Monday, September 10, 2007

How Big is God? Bigger than an Elephant?

I don’t believe God is politically partisan. I know we like to shore up our egos with visions of God marching with us to the ballot box and guiding our hand to vote one party exclusively, but the older I get the more ludicrous that seems.

Like many evangelical children, growing up I demonized Democrats as venomous reprobates—they were “Godless” as Ann Coulter has so gently described them. If a Democrat ever made it into office, then I naturally thought the inmates would be allowed to roam the streets and communism would choke out democracy in the West. With Democrats in power, I thought, citizens would be required to take the mark of the beast and our society would disintegrate into something reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The names that scared me most growing up were Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and, of course, Ted Kennedy.

It is ironic that the person who would change my warped perspective would actually BE a Kennedy. This week, I had the pleasure of speaking on the telephone with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Kathleen is the eldest daughter of Robert Kennedy and a woman of deep faith. Her manner is disarmingly generous and amicable.

I have just finished reading her book, Failing America's Faithful: How today's churches are mixing God with politics and losing their way, and found it to be convicting and compelling. I do not recommend every book I read, but I do recommend this one. Though her theology and politics are often disagreeable, the book will challenge you to think no matter how you vote or where you worship. And believe it or not, she is often very balanced.

Here are some examples of her insight:

"...the good life did not come just from following the rules and resisting temptations--after all, Jesus did not follow the rules--but from taking our faith out of our houses of worship and putting it into practice."

"...evangelical churches in some ways have the opposite problem: They touch people personally so they are growing by leaps and bounds; they have helped many people turn their lives around; they have created communities where members feel a great deal of connectedness and spirituality, and where they are given help with real life issues...Any yet they, too, are building up walls of fear, protecting these "sacred" communities from the more profane influences of modern-day America."

"The right pretends that virtuous activity occurs only in the sphere of private behavior, not through governmental intervention. In fact they seem to think governmental intervention is appropriate only for overturning previous governement decisions that they disagree with--e.g., ban on school prayer...The well-organized and politically-attuned Religious Right pointedly ignores Christ's admonition that we should care for the "least among us" when it withdraws from those arenas where government has had a traditional role, such as civil rights, adjusting tax policy, and supporting social programs that can improve the daily life of the poor. Among the leaders of the left, we find a different malady. They are obsessed with keeping religion out of the public sphere, demanding a perfect purging of faith from public life far beyond what our Founding Fathers meant by "separation of church and state." This obsession with secularism weakens their moral authority...It makes leaders of the left sound intellectual but without passion. The danger of not engaging religious teachings in the drive for social reform might be worse than condemning them."

Kathleen offers a sobering charge to those of us who wave the banner of our faith but refuse to fulfill Christ's call to care for the less fortunate and unprotected. We cannot only support governmental intervention to enforce the two or three issues we feel flow from our faith--abortion, stem cell research, etc.--and refuse to support progressive policies that are just as ingrained in Christianity--justice, generosity towards the poor, protecting the environment, etc. We cannot blindly support a war on terror and change the channel when the anchor speaks of Darfur. Furthermore, we cannot live as though the party we support has a monopoly on God's blessing. Not every Democrat is "Godless," and God is bigger than donkeys and elephants.


Dean said...

Great Post! Thank you Jonathan for taking on a practice that is now deeply entrenched in our own denomination. Should Christians be engaged in politics? Absolutely. Should we put our entire hopes and dreams into a certain candidate or party? Nope. Wow, if Christ saw the way many of our own brothers and sisters declared the republican party as "God's Party" he would turn over tables. I really saw the danger of this as a college student. Never was I more exposed to the belief that republican/George Bush equaled a Christian vote than my 4 years as a student. Do we honestly think that electing a certain candidate is the answer to the world? Christ alone! In college I even saw the leaders of my school embrace candidates that we not even evangelicals. Dangerous ground Do I agree with Democrats on much? Not even close, but I can hold hands with someone who votes differently than I and call them my brother. If we agree on Primary issues: God, Man, Sin, Christ, Scripture, us family. Another danger is the idol of patriotism in our churches. Have you been to a SBC church on the 4th of July? Wow.

Josh said...

i agree with jonathan. the call of christ is apolitical. this is not to say that we are not engaged but rather that no party or politic should hold be our platform. our only platform is the life and story of god as revealed through jesus and open to us through way of the cross.

i'm not here to debate particular issues within politics. although i'd love to run off on a rabbit trail about what the cross has to say about war, and what the imago dei says about a consistent ethic of life. but i'll stick to the topic at hand.

there are republican perspectives that are christ-like (although they are harder to find - tongue in cheek jab). and there are democratic perspectives that are christ-like. the challenger as followers of jesus is to walk the middle. the thin line down the middle. neither wholly affirming or wholly critiquing any affiliation.

my affiliation is to jesus. and not a party. jesus is my politic. jesus is my identity. and jesus is my starting point.

i'm afraid that too many christians start from their politic and then view jesus as an extension of that. i guess we all do that in many ways. our culture, context, and history shape how we view jesus. but we should start with jesus and work our way backwards. or forward as it were.

i think as well we sometimes only view christianity through american lens. perhaps it would be wise in the shaping of our politic to consider the non-American Christian voices. what do the christians in iraq think about the war? what do christians in belize or honduras think about globalization and NAFTA? what do christians in Vietnam think about nuclear proliferation?

this quickly takes the primacy and focus off our american version of christianity and centers it back in it's rightful place within the global community.

and i know this is long . . . but perhaps the themes that stanley hauerwas (particularly in his book resident aliens) developed on the church being outside of culture/politic speaking back into it as opposed to being embedded within it would be beneficial to this conversation.

and if no one is pissed yet, i'll give you my interpretation of jesus, the fish, and the coin if asked.

Jonathan Merritt said...


Thanks for the comments. I think anyone with even a cursory introduction to our denomination can see the truth of what you are saying.


Also good comments...

What exactly is your interpretation of Jesus, the fish and the coin?


Josh said...

well i'm glad you asked. :) i just didn't want to keep rambling after that last post.

2 stories in matthew juxtapose against each other and help us in our thinking. matt. 22:15-22 and matt. 17:24-27. shane claiborne in irresistible revolution and walter wink in the powers that be speak to the dynamic interplay going on in these two separate stories.

matt. 22 is where we get "give to caesar what is caesars" when the religious elite hand jesus a coin with caesar's image on it and ask him who it belonged to. and matt. 17 is where jesus tells peter to pull a fish from the waters edge and take the coin out of his mouth and pay the temple tax with that.

the coin in both stories is the denarius, which was minted solely for tax purposes. it bore the image of caesar on it and had inscriptions and symbols proclaming the divinity of Caesar.

so in the first story jesus tells them the coin is caesars. it has his image on it. so it must be caesars. so give to caesar what is caesars. and in doing so develops the relationship between jesus and the state. the state may have the coins. it may demand the allegiance. but just because caesar's name is on the coin doesn't give him the power over life. an image doesn't demand allegiance.

this story would have been built off of the backs of matt. 17 with the fish and the coin story still fresh in the minds of his followers. the authorities come to find out if jesus pays the temple tax. peter immediately says yes and pays it. later on jesus tells him to go down to the waters edge, pull out a fish, and you'll find a coin in the fish's mouth.

this was a lesson to his followers that you can pay caesar his tax to avoid trouble and to show your allegiance, but never forget who has the power to create life itself. the power to create a coin in a fish's mouth. it's not that jesus was opposed and antithetical to the state. but rather he existed on another plane altogether. he saw the frivolity of the state. it's lack of real power. the only power it had was because god gave it power. so it wasn't an issue to give to caesar what is caesars because what is caesars is god's.

jesus could have easily said just pay the tax. or forged a relationship between "church" and "state". but instead he made the point that the "state" only has power because of god.

in light of our conversations about political parties . . . it only makes sense then to see the gimmicks and games of both parties. lobbyists, fund-raising, politics, power plays, etc . . . it only makes sense to see them as they are. frivolous child's play in light of the kingdom of god.

we shouldn't idly dismiss politics, but neither should we invest so much time and stock in them. that's caesar/state in general. how much more so for individual parties.

again our allegiance we must stand with jesus as opposed to a particular politic.

our ethic of life should be consistent. so i stand with jesus on abortion. but i also stand with jesus on the death penalty and war.

ultimately i stand with the cross. and the cross subverts politics in every way imaginable.

James said...

Great comments from everyone. Can't say that I disagree with anything on this post.

I will go ahead and venture away from the precise point and throw out a general complaint: Why in the world are we still stuck in a two-party system where none of the choices are good? As far as politics, another mistake that the uninformed right-wingers make is failing to see that Democrats and Republicans aren't as different as they look. And that's part of the problem.

Shane "George" Lambert said...


Found your blog through Johnny Carr's blog. I've enjoyed reading your stuff. Haven't seen you since 2001 in Lynchburg.

I don't think Jesus is thrilled with either of our political parties, although both have some ideas that find a measure of merit in light of His teachings. I personally lean toward the Republicans more often than not, although I sometimes feel like I have to hold my nose while casting my vote. And I have never voted a straight party ticket. I vote for people and issues, not for a party.

Interesting to hear a Kennedy say that she believes the left has gone too far with the "separation of church and state." I probably wouldn't agree with her very often, but there's definitely some good things to think about there.

George Lambert

Oh yeah, and Roll Tide!

Jonathan Merritt said...


There will be no tides rolling on this forum. :)



Anonymous said...

Hey Jonathan...awesome blog! So good to have found your site and see how God is using you. Man you are 25? My gosh you were just 12 last time I saw you! (haha) Just kidding. This is Bullet - hope God continues to move, bless, ordain and call the shots in your life - today, tommorrow and for the future! Keep up the awesome work! (

Anonymous said...

One reason that you don't have to support all wars or all policy proposals carte blanche is because they don't all conform to what you think they do, or what you would like them to do. They follow what the people who design and implement them want them to do. The devil, as always, is in the details.