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AN ERRANT EVANGELICALISM
Whenever I’m asked who I might be voting for in elections, I (half) jokingly say, “I’m sorry, but I never discuss religion and politics.” That is, I’m perfectly happy to discuss either religion OR politics, but never together. “Das ist verboten” for Lutheran pastors (especially from the pulpit!) as it constitutes a mixing of the kingdoms (the civil with the spiritual). And when and where they are being mixed and are already the conversation, Lutherans have a refereeing obligation to wade in and separate the two. But sadly, such rampant mixing has now become a major plague upon our land.
The media these days have taken to referring to a particular political segment of American society as “the evangelicals.” By it they generally mean people who think of themselves as politically conservative, who are overwhelmingly Republican church going people who share a particular political agenda and tend to use the words “God” and “country” in the same sentence. Here are just two lines from an Associated Press release:
“Seven of the 2016 candidates took on a cordial tone and almost universally agreed about protection of religious liberty during a forum put on by an evangelical conservative group that drew more than 1,000 people. Christian conservative voters traditionally wield significant influence in the Iowa caucuses because they tend to be organized and motivated to participate.” (AP 11.21.15)
The question aside of how the media can possibly determine who is and is not actually a Christian based on true faith in the heart, when only God knows for sure, we need to be clear that candidates of all parties running for political office, whether “left” or “right” tend to do the same thing — use “God” and “country” in the same sentence. But self-declared so-called “evangelicals” enthusiastically combine the two ideologically for the formulation—not of democratic but theocratic policy—which Martin Luther condemned outright as “the devil’s brew.”
In the early days of the Reformation, before they were known as Lutherans, the Lutherans were called “evangelicals,” from the Greek euangelion, meaning proclaimers of the “Gospel” or “good news.” Key to their proclamation was that God’s kingdom is “not of this world,” and that theocratic states are inherently contrary to the Gospel given the sinful nature of man. That is the fateful history of ancient Israel which increasingly placed it’s trust in political constructs (judges, temples, priests and kings) instead of faith alone in God alone. 1 Samuel 8 records that over the objections of the prophet Samuel, Israel demanded to have a political king (even though God already was their king), and God warned them that mixing the political with the spiritual would lead to disaster for Israel which, of course, it did. In short, they preferred political idolatry over faith alone, exchanging faith in the God of Israel for faith in man, historically rejecting the true evangelicals among them, namely the prophets, who proclaimed the good news of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness for a fallen world. Jesus says in Luke 13:34, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
So today the word “evangelical,” which once referred to “a bearer of good tidings,” has been hijacked from the church by false preachers for political expediency. As a Lutheran growing up, I was once proud to be called an “evangelical”—but today I shun what the word has become. A word that once meant freedom in the Gospel by grace alone through faith alone against the bondage of the will to sin, has now itself become a bondage of the will to sin freely through pronouncements in the law. The biblical evangelicalism in the gospel once espoused and upheld by the Lutherans during the Reformation, has now become its political opposite in subjugation to the earthly Calvinistic pursuit of establishing God’s “shining city on a hill,” a phrase that was first used by John Calvin, was reintroduced by Ronald Reagan as “American exceptionalism” (also known in Yiddish as: chutzpah), and has been an obligatory invocation for nearly every politician of whatever party ever since.
The New York Times recently reported that every American president since Eisenhower has felt obligated to end their speeches with the phrase “and God Bless America” or face political peril thanks to the organizing efforts of the Catholic Knights of Columbus. This, even though the 2nd Commandment says, “You shall not use the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
To be clear: There is absolutely nothing wrong with citizens striving for a shining city on a hill. But on this Christ the King Sunday we are reminded there is everything wrong with suggesting that God is somehow it’s mayor. Indeed, a sad irony is that at its core, evangelicalism as a political movement shares the same ideology as ISIS’s desire to create a religious caliphate, the establishment of a society governed by religious laws that thoroughly misrepresent God’s will for his people. Scripture says that the law, in whatever form, can only kill and condemn us. That is its only function. Left in the hands of men, the wielding of the law can be a disaster, whether it’s Sharia law or the 10 Commandments.
Luther in his day had to battle the so-called “Saxonspiegel,” roughly translated “a Saxony of mirrors,” a pseudo-evangelical movement that developed in Saxony that sought to legislate society using the laws and commandments of the Bible. (Sound familiar?) They too sought to impose the 10 Commandments as the law of the land. Luther mockingly referred to them as “Schwärmer,” or hyper-enthusiasts who he said had apparently “swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all.”
In these days when there is much ballyhoo and hysteria over such myths as a “war on Christmas” or a constant drumbeat about our supposedly endangered “freedom of religion,” Lutherans would do well to remember Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, born in Trappe, Pennsylvania on January 1, 1750. Like his father Henry Melchior Muhlenberg before him, who was the first Lutheran pastor in America, Frederick too became a Lutheran pastor and was elected the first Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. A delegate to the Pennsylvania state constitutional convention and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania who helped draft the U.S. Constitution and signed the Bill of Rights, Muhlenberg would have been very well versed in Martin Luther’s Zwei Reiche Lehre, the doctrine from St. Paul on the separation of the two kingdoms, the political from the spiritual, “the wall of separation between state and church” as the Supreme Court phrased it in 1947. This constituting father would have understood very well that the First Amendment not only guarantees freedom OF religion for its citizens, but also guarantees them freedom FROM religion in the body politic. He should know. He helped write it.
Christians certainly can, indeed they should be part of a country’s political process. Contrary to Ronald Reagan’s popular claim that “government is the enemy,” Lutherans insist that it is the opposite, a gift from God for the benefit of society as St. Paul makes clear in Romans 13 which begins with the words, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” (Try that one out in Iowa.) Or “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.” (And if anybody had a reason to resist, St. Paul certainly did under the harsh rule of the Romans.) We are to build up, not tear down our government, supporting it instead through prayer for the president, the legislators, and all those in authority (which is also part of the Explanation to the 4th Commandment). So Christians are to participate in the political process, but as is clear from Paul, they may only do so in their capacity as citizens of the civil realm, never as Christians, never as members of the spiritual realm. Luther rightly pointed out that Christians possess no special skills over the heathens for governing and are usually far worse at it. Indeed, he said, pagan societies are generally far better run than those governed by Christians.
On this Christ the King Sunday we are reminded of Jesus’ warnings, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” The first was spoken to Pontius Pilate as the governor of Israel, as a clear warning against the politicization of God’s kingdom. The second is Christ’s warning against mixing the affairs of state with God’ affairs. We are to give to God what is his. And what exactly is his? Faith! We neither create it nor own it—It is God’s gift to us through Christ. Our faith is none other than Christ’s faith in the Father. When Jesus was asked in John’s Gospel, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God—that you believe in him whom he has sent.” We do not do the works of God; God alone does them. Not faith in man, nor governments, nor the political process, nor the law, but faith in God alone saves us, he alone who is the ruler of all things apart from all political endeavors, nationalistic constructs, and pious statecraft, all of which mean absolutely nothing to him.
Christ alone is King, the king and ruler over all things, who always was and always will be, the Alpha and the Omega. St. Paul asks rhetorically, “Who has known the mind of God?” The answer, of course, is “no one!” Thus Lutherans are naturally wary of those who claim they do, especially for political expediency, which is to play a very dangerous game indeed. Those who love to tout God’s law in order to whip society into shape in their own image might want to look at the law one more time. As Luther said, “The law acts as a mirror, reflecting the image of our own sinful self.” We ignore the mirror at our own peril. Thus the 2nd Commandment once more for the invokers of his name from political pulpits: “Thou shallt not use the Name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold them guiltless who use His Name in vain.”
Christ alone is our King. He alone rules. Not through earthly governments, legislatures, congresses, parliaments or politics, but by grace alone, through faith alone, in His Word alone, who is Christ alone. This is what it means to be truly evangelical.
Thanks be to God! Amen.