Can Christian faith be independent of politics?

Tim Costello discusses politics, Christian faith, identity, and tribalism.

A quiet yet seismic event occurred just before Christmas: America’s leading evangelical publication, Christianity Today, called for the impeachment of the “grossly immoral” President Trump.

No publication has the same evangelical pedigree as Christianity Today: founded by Billy Graham in the 1950s, and consistently the trusted – and largely non-political – voice of mainstream biblical evangelicals.

And no segment of the American electorate has been more loyal to Trump than white evangelicals; four-fifths of whites who identify as evangelicals voted for him in 2016.

Little wonder that the Christianity Today website went into meltdown, and the President’s supporters immediately mobilised, reacted swiftly and angrily, tweeting that it is “a far left magazine” that wants someone “of a socialist/communist bent to guard their religion”. Even the President tweeted “they would rather a radical left non-believer who wants to take away your religion and your guns”. Later he wrote “I won’t be reading ET [sic] again”.

CT’s editorial, of course, did no such thing. It noted that, for the most part, the publication’s approach has been to stay above the fray of politics and allow Christians with different political convictions to make their arguments in the public square. CT also acknowledged that the Democrats have had it in for Donald Trump from day one, and cited with approval Trump’s defence of religious liberty, his stewardship of the economy and his Supreme Court appointments.

But in a moment as important as Congressional impeachment of a president, CT said it believes it is necessary to speak up for moral values, and to apply the same standards as CT has done in times past, when presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton had been impeached.

And that means that, as its headline proclaimed, “Trump should be removed from office”, because “the facts in this case are unambiguous. The President of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the President’s political opponents. This is not only a violation of the Constitution: it is profoundly immoral.”

And more than just a one-off affair, CT noted that President Trump’s “twitter feed alone – with its habitual string of mischaracterisations, lies and slanders is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused”. This is a courageous example of faith at work: a Christian publication putting substance and consistency ahead of tribal attachments.

In 1998, CT called for president Clinton’s impeachment because “his failure to tell the truth – even when cornered – rips at the fabric of the nation”.

Twenty-one years later, CT reflected that “unfortunately the words that we applied to Mr Clinton 20 years ago apply almost perfectly to our current President”. In case the message was not clear, the editorial last week laid down the gauntlet to evangelical believers: “Remember who you are and who you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” In the words of Jesus, you cannot serve two masters.

At the same time, a group of self-proclaimed standard bearers for evangelicalism remain locked in behind Trump, publishing an open letter signed by 200 church leaders to rally their evangelical troops to not defect.

Just a day before in Congress, Republican Barry Loudermilk from Georgia carelessly compared Trump’s impeachment to the trial of Jesus before his crucifixion “when Jesus was falsely accused of treason Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers. During that sham trial Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this President in this process”. No matter that the President had done all he could to block the inquiry, nor that Trump can rely on Republican Senators to be saved from impeachment, while Jesus went to his death.

America’s political conflicts reflect the larger trend of identity replacing ideology as the driving force in politics across the world.

America’s religious debates might all seem a long way from our far more secular Australian culture. Yet Trump also has religious standard bearers here as well. More significantly, America’s political conflicts reflect the larger trend of identity replacing ideology as the driving force in politics across the world.

There are no stronger sources of group identity than religion and nationalism. Combined together, they can form a deeply divisive “us-versus-them” agenda. Just look at Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda; Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s authoritarian advancement of Sunni Islam, or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s warnings of a civilisational threat to Christendom from Muslim immigration.

But when the substance of religious faith transcends tribalism, it can be a powerful force for good. I’ve seen that power in humanitarian efforts in every corner of the world. Australia is, of course, a more secular nation than most, but we are feeling the rising tide of tribalism. And the same question must be asked of faithful communities here: in an overly politicised world is faith only a subset of politics? Can faith have any independence?

And at least something of that breeze is appearing here at home too. There is the religious freedom draft legislation, that many secularist people wonder why we suddenly need, that signals religion is back. Significant Labor Party figures have noted that they lost votes because they were perceived as hostile to religion.

The burning question is, does faith shape one’s politics or does politics capture and determine one’s faith?

Recently, secular Australian journalists have begun to ring me to ask about passages of the Bible. This has never happened to me before in public life. No doubt, it is because our Prime Minister is proudly an evangelical Christian; which in effect means that he takes the Bible seriously – as do I.

The burning question is, does faith shape one’s politics or does politics capture and determine one’s faith? The first Christmas had political implications; a Jewish birth in a Palestine under Roman imperialism. The birth heralded a life which taught us to reject hate of enemies, tribalism and frees us to face the truth that transcends politics.

Tim Costello is a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.