Yes, I went there. On the Sunday before Super Tuesday I preached a sermon on politics and religion in a Massachusetts congregation.
As a pastor I’ve always felt it more important to walk with people of all political persuasions than to try and get my congregation to think a certain way. Healthy Christianity requires members to wrestle with what they believe, why they believe it, and how they should implement those beliefs in their own lives. Different people are going to come to different conclusions, and I think the diversity is a positive thing.
That said, there are certain lines that should not be crossed, and in this election, candidates are crossing them all the time. That’s why I preached this sermon. The assigned verses from the Narrative Lectionary are Psalm 86:8-13 and Mark 12:13-17. I supplemented those with Isaiah 44:6-20. Oremus Bible Browser can give you the NRSV translations that I used.
And now, a sermon on politics and religion.
I don’t have to tell you that it’s election season. This church is less than ten miles from the New Hampshire border, which was crawling with candidates up until two and a half weeks ago, when they all mysteriously disappeared. Several of them have visited various places in Massachusetts, because I think they might want you to do something for them this week. But even if they’re not here personally, their ads are all over the place, along with their campaign slogans.
Have you ever taken a good look at some of these slogans? Among others, right now we’ve got “Heal-Inspire-Revive.” “Reigniting the Promise of America.” “A Future to Believe In.” And of course, “Make America Great Again.” Earlier in the season we had, “Restore the American Dream for Hardworking Families.” “Defeat the Washington Machine; Unleash the American Dream.” “Rebuild the American Dream.” And “From Hope to Higher Ground.” In 2008 Barak Obama ran on “Change We Can Believe In” and then four years later Mitt Romney challenged that with “Believe in America.”
This is not an exhaustive list, but I’m highlighting these ones because they share a common theme: faith. Some of them are pretty overt about this with the language they use. “Believe in America.” “Change We Can Believe In.” “From Hope to Higher Ground.” The others manage to imply in a just few words that America has fallen from its former glory and that this candidate is the one who can restore, rebuild, revive, reignite, or return America back to greatness. The America in question, of course, is more than a just country; it’s an ideology, worthy of religious devotion. And these candidates are depending on you to believe in its redemptive power, believe in its need for a savior, and believe in them as that savior.
I think some candidates truly believe all this, and this isn’t a new thing. Remember the campaign slogan of Richard Nixon in 1968? “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.” Politics as the all-encompassing source of identity, liberty, and salvation. The world’s got problems? Vote this way, and those problems will be solved. If you’re brave enough to read political articles, blogs, or—worse yet—the comments on those articles and blogs, you’ll see a disturbing number of people who seem to accept and practice this religion of America, and they’re not afraid to call out unpatriotic apostates who dare to question this narrative.
But how about this for a campaign slogan? “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In the Judea of Jesus’ day, Judeans were under Roman rule. Oppressive Roman rule. While Judea was technically a client kingdom with a modicum of independence, the truth was that the client king was an agent of Rome. While most Judeans didn’t usually encounter actual Romans on a day to day basis, every aspect of their lives was controlled by Roman rule. This offended every part of their understanding of who they were as God’s chosen people. God had established them as an independent nation, the greatest nation on earth, a light to the other nations, yet they were subjects of this pagan Roman emperor. The local Roman officials were corrupt, and justice was often perverted. There were huge economic disparities between rich and poor, with a shrinking middle class, and Roman policies were making it worse. The Jews were desperately looking for a savior.
And then the Savior came.
But despite the terrible political situation, Jesus was not a political savior. Could he have been? Absolutely! I have no doubt that if the Son of God had chosen to overthrow the entire Roman Empire and establish a political kingdom of heaven on Earth, he could have done that handily.
But he didn’t.
The King of the Jews wasn’t that kind of king.
The kingdom of heaven was never about establishing a political system that would legislate and enforce discipleship. If that’s what God had wanted, then he would have done it with Jesus. The conditions were certainly ripe for it two thousand years ago. But the answer to the world’s problems can’t be found in politics or political leaders. We can’t cast a vote and engage in representative discipleship. To do that is an abdication of our own calls to discipleship. And to trust in a political leader or even an idealized version of a nation to bring salvation is to practice idolatry.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus called his followers to be disciples in the midst of corrupt and pagan Roman rule, but their discipleship wasn’t tied to overthrowing that rule. The civil government served a purpose, and years later, the apostle Paul recognized that better than anyone. The Romans had built the roads he used to travel all over the known world, spreading the message of Jesus. Roman soldiers patrolled those roads and kept them safe for travelers like Paul. He took advantage of the protection and access his Roman citizenship provided him when his proselytizing got him into trouble. But Paul never conflated his Roman citizenship with his discipleship. As a learned and respected Pharisee, he enjoyed many privileges as a Roman citizen, even while acknowledging numerous problems inherent in the Roman world, and several ways in which Roman culture was diametrically opposed to Christian discipleship. Yet he never tried to incite a political revolution. Paul called people to be disciples in their own individual contexts.
A few months ago I got up here and attempted to recite the entire eleventh chapter of Hebrews from memory. It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but it did open my eyes to some of the things that chapter had to say. In regards to earthly citizenship it talks about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying: “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16 NRSV)
Modern-day America is not ancient Rome, though I will admit that there are an uncomfortable number of similarities. One of the benefits we have in this country is a participatory government. We get to participate in our own self-rule by choosing the people who will represent us and holding them accountable for their actions. The ancient Judeans were never able to do that. That is a benefit we can and should use. But I remember seeing a bumper sticker on Pastor Dave’s car that read: “God is not a Republican…Or a Democrat.” Neither party can claim ultimate truth. None of the presidential candidates is the correct one for bringing about America’s salvation, and America itself is not salvific. America is a country, but as Christians, we desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. The kingdom of God, that we hear so much about on Sunday mornings. No political leader can give us that. No political system can give us that. Vote for the person you think would best execute the duties of the President of the United States. It might be a good idea to remind yourself what those duties are and are not; pretty much all of the candidates have made promises beyond what the President can actually do. Article II, Sections 2 and 3 of the Constitution of the United States can help you with that. And then, after you’ve voted, continue to live out your own discipleship, following Jesus, our true Savior, who is sincere, and who teaches the way of God in accordance with truth.
Go ahead. Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s. And then give to God the things that are God’s.