Christianity and the post-religious right
In a new era, Christians should remain engaged in politics but must not sacrifice our identity
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Even with Christian language and imagery more common than ever, could the political right actually be losing its religion? That’s what a recent article in Public Discourse argues. While reviewing a new academic book on populist politics, Jesse Smith suggests that the religious right has become more of a social identity group than a platform informed by a coherent set of religious beliefs. This is at least partly right, but it’s not really new.
For Christians, our calling hasn’t changed. Our spiritual goals must stay in first place, captive to the obedience of Christ and confident in the promise of God, even as we do the best we can in the political arena. We can protect our identity by ensuring that politics is understood for what it is: a means to an end, an earthly end.
“Christendom without Christianity” is what Jesse Smith calls the new right-wing populism. It lays claim to a heritage of Christian artifacts and cultural markers but with little interest in core Christian doctrine or distinctive morality. Sacred things are put to a thoroughly secular use.
This sort of exclusively cultural Christianity is more obvious in Europe, where national majorities are baptized as infants but otherwise never attend worship. This has not been as pronounced in the United States, largely due to the history of separation between church and state and the relative vitality of our religious institutions. But that’s quickly changing. The older Protestant mainline has thoroughly collapsed, and even evangelical churches have begun to question historic doctrinal and moral teachings. Church attendance is also declining in America, even among people who report being religious on surveys. According to Ryan Burge, “27% of self-identified evangelicals attend services less than once a year.”
On a policy level, one might argue that the major right-wing party in the United States is more Christian than ever. After all, the pro-life movement achieved its most significant victory ever by repealing Roe v. Wade. And yet, things are more complicated. After keeping his promise to nominate pro-life Supreme Court justices, Donald Trump now mostly wants to avoid the topic of abortion. His former aide, Kellyanne Conway, is warning Republicans that further activism here is a political liability. Similarly, support for gay marriage is at its highest level ever. Even 49 percent of Republicans defend it. While conservative Christians will continue to be an important voting bloc, their national influence will likely continue to decline. Savvy political advisors will want to retain those parts of Christianity that play well to the political market—but only those. Ironically, the future looks “religious but not spiritual.”
How should Christians respond?
As noted above, this isn’t really a new phenomenon. At the time of the founding of the United States, the overwhelming majority of the nation identified as Christian, yet many of the leading politicians were heterodox at best. On the other hand, the future (Episcopal) bishop, Samuel Seabury, opposed American independence. He is now memorialized for being refuted by Alexander Hamilton. Closer to our own day, Ronald Reagan won the hearts of the religious right while also being the first governor to sign a no-fault divorce bill into law. Without denying the unique role of Christianity in American politics, it’s always been tricky business. Perhaps our newly shifting landscape will just allow us to be more transparent.
Christians do not need to respond to this new identitarian era with political disengagement. But it is precisely the level of “identity” where detachment should happen. We do not need MAGA churches (nor do we need MSNBC churches). And we must guard our prayer and devotional time from the ever-encroaching news headlines. We must preach the gospel, worship God in Spirit and truth, and disciple the nations according to the teachings of Christ. Christianity must remain a religion and not a partisan of the flesh. The Christian should participate in the political arena, including voting, organizing, or even running for office. But we should never let this activism define who we are. It should never overshadow or distort our spiritual duties. It should never take first place in our hearts.
Christians should seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) while also desiring a better country (Hebrews 11:16). Instead of turning religious names and concepts into fleshly communities, we should defend our spiritual independence and freedom. We are free to be good and honest citizens because we know who we are in Christ. Let’s never forget heaven while thinking about earth. But, as Jesus teaches us, if we keep things in order, then the rest will be added to us (Matthew 6:33).
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