The Politics of Jesus
Tony Campolo is among the more famous evangelical leaders in the United States more affiliated with the political Left. His perhaps most famous book -- Is Jesus a Democrat or a Republican? -- tried to imagine a centrist view of Jesus. Despite his friendly demeanor and political interests, Campolo’s intuitive truism about mixing religion and politics is absolutely untrue as far as we might apply it to Christianity. It is therefore necessary and essential to understand the politics of Jesus even though many outside and inside his discipled circle abhor the thought.
The compelling and necessary starting point of Christianity and politics is the shocking reality that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the most political event in human history. How can this be true? Jesus was murdered by the State in a public execution and that political event was meant to send a conventional message understood throughout the ages and across cultures: shut up about any alternative to the present political order or be put to death in a humiliating public manner. The message is easy to understand whether you have ever even heard of Jesus and his message. The ugly truth of this was understood even by his skeptics. One of the great American skeptics was an academic by the name of E.O. Wilson. As an anthropologist, Wilson authored many books including The Social Conquest of the Earth. Though raised as a Southern Baptist, Wilson grew, like so many Christians, toward skepticism and unbelief as he encountered the wonders of academia. That did not prevent him from anchoring in this book the ugly reality that what makes humans human is a love for killing one another. Across thousands of cultures, and thousands of years, anthropologists find the same deadly pattern. The faithful refusal of Christians to accept that killing and rather attest to Jesus’ resurrection is at the heart of a global human protest against unjust politics.
Jesus understood as soon as he began to teach that politics would begin to unravel and attack his human form. When Peter named him as “the Christ” he told Peter and his disciples to tell no one because it was ‘not the time.’ Jesus understood the reality and danger of politics. Politics and meaningful religion cannot possibly be separated because of human nature. Christianity is especially incapable of this separation because it is aimed squarely at the unjust pattern of human politics: ostracism, isolation, ridicule, mockery, shame, abuse, and finally public execution. That is humanity’s political plan and that is undoubtedly why Christianity is the world’s most popular religion, to the chagrin of its reactionary and all too often well-ensconced critics.
The American demand to separate Christianity from the State is consistently the prelude to unfettered injustice. One of the most popular secular mythologies in America -- the separation of Church and State -- is derived from an absolutely pathological and false interpretation of the First Amendment religion clauses. Perhaps the best attempt to rationalize the idea was Jefferson’s Treaty of Tripoli (1797) with the Barbary Pirates. The pirates were so poorly persuaded by Jefferson’s explanation that “the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” that they continued to abduct U.S. merchants on the high seas off the coast of Africa, believing they were in fact Christians from a Christian nation. Not until Jefferson constituted the Marines to attack “the shores of Tripoli,” did the pirates seem to get the message of leaving our commerce in the Mediterranean alone.
Of course, Jesus taught that his kingdom would not come by the sword -- despite Peter’s desperate hope that it would. Nonetheless, Christianity is an intrinsic threat to the irrational threats of the sword that dominate human politics. Christianity is the necessary ingredient of politics because the inevitable “manure” that human dominance has always been. Christians should not forfeit the public sphere in some sordid illusion that merely awaiting Jesus’ return is a satisfactory engagement with moral duty. Christians will be attacked in the public sphere but separation will never be possible even when her enemies promise to remain safely behind a wall.
Dr. Ben Voth is a professor of rhetoric and director of debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His forthcoming book -- The Centennial of the Modern American Presidency: The Presidential Rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge with Lexington Books comes out in fall 2023.