Religion and Politics: Which Is Master? Which Is Servant?

Religion and politics keep intersecting, at home and abroad. Too often, of course, the combination raises questions…and hackles. It should instead raise hope.

It’s bad enough when people’s religion isn’t strong enough to overcome more basic drives: nationalism, for instance, or economic privilege, or sexism. Nigeria continues to fester and bleed, not only with Muslims and Christians fighting each other over what are clearly tribal grievances, despite their religions’ teachings not to do so, but also with Christians attacking Christians.

In fact, this past week a pastor of a church with roots in the Christian Reformed tradition was killed by members of the neighbouring tribe who also were evangelized and churched by…the Christian Reformed tradition.

Was the lethal dispute over religion? Of course not. It was over land and money and tribal solidarity.

Did their mutual Christian commitment restrain the antagonists’ age-old enmity and guide them to peaceful resolution? Not yet, alas.

Worse, however, is when religion reinforces any of those primal drives. Sociologist Andrew Whitehead and his colleagues have shown recently that white evangelical support for Donald Trump is best explained in terms of white evangelical support for Christian nationalism. In fact, surveys show that in the last election those people would have supported with equal fervour Mitt Romney, John McCain, or any other standard-bearer for the Republican Party.

As they did regarding Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, such self-identified evangelicals want from their presidents two things in particular: anti-abortion promises and conservative Supreme Court appointments. And if their leaders can also reinforce American exceptionalism—America’s sense of itself as a nation uniquely called and equipped by God to dominate the world for the world’s own good—along with the marks of a godly nation—sexual purity, male leadership, white supremacy, military power, and public piety—then it doesn’t seem to matter what else they do or don’t.

Notice that this list is only partly prompted by Christian doctrine, even as each one has often been dressed up as faithful Christianity. This combination of national messiahship, moralism, sexism, racism, militarism, and civil religion is what I call pathological puritanism, and it explains a lot of what we have observed south of the border these last years.

(And in these tempestuous times, let me make clear that not all Trump supporters, let alone all Republicans, are of this sort. Whitehead & Co. show that white Christian nationalism is the maindeterminant of support among the 81 per cent of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.)

Canada has a different ethos in its foundational experience of Confederation: compromise and accommodation, even support for difference…so long as we’re all white Christians, to be sure—or, at least, quiet and compliant minorities.

Much of what has gone right in Canada but also a lot of what has gone very wrong can be attributed to the dominant Euro-Canadian Christian national identity of most Canadians: from our compassionate welfare state to our paternalistic residential schools, and from our admirable overseas peacekeepers to our typical obliviousness toward racism.

The challenge believers in Canada face, however, is the same challenge faced by religious people in America, and Nigeria, and everywhere religion and politics intersect—which is, in a word, everywhere.

Will we take the trouble to distinguish clearly and firmly between our own preferences and the teachings of the Bible, between the values that seem so luminously good to us and those that are demonstrably Christian principles?

Will we then submit to our religion’s best values, altering accordingly our politics and our mores and our rhetoric and our spending?

Or will we celebrate our religions only when it suits us, and especially when we can bend those religions into legitimations of what are in fact our more fundamental commitments—

—which is to say, our idols?

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