By guest blogger Paul Lusk

Extremist political ideas are like a virus nurtured in a laboratory. Stored safely, they may do no harm. But transmitted to where defences are weak, they become dangerous.

The Jesus Candidate, page 110

Armoured and helmeted, they came with ropes and grappling hooks, explosives and cable cuffs, and they built a gallows in front of their legislative assembly’s celebrated palace. ‘Hang Mike Pence’ they tweeted and chanted as they surged through the halls of Congress looking for their Vice President, whose place at Donald Trump’s right hand had sealed the President’s bond with white evangelical Christians. Pence’s refusal to ‘decertify’ Joe Biden’s election was, Trump told them, the cowardly betrayal of this alliance. An improbable gathering of their targets – among them Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell,  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Muslim congresswoman Ilhar Oman – squatted together in high security to keep the mob’s targets as far from harm as the outfought police could manage. Amidst the violent crowd, groups huddled in prayer. The New York Times found a ‘political universe where violent extremists, outright racists and conspiracy theorists march side by side with evangelical Christians’. As Professor Steven R. Harmon explained on this blog:

most of the people who … surged into the Capitol building considered themselves Christians and conceived of what they were doing as acts of Christian faithfulness.

Furthermore, ‘they were formed to think and act in this way by expressions of the American church’ where they accepted an ideological cocktail including:

Christian nationalism, a theological anthropology marked by hierarchies of race and gender … a premillennial eschatology that inclines many of its adherents to be susceptible to conspiracy theories, the demonization of progressives and Democrats … an insistence that true Christians are increasingly persecuted in the United States, and a belief that God has providentially appointed Donald Trump to help … by restoring an idealized “Christian America .”

Photo by Dalton Caraway on Unsplash

So an expression of Christianity has turned to collaboration with non-Christians in violent insurrection against the state. President Biden has referred to these as ‘domestic terrorists’ – and we know how the White House likes to deal with ‘terrorists.’ Maybe he was calming expectations when, later, he called them merely ‘extremists.’ The state cannot shrink when faced with such a challenge: unless it changes, this movement will face constraint. This leads a Christian commentator to expect

the ‘progressives’ to clamp down on the basic freedoms that have been the backbone of American democracy – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.

So prepare to hear the secular state charged with denying religious liberty when it responds to Christian ‘extremism’.

For decades now the Religious Right has besieged us with claims that the modern state is not a legitimate institution. The legitimacy of the state is what endorses, in the minds of citizens, its right to the exclusive use of force – the defining characteristic of the state. Once this legitimacy is doubted, some will think it right to use force themselves against the state. They are likely to make common cause with others who share this disruptive ambition, even though they differ in their hopes for the result. Premillennialist Christians can share with QAnon conspiracy theorists the expectation of an imminent ‘Storm’ and widespread violence to precede (in the Christian account) the second coming of Christ. Nationalism says that the state exists to protect those defined by a common bond – be that of genes, culture, or religion or other attributes of ‘nation’.

Christians were among the violent mob at the Capitol because they had been told that the secular state is inherently Satanic, and that Christians have a duty to replace it with a form of state endorsed by the Bible. They have learnt these ideas from people who sincerely say they reject violence, nationalism and racism. But their teaching inevitably inspires violent collaboration with nationalists and racists.

Photo by little plant on Unsplash

The essence of this teaching – the message of the ‘religious right’ for four decades – is that the function of the state is to enforce the law of God as revealed in the Bible. An early version of this was ‘theonomy’ – the idea that the Mosaic commandments, with modification in the rest of the bible, are God’s ‘law-word’ to be enforced within a society of faithful believers. The state, in this teaching, is God’s ‘creation ordinance’ and ‘ministry of justice’. Theonomy was linked with postmillennialism, so that the biblical ‘reconstruction’ of society, and the withdrawal of the state to its God-prescribed judicial role, would prepare the way for the return of Christ to rule the redeemed earth. Meanwhile, in unreconstructed society, the state is ‘Moloch’, a false god sinfully worshipped by unbelievers. This version is still periodically revived at the more extreme end of the religious right spectrum but is mostly considered ‘crackpot’ thinking. The more widely promoted version is compatible with the dispensational premillennialism popular with American conservative Protestants. It still insists that the state’s function is to enforce biblical law, but accepts that Mosaic law was specifically confined to ancient Israel [1]. This version has been called ‘quasi-theonomy.’

There is no biblical support for the notion that the state’s function is to enforce biblical law. These ideas are founded rather on a philosophical insight: that, in any society, law is determined by its religion. Where there is more than one religion among the community, then inevitably there is a struggle over which religion will be supreme as the ‘law-word.’ A multitude of religions with equal social status is impossible: that is Polytheism. Secular models are really teaching the ‘religion’ of secular humanism. This must struggle against authentic Christianity. It must seek to suppress, persecute and destroy this rival. Christians must join this struggle – they are to declare, and join, ‘cultural war.’ The law-courts and politics are battle fields in this war.

‘Religious freedom’ as affirmed by secular liberals – for diverse value systems to enjoy equal status in a neutral public square – is impossible, as no system can be neutral. In this view, religious freedom is possible, if at all, only within a formally Christian state, since Christianity is the only religion that grants freedom to disbelieve. Secular ‘progressives’ cannot promote religious freedom: what they mean is either polytheism or humanism as the state religion. This is why appointing religiously-committed judges is so important. Only judges who understand the ‘Judeo-Christian’ foundation of law will be ready to defend the rights and liberties of the faithful. In support of this view, the movement pumps out to the media and to its supporters distorted and false versions of court cases, in order to prove its claim that the secular law is persecuting believers.

Author Kaihsu.

The Religious Right is onto something when it challenges us to recognise that God is over all his created order, and that includes the state and politics. But clearly something has gone wrong when its followers get behind a leader who gives them the promise made by Donald Trump in his campaign for the Republican nomination in 2016:

Christianity will have power. If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urges Christians to ‘have same mind as Jesus’ who ‘made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant’.  A Christian theory of the state and politics hits a contradiction if it becomes a weapon for Christians to win ‘power’ in a diverse society. It is this contradiction that played out in the Capitol on 6th January 2021. ‘Quasi-theonomy’ says that Christians should ‘persuade others’ to adopt biblical law as state policy – or in the words of the British evangelical Anglican Rev David Holloway, founder of the Christian Institute, to ‘influence society and its rules and regulations so that they conform as much as possible to God’s will’ [2]. This is an appeal that belongs to the latter days ‘after Christendom’: it expects that people who are not faithful believers will accept a version of Christianity as the dominant code of conduct in civil society.

The urgent need now is for a robustly Christian theory of the state in the post-Christendom era. If not theonomy, what? There is much to admire in two alternatives in our heritage of Christian political thought: Anabaptism and Christian socialism. But Anabaptists are inherently suspicious of the whole idea of state legitimacy, and Christian socialism shares with Theonomy the problem of seeking to deliver in legislation the public virtues that the Bible says flow from the spirit-filled heart. Christian political theory needs an account of the state that does not demand hegemony for the converted community, and does not divide the faithful on matters (like healthcare) that should be for respectful debate on technicalities.

One friend suggests the term ‘redeeming liberalism’ for this project. But does the Bible offer resources for such a Christian theorisation of the state? I think it does.

Paul Lusk is the author of The Jesus Candidate: Political religion in a secular age (Ekklesia, 2017). He warned that the extremist religious right was fostering ‘the self-indulgent romance of gratuitous violence.’ Before the 2020 US Presidential election, Paul wrote for Tortoise media about the political origins of the ‘grand bargain’ between evangelicals and Republicans.

Guest blog posts are invited to stimulate thought and comment. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.

[1] For ‘Theonomy’ see Roussas J Rushdoony, Institutes of Christian Law (Philipsburg NJ, Craig press, 1973). For an influential exponent of ‘quasi-theonomy’ see Wayne Grudem, Politics according to the bible (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010)
[2] David Holloway, Church and state in the new Millennium (London, HarperCollins, 2000) p.2.

The violent turn in Christian politics: what is to be done?

6 thoughts on “The violent turn in Christian politics: what is to be done?

  • 16th March 2021 at 2:46 pm
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    The earliest followers of Jesus Christ were living examples of people who declared Jesus as Lord, not Caesar. They were persecuted not because they believed in a quiet, private spiritual path that directs one´s soul to the heavens, but rather because their declaration posed a serious, subversive threat to Empire.

    As the church gears down, as Christendom comes to an end (or has already ended?), is it not once again on the margins of society where Christians will find themselves? If the answer is yes, then I think all this talk about Christians and the state in our present time is really for naught.

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    • 20th March 2021 at 1:25 pm
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      Thanks Matthew for this thought. Persecution of the early church under Rome was sporadic. It occurred because Christians would not acknowledge the deity of the Emperor. They insisted that they could obey and respect the Emperor as ruler, and be loyal and active citizens, but still worship the one God and Jesus as Lord. This radical claim entailed innovative political thinking. Christendom did not necessarily dismiss this claim, but it effectively parked it, in merging church and state under a general doctrine of ‘two kingdoms.’ As I argue in The Jesus Candidate, this biblical thinking, nurtured in the Anabaptist movement, matured into the democracy that emerged first in Rhode Island. I do not agree with you, Matthew, that it follows that a ‘marginalised’ Christianity has nothing to say about post-Christendom democracy. On the contrary, if we are to submit (Rom 13) to the democratic state, then we must take seriously the responsibilities of citizenship, which is to play our part in shaping a state that provides effective and accountable government serving all sections of the community equally.

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  • 22nd March 2021 at 7:02 am
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    Thanks Paul. About Romans 13:

    The evangelical teaching that I at one time received about this chapter seemed to give the governing authoritites carte blance to wield the sword in any way deemed necessary and that Christians were to submit to this authority fully and completely. I see real dangers with this kind of thinking. How do you understand Romans 13?

    I must admit, I have struggled for the longest time attempting to discern just how much a Christian is supposed to be involved in the political process.

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  • 26th March 2021 at 3:54 pm
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    Sorry, just seen this, otherwise would have replied earlier! I wrote an article on this in Anabaptism Today (Autumn 2020) which was a response to an earlier piece by its Editor (Lloyd Pietersen). The full piece is also on my website http://www.lusk.org.uk/The-state-in-the-bible-Oct2020.pdf. There are many interpretations of this passage. In brief my proposal is to take it in the context of 12.1-2. Paul is talking about the renewed mind – the mindset his readers are to have. They worshipped Jesus as God – the same Jesus who had been put to death by the Roman authorities on charges of insurrection and blasphemy. Paul cannot possibly mean that every act of violence by the state is, by definition, either good or just. He is asking that the Roman church approach the state with that benign and winsome attitude of mind – not self-seeking or vengeful or pursuing vindication, but submissive. He is not writing political science here, he is writing a practical guide to wise and purposeful living for the church.

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  • 27th March 2021 at 6:36 am
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    Thanks so much Paul.

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  • 28th March 2021 at 10:53 am
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    One last question Paul:

    What type of “state” (or lack thereof) do you think the new creation will exhibit?

    Reply

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