It is certainly true that the Church has divided severely over issues throughout its 2,000-year history, but the last few decades have witnessed unparalleled division in recent memory. You’ll hardly hear someone offer that our country (and the Church) has become more politically united in the past decade.
Mike Slaughter and Charles Gutenson wrote Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide to both acknowledge and correct a growing problem in the Church. Not only is the divide creating disunity within the Church, it is causing a significant number of younger Americans to reject the church because of the close relationship between partisan politics and religion. Throughout much of the 20th century, the Church’s liberal/conservative polarization was related primarily to theological issues rather than political, Democrat/Republican concerns. Only in the 1980s did theological “liberalism” (or “conservatism”) and voting primarily Democratic (or Republican) become integrally connected.
The Christian Right contributed greatly to this new polarization. Popular Christian televangelists, radio hosts, and pastors began influencing their audiences in such a way that seemed to reclaim a form of “American civil religion that associated America as a nation established by God, advocating our form of democracy as ordained by God and the U.S. Constitution as Spirit-breathed” (pg 29*). Forgetting Jesus’ warning in Matthew 20:25-26 regarding the nature of Christ-followers versus the nature of the Gentiles, this “awakening movement born with such hope and possibilities for diversity, unity, biblical justice, and Holy Ghost revival began slowly to fall back into a church subservient to Caesar” (pg 29). Slaughter and Gutenson claim, “As followers of Jesus we are not to define nor are we to divide ourselves according to the ideologies and platforms of Caesar. The two extremes of rigid conservatism and relativistic liberalism can destroy Christ’s mission in the world through his church” (pg 31).
The authors focus heavily on assessing the need to remember the important distinctions stated in the popular saying, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” They spend time discussing not only what doctrines and beliefs are essential, they devote an entire chapter to how we come to embrace doctrines that are essential or non-essential. Using a two-axis diagram, they demonstrate that a conservative theology does not automatically imply a conservative political party, nor does a liberal theology indicate a liberal political party. Christians can be conservative on some (or all) theology, but vote Democrat. Instead of viewing the options as a simple dichotomy, it’s best to view the nuanced perspectives among both conservatives and liberals as the complex array of options they really are.
The most indicting criticism in the book warns Christians of the danger of living inside an “ideological bubble.” (We will discuss the use of the terms in a moment.) The advent of the Internet has given us access to an ideological bubble of our own choosing, despite the availability of any viewpoint we can imagine. We have an infinite smorgasbord of choice at our fingertips: 24-hour television news, websites, blogs, Facebook groups, YouTube channels. It’s all there for us to pick and choose our tastes. Add this to a second major problem—the seduction of sound bites—and we’ve got a recipe for trouble. Bring these sound bites into the church, and we produce Christians with an appetite not for theological depth but for tasty nuggets of truth: “We want preachers who can give us catchy phrases that capture our imaginations and that move us emotionally; whether or not the catchy phrases are particularly accurate becomes quite secondary in the process” (pg 48). When the Church’s diet of theology is served on a tray of sound bites, its no wonder our political beliefs are so messed up and often divisive.
Hijacked proposes several ways to get back to the essential call to love each other. This is what Jesus expects. Both individuals and local churches have a responsibility to work hard against the tendency to divide, because the more we divide and spend our time on “our side,” the more the Church becomes split into an “us” versus “them” mentality.
Hijacked is short and fairly practical. One of the most exciting parts of the book was the repeated references to the Church being a unique community whose agenda is to serve the Kingdom of God:
- “The church must stand in prophetic tension with Constantinian political systems and never underwrite or accommodate itself to a partisan political world order including American democracy” (pg 22).
- Quoting Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon: “…the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price” (pg 30).
- “As followers or Jesus we are not to define nor are we to divide ourselves according to the ideologies and platforms of Caesar” (pg 31).
- “The people of God’s kingdom are meant to be the visible demonstration of heaven’s redemptive purpose on earth Through this community of faith, God is creating Kingdom culture that is markedly different from the political alliances of earthly kingdoms” (pg 98).
- “As followers of Jesus, we represent an alternative party, the party of the kingdom of God” (pg 101).
- “The church stands in prophetic tension with all earthly political systems and becomes corrupted when used in a supportive role for political ideologies of any flag or color” (pg 106).
- “The community of Christ is called to pursue an alternative path from the political power structures of the world” (pg 107).
A survey of the quotes listed above are share a common tenor with Christian anarchism, in particular resonating with Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation. Libertarian Christians would likely feel at home with the above statements and the meanings behind them. When our passions for the Kingdom of God become primary in our social commitments, political alliances will inevitably take a back seat.
After the focus on how the Kingdom of God is an alternative way of life, it was a bit disappointing to see no mention of the community of Christians who believe that to be involved in social justice one doesn’t need to participate in Caesar’s kingdom. With the exception of a brief N.T. Wright quote at the end regarding the Church’s extra-political efforts, there is no mention of the historical view and legitimacy of “conscientious objection” to Caesar.
Related to this absence, discussion about the nature of the State was also lacking. While they acknowledge that our political arena is akin to Caesar’s domain, no comments are given as to why playing this domain is like playing with fire. It would seem that a book dedicated to avoiding the divisive nature of politics would include at least some mention of the legitimate movements away from political engagement (a good resources is Electing Not to Vote, endorsed by Greg Boyd).
Hijacked doesn’t get into the definitions of ideology and ideologue, but I would be amiss if I didn’t say something about the authors’ use of the word. In private exchanges and his former book, Gutenson has an unfavorable opinion toward ideology. It seems to me that his definition of “ideology” is rather vague and perhaps even internally contradictory considering the fact that he wrote a book promoting a particular viewpoint, namely a book about “Kingdom values.” A quick lookup of the definition of ideology seems to point to something much less unpalatable: “the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.” If the ethics of Kingdom of God as presented by Jesus isn’t a guiding set of beliefs for the Christian, I’m not sure what is! Furthermore, an ideologue is somebody who “zealously advocates an ideology.” Again, not undesirable. To be fair, it’s likely that Gutenson and Slaughter want Christians who engage in the political arena to be cognizant that their view may indeed be wrong. Gutenson personally said to me that he was not against people acting and voting on their convictions.
Hijacked addresses a problem most of us would admit exists, yet we would all hesitate to admit we are part of the problem. So, let’s admit it: at some level we are all part of the problem. As much as I wish to believe my libertarian ethics, theology, and politics are an alternative “third way” that allows more freely the work of the Kingdom, even I am not exempt from being stubborn at times. It’s no fun being convicted of that, yet if we are all honest, we’ll find ourselves guilty.
Check the book out on Amazon. It’s definitely worth the time.
*The copy I’m citing from was printed for promotional use only, and may or may not correspond to page numbers in the final publication.