I’ve never felt more like an atheist than I did last Tuesday.
It seemed like everyone I knew was energized to join in what promised to be a national revival, a chance to cast the devil out of American politics and restore the values that made America great. Polling places transformed into old-timey camp meetings, and everyone going was compelled to bring along their friends so no one missed out on the fundamental experience of American democracy.
I wanted to join in. Not so much for the selfies or the stickers, but I wanted to feel like a part of something great. Everyone I met that day, regardless of their politics, asked me whether I had participated in the one ritual that promised to unite liberals and conservatives. The call went out: no matter what you believe, or what kind of society you want, we can all meet down by the river to remember our true identity as Americans. Our salvation, the very soul of America, was at stake.
I didn’t join in, because it seemed to me that this was the kind of behavior that made a President Trump inevitable. The political imagination of American Christians like myself has always been centered around the nation-state. A crude version of the historical progression goes something like this: first the church replaces Israel, then America replaces the church. Rather than seeing ourselves as Christians, a people for God’s name in whom God is working reconciliation for the sake of the entire world, we see America as the last best hope for the world.The separation of church and state has allowed the state to be influenced by the church, but never in ways that call the state into question. A notorious German politician described the dynamic this way: “the state protects the church: the church supports the state.” The state promises religious freedom, and in return this religion is meant to produce good citizens for the state’s project. So when we pledge allegiance to both God and country, the latter makes the former intelligible only on its own terms. Now we have Christians that, as Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out, assume that the Christian ‘we’ and the American ‘we’ are the same ‘we’.
We consider how the politicians we vote for match up with our Christian political beliefs, but our beliefs themselves are so often Americanized that we have trouble conceiving of a church-shaped politics. For example, those whose primary political issue is abortion this election found themselves aligning with a candidate with a history of disregard for all kinds of human life, in the hopes that he would change the one thing about America that was most intolerable. This is a disembodied politics, mediated through the state, in a way that makes the church superfluous except insofar as it may exert pressure on the state as just another interest group.
What would it look like to engage politically as Christians on behalf of the world, rather than as an American on behalf of America? How can our churches be places where we come to be formed as a political people for God’s name, rather than echo chambers that produce individuals with political leanings and opinions that are disconnected from their lives and from the story of Scripture? How can we come to see voting as a practice to be discerned, in which we might engage or abstain? Our civic practices don’t require us to ask any of those questions. They gives us predetermined choices, and promise that by checking a box we can change the world. Rather than help us understand what it might mean to be a collective witness for Christ in the world, they ask us as individuals to decide how best to make America great.
I am not uninterested in America’s future. I desire a more just society. I am just afraid that such a society will not be possible to the extent that Christians concede their political formation to the state. This year I experienced the allure of voting as an invitation to act as an American with Christian sensibilities. Instead, I want to ask how the church can function as a witness for Christ’s peace and reconciliation, in America. This question can not be asked in a vacuum or in an instant – indeed, it may require years of cultivation and formation for it to even be asked at all. As Christians for whom the state has become the ultimate means of political agency, the question may not be immediately intelligible. Perhaps we may start with less ambitious questions, like how we come to understand our neighbors who do not have the documentation that the state requires. Are they still our neighbors? How does our identity as a people witnessing to God’s care for the overlooked and oppressed cause us to act differently than we might if we were to think as Americans concerned with national identity and self defense? Perhaps the answer here is as simple as giving shelter to those the state marks as “illegal,” and witnessing to the conditionality of the state’s authority, as we choose to obey God rather than man. Perhaps we are called to go even further – knock down walls, to obstruct deportations, even to free prisoners. We do not understand our relationship to the American state as necessarily antagonistic or reactive. Rather, we act as Christians whose witness is to the state and not necessarily through it, because the state does not form the foundation of our political imagination. When our identity as American citizens has overwhelmed our identity as Christians, perhaps we will find that civil disobedience is the sacrament we thought voting was.