Two Forms of Imperial Christianity

I am teaching a course on Religion and Politics in American culture. And the truth is, there has never been a time when Christianity was not used, in some sense, to validate the legitimacy of the United States Government. There has always been some large faction in American Politics which equated being American with being Christian in some sense. And on occasion, we have wrapped the American Flag quite tightly around the cross to validate the righteousness of our cause over and against that of some other nation or faction, whether in the Revolution, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Cold War conflicts, or the never ending "War on Terror". What is relatively new this political season is that, in the absence of a war or clear external threat to our country, we have major preachers such as Pat Robertson and others, declaring that our sitting President is God's anointed leader and savior of the Country, and that disagreeing with him is "revolting against God". This is an interesting twist, and harkens back to versions of Imperial Christianity in the middle ages which stressed the "Divine Right of Kings" to rule as God's chosen instruments. And it brings to mind the Imperial Christianity of 1930's Germany that also anointed Adolf Hitler as Germany's savior.

In fact, one of the saddest things about the rise of Alt Right "Christianity" in the 21st century West is how it has, in the name of objective absolutism, relativized and deconstructed the very Person of Jesus Christ to turn him into the very thing he stood against. It has made Christ into Antichrist: A mascot who validates hate, exclusion, prejudice, greed, indifference, violence, and endless warfare for the sake of increasing the power and profitability of the Empire. We thought that American Conservative Christianity was beyond such ideological manipulation, unlike German Liberalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, one of the major critiques of Liberal Christianity was that it was easily manipulated into an ideology of Empire because it relativized Scriptural teachings in light of History, Science, and Culture, and because it was centered on "God" as an abstract concept rather than Jesus Christ in all his concreteness and particularity.

American Conservative Protestant Christianity-- in its forms as Evangelical and Fundamentalist and Pentecostal-- has consciously asserted the opposite of classic Liberalism in many ways. It has tried to focus on Jesus Christ in his particularity as portrayed in the canonical Gospels, rather than a vague Deistic or Pantheistic concept of "God". It has sought to assert the primacy of the Bible and its teachings over and against History, Science, and Culture. And yet it has become as thoroughly commodified as an instrument of imperial power as any form of modern Religious Liberalism. An American Christianity that can assert that Trump is not merely a lesser evil, but a positive good and chosen instrument of God, is a Christianity as thoroughly inverted as the German Christianity that welcomed Hitler as a Savior. And this is true even if Trump continues to be stunningly incompetent and ineffective.

Of course the commonality of both forms of Imperial Christianity-- Postmodern American Conservatism and Modern German Liberalism-- is their relationship with coercive political power. Outwardly, in terms of cultural ethos and theological norms, these two kinds of Christianity could not look more different. But inwardly both view themselves as arbiters and midwives of political power, allying themselves to one particular cultural group to use coercive power to silence and suppress those who are outside of their group. They have sold themselves to wield power as a weapon, rather than heal society as a servant. And in wielding worldly power they have instead found themselves the ones wielded and used as mascots and political props. Rather than relying on the self-emptying power of Jesus Christ, working through the compassion and peacefulness of the Holy Spirit, they have opted for the self-exalting power of exclusionary, zero-sum, winner-take-all politics, working through laws and weapons to force compliance.

The way out of this conundrum, of course, is to follow the example of Jesus Christ:

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2.5-11)

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.