Since Constantine, Christians have wrestled with their relationship to political power. In America today, this issue seems especially relevant. Consider Netflix’s The Family, a documentary about a secretive Christian organization that seeks to guide and influence powerful people, especially political figures. When we turn on the news, we see the people that historian John Fea has called “court evangelicals,” religious leaders who defend and support Donald Trump without regard to his behavior, out of belief in his calling. Everywhere we turn, we see something about “evangelicals” and “politics” and “power.”
Evangelical figureheads who have allied with Trump have gained “unprecedented access” to the White House. In theory, this will allow them to shape policy. Other Christians are skeptical of these activities and publicly abhor the alliances. They worry that cheap grace for figures like Trump distorts the true nature of Christian forgiveness. And the hypocrisy of excusing the irreligious behavior of leaders in order to achieve religiously-based legislation runs the risk of defaming the faith. Indeed, it is already driving away some young evangelicals.
In times like these, American Christians could certainly benefit from reading classic works on the relationship between Christians and secular authority, like St. Augustine’s The City of God, Martin Luther’s “On Secular Authority,” or John Calvin’s “On Civil Government.” Right now, relatively little of the current public discourse is the product of theological or historical inquiry.
But in many ways, the current context may not ultimately be just about the relationship between church and state. Religious leaders who cultivate political figures are not that different from the “celebrity pastors” who cultivate music and movie stars at “cool churches.” This, too, divides the church. While some pastors are busy denouncing people like Kanye from the pulpit, others are wearing his shoes. The church is busy pursuing influence.
The primary objective of many Christians who endorse political and cultural figures seems to be influence. They value powerful people — or brands — for their power, be it political or cultural. You don’t have to be a Kantian to keep the Golden Rule, but if you’re treating people as a means to an end, you’re certainly not loving your neighbor as yourself.
In Luke 19, Jesus was passing through Jericho. “A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short, he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.” Jesus was greeting a wealthy and powerful man, seeking out his company. Zacchaeus was “a chief tax collector.” And Jesus wanted to go to his house.
“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘ He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ ” Zacchaeus was a sinner. All the people muttered. In the eyes of many, Jesus was discredited. Very likely some walked away. Jesus did not defend Zacchaeus from attacks, but neither did he disdain him.
The interaction was transformative for Zacchaeus. “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’” Zacchaeus confronted his sin and was changed. And as a result, the lives of others were changed, too. A true introduction to Christ will encourage people to confront and not to cover their sins.
“Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’” Jesus was not there to benefit from Zacchaeus’ position. He was not even there to get money for the poor. The kind of “evangelism” depicted in The Family, and sometimes practiced in real life, attempts to meet people where they seem to be located in the webs of power woven around us. We fail powerful people when we fail to tell them they are among the lost.
We should worry about the message we’re sending to people in power, because it is possibly not the Gospel message. Some of us want to have dinner with Zacchaeus, to shape tax collecting policy or even to get funding for good things. Some of us would never have dinner with Zacchaeus, because of what he stands for and what he has done. Many of us fail to see in Zacchaeus the Imago Dei. But “this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Neither their opponents nor their allies may be happy about it, but powerful people also deserve the power of the full Gospel — not for anything they might do to or for us, but for what Christ might do for them. If we would speak truth to power, we would do well to remember that Jesus is the truth.