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Searching for Nuance

As the 2024 election seasons continues, I am spending some time in this space thinking about Christian issues related to the election. I find myself in this frame of mind again, this time spurred on by a video that has been making the rounds on social media. In the clip, Pastor Loran Livingston talks about a Christian’s role in secular society, while castigating those who support the “God Bless the USA” Bible that Trump was peddling last month. While I agree with the general point Pastor Livingston is making, there was something about the idea that undergirded his thoughts that bothered me. I think the role of a Christian in any secular society is complicated, thus should be examined and treated with some care.

There are a couple of points I want to briefly emphasize. First, a general apology for examining a limited clip of what was clearly a longer and larger sermon. There is the possibility that Pastor Livingston said something at some other point that would bring our thoughts into more alignment. I am clearly working from an incomplete record, and it is important to recognize that. Second, I obviously agree with how the pastor feels about the Bible/Constitution/Declaration of Independence brand deal that Trump was hawking last month. I said as much in this very space. To me it seems emblematic of how divorced this pseudo-religious political movement and Trump himself are from the principles and ethics of Christianity, that they would stoop to such blatant sacrilege.

While I certainly agree with the pastor’s criticism of Trump and some elements of the blending of religion and politics, I am searching for nuance in the pastor’s statements. Better yet, I agree with some of his conclusions, but I think his foundation is faulty. At the beginning and end of the clip, Pastor Livingston emphasizes that politics (and voting in particular) is not spiritual and a Christian should not be wedded to citizenship here, because every believing Christian is a citizen of Heaven. This all sounds good. In truth, I might have agreed with this statement wholeheartedly 15 years ago. However, it is a difficult, almost impossible task to ask people to divorce their spirituality from the context in which it exists. That context includes the social and political environment where the people and their religious institutions reside. Christianity in America is different from almost anywhere else on the planet, and it is because of the unique circumstances that birthed our particular form of Christian expression.

So, it is true that politics can be divorced from our spirituality, but it is not per se wrong if our religious beliefs affect our political choices. It is also true that we are ultimately citizens of the Kingdom of God, but that does not mean we should be unconcerned about the dual citizenship we have in the earthly kingdoms that we live and work in, and contribute to. What Pastor Livingston fails to note is that a Christian may arrive at their political beliefs and engage in political activity because of their views on how God wants them to influence this world. I find the role of the Black Church in the Civil Rights Movement to be a perfect example. In this case, the church was motivated to political activity because it believed that equality in society was a Godly thing to uphold, and there was no way to accomplish that goal other than by political activity. And it was the principle that the church should not be involved in politics that kept many White Christians (and Adventists) out of that movement. My political beliefs stem from my understanding of God’s character, not a desire to keep my spirituality from infecting my politics. And my strident criticism of conservative Evangelicalism is usually not a debate about political engagement.[1] I fully support the right of people who disagree with me to engage in the political process and vote for who they want. The argument is about Christian theology. I find that these pseudo-religious movements are not concerned with the things that I think God is concerned about within a society—love, mercy, justice, freedom for the oppressed. Instead, I find the conservative evangelical Christian political movement to be focused on power, control of others, and self-protection. Those ideas seem to be antithetical to a Savior, “who … did not consider equality with God something to be [f]grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross.”[2]

[1] It does become that when I feel like a particular move involves the separation of church and state, for example.

[2] Phil 2:6-8.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

About the author

Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at More from Jason Hines.
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