‘My kingdom is not of this world’ said Jesus. Jesus was not interested in political power. Whether all his followers at the time understood this is another matter. One of the disciples is referred to as Simon the Zealot - the zealots being a revolutionary band that wanted to overthrow the Romans. One theological theory about Judas Iscariot is that he betrayed Jesus having become disillusioned with his master who seemed to be more about personal ethics than political revolution.
Warnings from History
Despite Jesus expressly stating that his was a different Kingdom, Christians have at times become seduced by the idea of political influence. Yet throughout christian history whenever the church has sought political power it has often not ended well.
The gradual merge of Roman Empire and the Christian Church was like a doomed marriage. The church lost its spiritual way and the Middle Ages saw popes sending armies into battle, fathering illegitimate children by mistresses, enjoying luxurious palaces and having more power than most Kings. In Nazi Germany, the link between state and church was seen as key to Germany’s fortunes. This led many in the established church to look the other way and stay silent during Kristallnacht and the early persecutions. To be loyal to the state and its leader was to be loyal to God.
Whilst events in the modern day are perhaps not on the same scale, it seems that some American evangelicals have recently become seduced by the desire for political power. The more conservative wing of the Republican Party have been successful in using issues such as abortion which many Christians feel strongly about to court the Christian vote. We have seen the implication that a vote against President Trump was almost unchristian, one post even urging any believers that had voted for Joe Biden to repent of their sin.
Christianity as countercultural
Yet Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. Jesus is building a different sort of kingdom, his church should have a different sort of influence. That is not to say that Christians, as with all people of faith, should not get involved in Politics. There are so many fine examples throughout history of politicians of all political persuasions (there isn’t one specifically Christian political party in the UK or the US!) being motivated by their faith to bring change. In doing so they live out their faith making society better but they do so as private citizens.
The problem it seems is when Christians as a group seek to become the establishment. When the church gains political influence and becomes the establishment, it loses something of its prophetic voice. There is something about genuine Christianity that at its best is countercultural. Liberation Theology in South America took the side of the poor against corrupt government oppression. We might also think of Bonhoeffer’s brave opposition to the Nazis, Martin Luther King campaigning for racial justice, how the early church operated in the Roman Empire, the growing yet persecuted church in modern China. There is something about Christianity at its best that is countercultural
The danger of establishment
There is something about the desire for political power that is backward looking. It wants to recreate a mythical golden age of Christianity that perhaps never truly existed. Maybe 100 years ago, the vast majority of people would have identified as Christian but I wonder how deeply the faith was actually held.
Our context today is very different. We are a diverse nation of many faiths but mostly none. Over 50% of people in Britain identify as having no belief in a higher being. It seems strange that the Church of England should be established as the national religion when less than 5% of the population are active attending members.
In the 2017 general election, the then Lib Dem Leader Tim Farron, - a committed Christian - argued for the disestablishment of the Church of England. I’m not sure what I think of this but I do recognise that the current situation has created for many a nominal Christianity. Nominalism and establishment are the death knells of Christianity and I wonder if Christianity might flourish if it were cut loose from its state and political obligations becoming a living faith of individuals rather than a state endorsed institution.
Render to Caesar
Of course Christians and those of other faiths will continue us to play their part as good citizens - they will render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This means a duty to pray for political leaders whether we support that political party or not. It means lobbying and campaigning on issues, writing to MPs. For some it may mean joining a political party and seeking to bring about good by standing for elected office.
But Christians will be cautious about getting too closely tied to Caesar or implying that a failure to support everything Caesar does is in some way unchristian. Instead they will prioritise Jesus’ Kingdom. And his kingdom is not of this world.