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Evangelical Idol: A Christian Political Trinity

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To be an evangelical Christian in America today is, for the most part, to be a diehard Republican, maybe even a GOP activist. It is to believe, when one prays to their Heavenly Father, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," that the GOP platform brings us far closer to that Heavenly Kingdom than any other political choice.

This was not always the case. Jerry Falwell argued in the 1960s that it wasn't the Church's place to get involved in "the world," and that injustices in civil rights or poverty weren't something that called for Christians to jump into the messy political fray. Jerry Falwell argued in the 1980s that the Church had an overriding responsibility to shape a nation that had traditional values and a strong military. At which point was Jerry Falwell "right"?

Devoutly orthodox Christians have always worshipped at the altar of false gods, and they would claim they are no less prone to doing so than all the other fallen mortals out there. But since the Era or (Error) of Falwell, they have become increasingly brazen about championing those idols publicly and politically.

As a former long-time evangelical, my own observation is that a trinity of three false gods drives much of evangelical politics: Mars, Mammon and sexual purity.

The worship of Mars was on fullest display in 2004, when evangelicals worked themselves into a lather defending fellow believer George Bush's Iraq war, while insisting that a war on America's "enemies" must be prosecuted as ruthlessly as possible (even though their Lord told them that their chief job was to love and pray for their enemies, not to ban or preemptively bomb them).

The worship of Mars has been on display again as evangelicals joined the chorus of conservatives deriding President Obama's "global apology tours." Never mind that their Lord argued that he who he who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted. They reminisce fondly about Bush, who exalted his nation and imposed its will unilaterally, without apology -- the Bush who ended his term by getting shoes thrown at him by the "liberated" Iraqis and made America a laughingstock.

"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." --Matthew 6:24

For 2,000 years, Christians have taken Jesus up on that dare, but usually with some sense of shame and discretion. American Christians did so with more abandon. Stewart Davenport, in his book "Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon," delved into what he called one of the central paradoxes of American history:

Americans are and always have been some of the most voluntarily religious people in the world as well as some of the most grossly materialistic. In other words, Americans simultaneously and paradoxically subscribe to both the Christian ethic of humility and selflessness, and the American liberal-capitalist ethic of competition, success, and self-promotion. It is almost as if many Americans have gone about trying to understand themselves and their world with the Bible in one hand and John Locke in the other. Reconciling the two, however, has never been an easy task. One told them that "ye cannot serve God and mammon," while the other unabashedly encouraged them to pursue lives of material happiness.

In 2012, American evangelicals have been more daring than ever in worshipping Mammon, in proudly rationalizing the fortunes of the "job creators," and in belittling the plight of those who have less. They demonstrate an exuberance for a John Galt-like, "I built it myself, so don't you dare tax me or I'm going to stop building" approach to government.

The third evangelical idol is sexual purity and the notion that a pluralistic society's laws about marriage and family must be shaped by biblical notions of sexual restraint.

Here, for the first time, evangelicals can claim to have the Bible on their side. But this still becomes a false god by their own definition, when evangelicals who previously shunned the fellowship of Catholics and Mormons make common cause with them, simply because of their agreement on these matters.

An inconsistency is revealed: Why do so many evangelicals expect "worldly" society to accept their strict views on sexuality, while evangelicals so happily accept this worldly society's biblically prohibited love for money?

Let me be clear: Social-justice Christians too can take a biblical value, like caring for the poor, and make a false god of it. They often establish such a divine "preference for the poor" that they overlook real-world realities and complexities about how best to encourage social productivity.

Yet here's the key: Most social-justice Christians tend not to be evangelical in the end. To be evangelical is to commit one's life and one's fortune and one's reputation to the view that there is a coming Kingdom that is infinitely higher than the fallen, worldly kingdom. At its essence, it reflects something closer to Jerry Falwell's view in the 1960s, that earthly politics and Godly matters don't mix, or will mix poorly.

The irony is that the earlier incarnation of Falwell was "right" -- in the sense that his beliefs had an internal logic and consistency. Today, evangelical Christians seek naively to balance the cross, the sword and the flag -- and inevitably someone or something gets hurt. Lately, it is evangelicalism itself that has been hurt.