The church, John Locke once said, is more likely to be influenced by the government than the government by the church. This could be called “Locke’s trap.” I read this statement about Locke in Robert Louis Wilken’s wondrous account called Liberty in the Things of God. Statism, a more-than-occasional reality of Locke’s trap for the church, has become, especially since the days of Reagan, evangelicalism’s trap. Randall Balmer was right: Christianity operates best from the margins of power, not in its center. Too many today think the solutions to our problems are anchored to the one leading the White House. (I write about this in Kingdom Conspiracy and in Pastor Paul.)

The recent dustup over CT’s former Editor-in-Chief illustrates the point. The essay drew evangelicals out of their churches into the city square. Wayne Grudem defended Trump and some 170 pastors wrote a letter defending Trump. Jim Wallis defended the editorial and then so did The Bonhoeffer Society and then a large number of African American pastors.

Who is on the Lord’s side? became the question, but the answer was almost unequivocally “Who does or does not support Trump?” The question and the answers are Locke’s trap.

So caught in the trap is Ralph Reed that he snarkily chose to call CT “Christianity Yesterday.” One merely needs to read David Swartz’s wonderful account, called Moral Minority, to know evangelicals have been diverse on politics. Evangelicalism, Reed needs to know, is shifting and many are wondering about Christianity Tomorrow. That Christianity will be a justice-oriented evangelicalism. The shift is obvious and it’s not likely to slow down with this new move among evangelicals. They stand with this statement by Tim Dalrymple:

Out of love for Jesus and his church, not for political partisanship or intellectual elitism, this is why we feel compelled to say that the alliance of American evangelicalism with this presidency has wrought enormous damage to Christian witness. It has alienated many of our children and grandchildren. It has harmed African American, Hispanic American, and Asian American brothers and sisters. And it has undercut the efforts of countless missionaries who labor in the far fields of the Lord. While the Trump administration may be well regarded in some countries, in many more the perception of wholesale evangelical support for the administration has made toxic the reputation of the Bride of Christ.

And this a few paragraphs down in his article is speaking of Locke’s trap and statism when he says:

[Trump] is a symptom of a sickness that began before him, which is the hyper-politicization of the American church. This is a danger for all of us, wherever we fall on the political spectrum. Jesus said we should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. With profound love and respect, we ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to consider whether they have given to Caesar what belongs only to God: their unconditional loyalty.

The problem, for far too many, Left and Right, is Locke’s trap or statism. It is not speaking prophetically to claim the mantle of the prophet only when it is a Left-leaner criticizing the GOP, nor is it prophetic if a Right-leaner criticizes the Democrats. That’s falling into Locke’s trap. It is little more than partisan criticism baptized by Christian language.

There’s something going on in the Christian church and it is a good time for us all to think about it more carefully. In Pastor Paul, I write (with some changes):

I agree with Peggy Noonan that Americans are afraid and are in search of a story or something to take away the fear. Here’s how she puts our American condition:

Something's up. And deep down, where the body meets the soul, we are fearful. We fear, down so deep it hasn't even risen to the point of articulation, that with all our comforts and amusements, with all our toys and bells and whistles... we wonder if what we really have is... a first-class stateroom on the Titanic. Everything's wonderful, but a world is ending and we sense it.[1]

Many are salving fears, this constant turmoil of the amygdala and worry that we are on a Titanic, in activism and have ramped it all up to apocalyptic proportions. The solution to the fear, it is believed, is the state. America’s dominant narrative today is statism, the theory that the state ought to rule and the state can solve our problems.

Statism as Americans know it goes back to the time of Constantine and since that time the church’s relationship with the state has been complicated on more than but at least two fronts: how much Christianizing the state can accomplish and how much politicking the church ought to be doing. Locke’s trap. From the days of the Holy Roman Empire until now, especially during the founding of the United States,[2] the churches of Europe and North America have told a nation’s story, though since the rise of modernity the church has gradually lost that power. Skip to the USA’s famous study by H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, and a typology of the relationship of the church and state/culture found its language: Christ of culture, Christ with culture, Christ above culture, Christ against culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ transforming culture. When every Wheaton student was reading Niebuhr, a Reformed theologian named Abraham Kuyper began to make a different influence felt among American evangelicals. Some Kuyperians turned “transforming culture” into a political agenda. This transformationalist approach gained strength in the heady days of Ronald Reagan and was spearheaded by Francis Schaeffer, James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and the influence of Billy Graham was nonpareil.[3] American evangelical conservatives, as the so-called moral “majority,” became glued in new ways to the Republican Party while the more progressive moral “minority” became attached in similar ways to the Democrat Party. The church was politicized.[4] Kuyperian, Niebuhrian, or some bricolage of them and others isn’t the issue.

At no time in my life have I seen the church more engaged in politics and more absorbed by a political story. I’m not referring here simply to Republican vs. Democrat or Conservative vs. Progressive. Rather, I mean the belief that what matters most is what happens in D.C. and if we get the right candidate elected America can be saved. Blogs, Facebook updates, Twitter posts and websites are tied together and double-knotted with this political narrative. It is so pervasive many don’t even know it’s running and ruining our public and private lives. Ask them about a candidate and their blood pressure pops or their mouth spews or their mind runs into the wall of exasperation.

The political narrative of today makes for a mesmerizing story: there are problems, we are strung along for two years or more with potential winning or losing, and then the Vote Day comes and the story’s next chapter starts. We may even give the story’s centrality a break for a year or so and then we start up all over again. But make no mistake, the American story is increasingly statism. We are in Locke’s trap. More significantly, statism entails an inherent belief, either explicit or implicit, in the state. It is a belief that solutions to our biggest problems are found in the state and the Christian’s responsibility from the Left or the Right is to get involved and acquire political power. Statism as I am using it here is the idol of making a human the world’s true ruler. Statism exalts humans and human plans and voting. Statism centers its faith in the future on who rules in D.C.. Statism makes government a god. Statism is a secular eschatology and soteriology.[5] No one, of course, says this or even admits it but our lives betray our words.

Statism is the story many tell; it’s the story even more indwell; it’s the only narrative some 24-7 TV news shows tell, and 24-7 TV and news and social media make statism omnipresent. Statism has become America’s narrative. Don’t make the mistake of accusing others of the statism narrative: it’s as much the story of Conservatives and Republicans as Progressives and Democrats, or Social Democrats, as well as of the hold-out Independents. The Tea Party that loved to pat itself on the back for small government was just as deeply committed to statism. Put more bluntly, the vitriol spewed today about President Trump is the vitriol of those who want control, who would then generate vitriol from the other side if control switched. Public vitriol demonstrates statism. Here’s how one can see the statism at work in the so-called prophetic criticisms of our day: If someone offers a criticism of the current administration it inevitably comes off as support for the other side of the political spectrum. When it is one or the other it is statism. Is there an alternative?

Those who think the CT editorial meant support for the other party are statists. Those who think it meant support for their party are statists. Neither was the case. It was a moral judgment.

Our political narrative is not the Bible’s narrative, but human beings are inescapably storytellers, and it is their stories that make sense of life for them. Is there an alternative? Yes, but it is dying and only pastors can resurrect the alternative.

[1] Peggy Noonan, The Time of Our Lives: Collected Writings (New York: Twelve, 2015), 199–200.

[2] On which still to be read is Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000).

[3] An important set of studies here are by Randall Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America (New York: Basic Books, 2007); Randall Balmer, God in the White House: A History. How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

[4] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1931); H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001); Francis A. Schaeffer, How Then Shall We Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005); David T. Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003); David R. Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Craig G. Bartholomew, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

[5] There is a movement, mostly in the USA, called dominion theology or dominionists or Christian Reconstructionism or Theonomy, which takes its cues from folks like R.J. Rushdoony or David Barton or Gary North and others, that believes in influentialism to the degree that it is striving for America as a Christian state.