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The politics of Jesus

There is an interesting observation from Michael Warren Davis in the American Conservative:

For whatever it is worth, I strongly suspect that Russia will succumb to the Franco effect. By cynically allying itself with Putin, the Russian Church will (once again) discredit herself in the eyes of many Russians. “Why Kirill, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for the Kremlin?”

No patriarch in the last hundred years has been able to refuse that bargain. Alas. So, I would not be surprised to find that adherence to Orthodoxy drops off a bit over the next few years.

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Davis links back to an earlier article citing Franco:

By trying to force Catholicism on the Spanish people, Francisco Franco created resentment against the Church and hastened its decline in Spain. As a rule, when the government becomes more religious, public religiosity declines. (The phenomenon is now playing out in Islamic theocracies like Turkey and Iran.)

The same thing happens even if people think they want a theocracy. If their hearts remain unconverted, they’ll get sick of public religion pretty quickly. That’s what happened in Renaissance Florence under Savonarola.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a paean to “freedom of religion” or any of that nonsense. God is no respecter of persons, and neither am I. No: this is about psychology. Laws are good at reinforcing a moral consensus. That’s why the theocratic monarchies of the Middle Ages survived for a thousand years. But when you try to use state power to build a religious consensus, it tends to backfire. In the modern world, such regimes have a zero percent success rate.

  | Unsplash @jontyson

There is always the temptation by religionists to believe that power in their hands can enact a holy regime. The results are always at best very mixed, and usually, the experiment does not last long. Religious views that are perceived to be imposed become unpopular, and the coercion enforcing them becomes ultimately unsustainable.

The old political order in Latin America for centuries was aligned with Roman Catholicism, which commanded until recent years over 90% of Latins. Some military dictatorships of the 1960s-80s were perceived to be aligned with the Catholic Church. Now Catholicism in Latin America is on track to sink below 50% of the population. Pentecostalism is displacing Catholicism, accompanied by growing numbers of unaffiliated. Of course, parts of Latin Pentecostalism are making their own political alignments with consequences not yet fully foreseen.

Even without coercion, religions perceived to be strongly aligned with particular political forces can lose their savor, while nonaligned religions prosper.

Recently in Comment, Mark Noll credited the wildly successful evangelistic success of early American Methodism, in contrast to established churches, to its detachment from partisan politics:

As a spiritual movement, Methodists achieved remarkable success in large part because they kept their message nonpartisan in a nation riven by political-religious conflict. But when the this-worldly convictions tied to early Methodist spirituality confronted the realities of American political controversy, especially concerning slavery, the Methodist religious revolution faltered.


Methodist concentration on “scriptural holiness” produced remarkable results, particularly in joyful personal liberation, disciplined personal piety, and supportive community fellowship. Yet the singleness of purpose that kept Methodists from instrumentalizing their religion for political purposes was shaping a society where others did not hesitate.

Observers in the early 21 century where the politicization of religion has become so contentious might consider an ability to remain above the fray idyllic. Simply by not harnessing their religious energies to political bandwagons, early Methodists did maintain their religious integrity. Yet with a political tabula rasa, the Methodist movement could not offer much resistance to other influences once Asbury’s iron discipline passed from the scene. Because Methodists had not developed mechanisms for connecting individual piety to systemic public responsibilities, they drifted like political chameleons after Asbury’s determined apoliticism wore off.

The collapse of Methodist social influence in America began with its greatest political victory: Prohibition. After Prohibition’s repeal, Methodism first began to lose its share of the American population, and then later in absolute numbers, all the while becoming politically less and less relevant. Presidents Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson all spoke to Methodist governing bodies during the lead-up to Prohibition, after which another president never again addressed a Methodist juridical convention. In the 1950s, Bishop Bromley Oxnam was exasperated when the Methodist bishops met with President Eisenhower, who offered only a photo op, and no interest in hearing their views. Oxnam was not discouraged from pursuing other channels of political influence for his denomination.

Perhaps this cycle of churches eschewing and embracing politics is unavoidable. Rising religions focus on gaining new members and creating new communities of devotion. Once large in numbers, they command social influence and are courted by political forces, to which they succumb. These political engagements are not always negative seductions. Religious groups, especially when large, have accompanying societal responsibilities. Their adherents naturally want guidance about their duties as citizens. The difficult balance for religious groups is to encourage good citizenship without themselves becoming partisan actors and losing their more important spiritual credibility. Effective religious communities prioritize God’s eternal kingdom. Effectively advocating for constructive faith-inspired political engagement without conflating faith with a particular political brand is always challenging.

This poll earlier this year asked respondents to place Jesus on the political ideological spectrum. Naturally, respondents aligned Him with their own politics. Hopefully, these respondents, whatever their politics, were at least shaped by the virtues and practices that Jesus taught.

Of course, Jesus as God Incarnate and Second Person of the Trinity cannot be placed on any ideological spectrum. As Creator and Savior, He cannot be reduced to our categories. We stand in His Judgement. Our politics are at best an approximation of what we think He desires in our fallen world. But we must be very slow to speak politically for Him. And we must be mindful that even a righteous political cause if pursued with intemperance while claiming His name, will discredit our cause and even His.

Originally published at Juicy Ecumenism. 

Mark Tooley became president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist committee (UMAction). He is also editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence.

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