Yesterday, Christianity Today published an excellent critique by Andy Crouch of Donald Trump and his run for the presidency, aimed at challenging evangelicals who still support Trump, not leaving out some criticism of Hillary Clinton’s run. It is well worth the read. And Scot McKnight wrote an equally compelling piece from an Anabaptist, and certainly more importantly, a biblical perspective, questioning the allegiance of both the Christian right and the Christian left to an American political Christian position, as if America itself could, and therefore ought to be a Christian nation. Recently Jeff Manion at Ada Bible Church in his series on the book of Colossians challenged the idol that we can make of America, not questioning a proper patriotism Christians might adopt, but the kind which would see the flag draped over a cross.
The basic problem is that the gospel is not seen as a good news which is about a kingdom come in Jesus which involves all of life, but rather simply about one’s personal salvation. It is certainly that, but much more. It is about all of life, including the political sphere, a politic in and of itself in the grace and kingdom in Jesus. One enters into this through the good news of Christ by faith, and into a common life which is a precursor of the life on earth to come, when Jesus returns. It is political in that everything matters in the life of the church. The rich help the poor, while everyone is held accountable to live well, and grow in their lives together, as followers of Jesus, and no less than Christ’s body on earth. (Jesus Christ, of course; I try to use the terms in the way scripture places them.)
Of course the church can be a blessing to the state, but not by the politics of the state, except where the state wants to include the work of the church. That is where sooner or later it can be not only tricky, but downright deceptive, as the church looks to the state to provide what only the church through Jesus can provide.
Like most everything in life, this is more complicated than that, but that basic premise must never be left behind. It isn’t that what the state does, or fails to do matters. For example, I believe it shouldn’t even be an issue that there is some kind of universal health care provided through the state. Many people are not part of the church, not Christian, and God will judge nations on how they treat each other, especially the poor, oppressed and helpless. The church ought to be a model of what the state should do. Of course if the state provides services for citizens, than the church proceeds accordingly. But the point here is that the politics of the state is important. Yet the church is never to get entangled in such a way that they have an unhealthy and even idolatrous relationship with the state, seeing it as the source of blessing, rather than looking to God through Christ. The church must be careful never to get into a union with the state, and see its existence depending on the state. We know that this is simply not the case. The reality of the church is in the resurrection of Jesus and through the Spirit. The church will go on come what may. And the shalom/justice and peace, though present in some respects within the church through Jesus will not take root and flourish on earth until Jesus returns and reigns.
And so, in a kind of rambling here, I have shared a bit of what I understand to be the problem with the American flag draped over the cross, the union of church and state. Yes, American claims the separation of church and state, and in some ways we experience that through the religious freedom here. But all too often we are taken right back up into an allegiance and union in our thinking and practice which belongs to Jesus alone, and to God’s grace and kingdom present even now, in and through Jesus.
See also in this connection an important, helpful book by Allan R. Bevere: The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World.