I’ll never forget in 2017 when the Trump administration formally announced their move to terminate the Obama-era policy Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). At the time of the announcement, I was living in Chicago where a protest against the decision gained the media’s attention.
In 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attempted to conduct raids that targeted racially marginalized communities in both Chicago and other major cities across the United States. As a documented immigrant, adopted by citizens of the United States, I watched these raids with equal parts rage and fear. On social media and in daily conversations with friends and neighbors, documented minorities across Chicagoland strategized how best to help our undocumented neighbors: We could protest, refuse to present our IDs, stay in public to occupy the attention of ICE officers, or even cause large distractions by gathering in large groups that placed our bodies between the government and our neighbors in need. By the time ICE began patrolling the streets of my neighborhood, I was no longer lamenting the Trump administration’s policy decisions; I was actively denouncing them.
Along with millions of other people in the United States, I looked around for someone to bring justice. How could this chaos be instigated by our own government?
It was not until June 18, 2020 that the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to reject the Trump administration’s bid to terminate DACA. This ruling meant young undocumented immigrants, sometimes referred to as “Dreamers,” could continue to work for fair wages, obtain legal protections, and keep their families intact. Having moved to Princeton, N.J., I was reminded of friends, colleagues, and neighbors in Chicago who had spent the past three years incessantly on edge — living between that rage and fear we felt so deeply. I had the advantage of leaving. They did not. I wondered if they thought justice had been accomplished by the Supreme Court, or if the Court’s ruling came three years too late.
I also began to wonder to what extent, if at all, God exerted divine control over U.S. politics, including the day-to-day actions of the Supreme Court.
Christians have never agreed on the best way to answer this question: Since the Cold War era, white evangelical conservatives have often imagined politics through an apocalyptic lens. The rise of dispensational theology gave evangelicals an airtight hermeneutic to understand the end times through a hyper-specific reading of Daniel and Revelation. This reading categorized human history into seven unique “dispensations,” that God uniquely acts within. Understanding America as a central character in the current dispensation, evangelical leaders like Billy Graham garnered the ear of several U.S. presidents, securing an evangelical presence in the White House that continued on into the era of the Moral Majority. This early, yet obvious, form of Christian nationalism proved successful not only in influencing culture but also in solidifying a socio-religious in-group. In other words, by tying Christian faithfulness to a political party, one could quickly discern who was “in” and who was “out.” More recently, the emergence of Donald Trump as the political champion for American evangelicals marked an era of religious extremism motivated more by fear of and disgust toward minorities than a vision of restoring the nation back to God. The common thread is that these Christians believed God was intimately and supernaturally present in U.S. politics, fighting for the goals of the Republican Party.
Meanwhile, many liberal non-white Christians responded by forming their own coalitions that brought together faith and social activism. The rise of liberation theology across Christian communities spurred Christians toward seeking justice on a global scale. In historian David Swartz’s Moral Minority, he notes that in the 1970s, this group was comprised of evangelicals fighting for minorities’ civil rights, an end to all wars, the pursuit of intentional community, and the elimination of poverty in developing countries. These Christians also saw participation in U.S. politics as an expression of faith. However, God was not found behind the walls of the White House or in a political party. God was marching in the streets, proclaiming freedom for the captive and liberating the downtrodden.
Today, Christians are continuing to pursue their political interests while imagining that God is fighting on their side. In the wake of the Court overturning Roe v. Wade, many conservative Christian leaders celebrated the decision as bringing about God’s kingdom on earth. On the other side of the pew, progressive Christians lamented the decision because of the devastating implications it holds for human rights both now and in the future. This leads me back to the question I asked myself in the wake of the Supreme Court rejecting Trump’s bid to eliminate DACA: Is God in control of the Court?
I believe God is concerned with the rulings of the Supreme Court inasmuch as the decisions impact those whom God loves: the poor, the marginalized, and the pressed down (John 3; Romans 8; Philippians 2).
But I would argue that while God is concerned with the outcomes of the Court’s rulings, God does not divinely control the justices to carry out God’s divine will on earth. Some might want to refer to Romans 13:1 — “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God” — as a trump card that proves all government authority is divinely ordained and thus are instruments that enact God’s will.
But as Sojourners’ columnist and prison abolitionist Hannah Bowman comments, “Romans 13:1 is intended as a comfort for Christians who are victims of harm and violence: God may sometimes work even through imperfect systems of state power to bring about a kind of justice, or at least redress for harm.” When authorities and governments use their power for evil, we remember that the ultimate and original source of power is not located in governmental authority, but in God. Therefore, our responsibility as Christians involves turning our attention to our marginalized neighbors suffering under oppressive government policies and systems. When we work to change these oppressive policies and systems, our actions become a living testimony to God’s redemptive action in the world.
No matter where we place ourselves on the political spectrum, if we place all our attention and efforts on legislation and policy decisions, we will remain perpetually disappointed and hopeless. The institution of policies and legislation is not the measure of a Christian’s faithfulness or God’s presence in the world. Rather, we place our hope in a God who has promised to be radically present, regardless of what politicians or justices do; and it's this same God who empowers us to keep finding tangible ways to love our neighbors, in word and deed.