passions to promote themselves. Religion would become in the hands of these charlatans a theatrical performance and political tool to hypocritically showboat their “piety” to manipulate voters for political gain.
An unscrupulous politician could disguise his lack of convictions by holding his finger to the wind to determine which way the wind was blowing and telling his audience whatever he thought it wanted to hear. This individual well understood the art of inciting “enthusiasm” or hysteria toward some plan of action and call it “the Will of God.”
The Founders would have blanched at politicians returning to their constituents and pandering to their sincerely held religious convictions to gain a following or court popularity — not that they couldn’t take part in religious services as private citizens, but not as representatives of their government lest people think they were lending the prestige of their office to their particular church or religion.
These Founders also knew their Bible, as it played such a pivotal role in their 18th-century world. They knew of Christ’s admonition in Matthew 6 about not playing the hypocrite by standing on the street corner and making a public display of one’s piety, for one would have already received one’s reward. Instead, one should withdraw to one’s room, close the door, and in privacy pray to God as grandstanding didn’t count as prayer with the Lord! As experienced men of the world, they knew only too well how politicians might cynically abuse religion to seek power and votes.
They were also highly educated, even erudite, men, especially Thomas Jefferson, whose library contained a Who’s Who of “great authors,” one of whom was the celebrated French playwright Moliere, author of “Tartuffe,” the embodiment of religious hypocrisy. It is both an uproarious romp into the glacial regions of inner emptiness, as well as a manual for observing the bobbings and weavings of unctuous sanctimony raised to high art.
In that great patrician school of Parisian sophistication, it was thought that the only way to effect moral change was never by sermons but by ridicule. Many don’t mind being considered a scoundrel, but never a fool! Castigat ridendo mores (“Comedy corrects manners”) was the essence of Moliere’s art that skewered human folly by laughter alone.
This caustic mockery of his characters and the gales of laughter that broke forth from the audience were much more effective in pillorying vice than sermons delivered from Notre Dame’s pulpit. Moliere, the French Aristophanes, was and always has been a moral institution for the French, who can laugh at themselves in his characters with no loss of face.
Jefferson and his colleagues well understood that some members of government might be tempted to play Tartuffe on the political stage. One Tartuffe, or a group of them, could do untold harm to a nation by using religion for political ends. To the educated, the 18th century was an age of taste and decorum, moderation and dignity, and everything had its proper place. Religion especially could never be allowed to be vulgarized or cheapened by demagogues toying with people’s religious emotions.
There would be no limit to their unbridled ambition and religious hypocrisy in saying whatever would ingratiate themselves to the favor and trust of an audience. So profound was their cynical abuse of religion for being elected that they would wax rhapsodic on the metaphysical subtleties of Hottentot theology if they thought it would secure them a “leg-up” over their political rivals at election time.
Our Founders felt that religion was something sacred and should always remain so by being kept off-limits to political wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Frank Breslin is a retired high-school teacher with 40 years of experience in the New Jersey public school system, where he taught English, Latin, German, and social studies.
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[If you have read this far you deserve a pat on the back and a medal for bravery and ‘sticktoitivness.’]