How I Went Too Far with Politics
You want to make a difference for Christ politically. Maybe your social media account is your avenue. Or maybe you even wonder about moving to Washington to work for a congressman or senator. I understand and sympathize. “Been there, done that,” as they say. Only I got my start in politics in the 1960s and 70s and became involved in the work of the Moral Majority.
These days folks don’t talk about the Moral Majority but about “Christian nationalism.” And people running under this banner are doing good political work, even as they did under the Moral Majority banner in the 1980s and 90s.
Yet just as the temptation of political idolatry loomed in my day, so it does today. How do we as Christians know when we’re putting too much hope in politics? Even an idolatrous hope?
Idolatry happens when we take good things and make them ultimate things. In this reordering, we find functional saviors other than God. So it is with political idolatry. Before becoming a Christian, my own heart was an incessant idol factory, producing idols faster than I could keep up with. My experience would go on to teach me just how powerful and dangerous idols are not only to individuals but to entire nations.
EARLY CAREER IN POLITICS
I grew up in small-town, rural Ohio. My home was neither religious nor political. In fact, my first encounter with God’s Law came from Charlton Heston, who played Moses in the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments. My grandfather was a coal miner and pastored a local church where he displayed the American flag near his pulpit. His younger brother busied himself in county politics.
As a young man, my appetite for politics was whetted by my love of American history. The founding fathers, Lincoln, and Eisenhower became my heroes—along with Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Ted Kluszewski. By high school, I was infected with Potomac fever, determined that someday, somehow, I’d go to Washington and make my mark. Indeed, after college, I headed off to DC. Starry-eyed and full of naïve ambition, I landed on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide and then climbed the proverbial ladder to become a staff director.
I entered the political arena as a full-throated, rock-ribbed, Goldwater conservative—wedded to a patriotism of duty, honor, and country. But the history books hadn’t quite prepared me for Washington’s rank hypocrisies and resident partisan, ideological, and personal agendas. I arrived on the scene when the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, environmentalism, consumerism, and Watergate were rapidly revamping the size, scope, cost, and role of government. I saw how the pursuit of power, pragmatism, and pride often led to forms of nationalism across the political spectrum.
G.K. Chesterton once observed, “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” Like my fellow idolaters, I filled my God-vacuum with God substitutes—isms, idols, if you will. My preferred god early in my career was politics, and my preferred brand was Americanism.
Praise be to God, twelve years into that career, God rocked my world when he saved me. I was 33 years old when reading the Psalms from an old family Bible tucked away in the attic, I trusted in Christ. Shortly after, I devoured Chuck Colson’s autobiography Born Again. I didn’t know any other Christians then, but I had met Colson years earlier when he was in the Nixon White House. Even though I was a new Christian, I sensed a desire to enter the ministry but had no idea what that would look like. Unsure of what to do, I reached out to Chuck. I shared with him about my conversion and asked him what he thought the Lord wanted me to do. His response was blunt yet wise: “I have no idea, but he will make it plain in his own way and time.” Lacking clarity, I kept on in my government career, but not exactly in the same way I had before being saved.
Later that same year, after the 1980 presidential election, I got a call from the Reagan transition team asking if I would be willing to serve in his administration. I ended up working for the president in various capacities over the next eight years, during which I began part-time seminary education. Early in my time in the Reagan administration, I received a sidebar assignment to “show the flag” at Moral Majority meetings in DC. I wasn’t sent there as an official liaison or spokesman per se. It was more like Regan’s way of signaling to Falwell and the movement that he remembered his friends.
As I became familiar with the movement and those in it, I was struck by how prevalent the belief was that if Christians could get the right people elected and appointed, the Kingdom of God would be ushered in. Even though I was a baby Christian, I was familiar with the story of Jesus standing trial before Pilate—the representative of the “divine Caesar.” Jesus clearly told Pilate that his Kingdom was not of this world. So, what gives? It seemed clear that the Left planned to usher in an earthly utopia through political power, but did this justify what I saw as a sort of counter-revolution by the Right? In either direction, I saw idolatrous isms; “Christian Nationalism” on one side and “Social Nationalism” on the other.
DON’T BE SEDUCED BY “CHRISTIANITY AND”
Whether Christian Nationalism and Prophet Populism of the Right or the Social Gospel and Critical Theory of the Left, Christians are often tempted to combine various political beliefs/opinions with orthodox Christianity. Moreover, this temptation isn’t at all new. It finds purchase throughout the Bible, particularly under the Old Covenant, when Israel kept borrowing worship practices from their pagan neighbors and then perpetually failing to obey God.
C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters gets at this a bit. Lewis wrote:
MY DEAR WORMWOOD,
The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian coloring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing. The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. (135)
Syncretizing the Right, Left, or Center’s ideologies with orthodox Christianity always results in Lewis’s “Christianity And.” People may imagine the combination of ideology and Christianity to make both more relevant, fashionable, and palatable, but it results in a wax-nosed God. He ends up existing in our image and is forced to conform to our twisted desires—or so we think.
Elsewhere in the Screwtape Letters Lewis writes about the politics of patriotism vs pacifism of his day. His one demon says to the other:
Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of a partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favor of [Patriotism] or of Pacifism… Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provide that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours… I could show you a pretty cageful down here. (34–35)
As it was in Lewis’s day, so it is in ours. Syncretism remains an all too flattering option for our idolatrous hearts. This is why we need to discern the whole political spectrum. According to Lewis, ours is a world made up of enemy-occupied territory. It is a place where the enemy delights in Christians who chiefly prioritize their political loyalties. The reason is that doing so results in one’s failure to trust the one true God. Unfortunately, mine was the hard way of learning that political idols never deliver what they promise. They are never satisfied but leave us chasing the next vote or winner.
DON’T PUT YOUR TRUST IN HORSES AND CHARIOTS
So what’s the lesson from this old Moral Majority culture warrior turned pastor? Christians should work to be good citizens out of love of neighbor, which includes political engagement as God gives opportunity. Yet we must not put our trust in horses and chariots (see Ps. 20:7).
Another old pastor, Richard Baxter, came to similar conclusions after putting a little too much hope in politics. Baxter had high hopes for Oliver Cromwell. Then Cromwell died and in short order the monarchy was back. In the midst of this, Baxter wrote,
I am farther than I ever was from expecting great matters of unity, splendor, or prosperity to the Church on earth, or that saints should dream of a kingdom of this world, or flatter themselves with the hopes of a gold age, or reigning over the ungodly…. On the contrary, I am more apprehensive that suffering must be the church’s ordinary lot, and Christians indeed must be self-denying cross-bearers, even when there are none but formal, nominal Christians to be the cross-makers; and though ordinarily God would have vicissitudes of summer and winter, day and night, that the church may grow extensively in the summer of prosperity and intensively in the winter of adversity, yet usually their night is longer than their day, and that day itself hath its storms and tempest. (The Holy Commonwealth, 1659).
Perhaps you’ve heard of G.K. Chesterton’s timeless response to the newspaper survey which asked readers to write in with an answer to the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” Chesterton responded, “Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
Chesterton told the truth about himself, as did Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”
As a follower of Jesus Christ, I strive to speak honestly about myself. I want to be prepared to give reasons for my hope in Christ. After all, I am just one beggar telling another where he found bread.
Whatever we’re called into the public arena to do, we must remember that redemption does not come to us on Air Force One, through the next slate of candidates, or by fervent political ideologies, as important as these things are. Instead, redemption comes by the sovereign grace of God in Christ Jesus—our sin-bearer, our wrath absorber, and our robe of righteousness.
I’m 76 now. I ended up having a long career in politics and then another in ministry as a pastor. Thinking back on either venture often reminds me of what C.T. Studd once wrote, “Only one life to live, twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”