Suppose the devil took evangelicals to the top of a mountain and showed them all the political systems of the United States—state legislatures, the U.S. Congress, the Supreme Court, the presidency. Suppose the devil said, “All this I will give you, if you will bow down to me.” Would evangelicals take the deal?
The gospels report that Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, was tempted by the devil. The devil took Jesus to a high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and offered to give them to Jesus if he would bow down and worship the devil. Jesus refused, quoting from the book of Deuteronomy: “For it is written,” he said, “ ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ” (Matthew 4:10, NIV; the story is also told in the gospel of Luke, 4:1-13).
Presented with a similar (if watered down) bargain, (white) evangelical Christian leaders in the 1980s took the deal. Offered political power in exchange for their votes, they signed on. Offered photo ops in the Oval Office, they accepted with handshakes and smiles. Many evangelical leaders in successive generations followed suit. Both the Republican party and evangelical Christianity were irrevocably changed.
Dividing their loyalty between their faith and their political party has made many evangelicals look less like Jesus and more like politicians. It led to the near worship of a political leader, a man known for lies, thinly disguised racism, and a determination to cling to power. It led to Christian nationalism. It led to the participation of evangelicals in storming the capitol to prevent certification of a national election. It has prompted many young people, brought up as evangelicals, to shed the label “evangelical” and some to leave Christian faith.
Why did Jesus refuse the bargain? Why did evangelicals accept it? Jesus rejected the option to use the well-known methods by which the power is gained and exerted in the kingdoms of the world. These methods—deception, exploitation, coercion, oppression, violence, war—amount to worship of the “ruler of this world.” Their characteristics were on full display in the Roman empire that ruled the land of Palestine at the time. Use of these methods entails bowing down to the devil.
Instead, Jesus offered distinctly counter-intuitive alternatives:
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Love your enemies, do good to those who revile you.
The rulers of this world Lord it over…. It shall not be so with you.
Jesus chose instead to build his kingdom, the kingdom of God, by upside-down methods. He chose to serve, to suffer, to forgive. His methods led to his death—and to resurrection and new creation!
When Jesus called his disciples to follow him he called them to follow the methods he taught. Time and again we see Jesus’s early followers turning away from worldly methods of power to follow Jesus. The Apostle Paul, for example, reminds the church that “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (II Cor 10:4).
The temptation to worldly power runs as a scarlet thread through church history. Under Constantine, who claimed to conquer in the sign of the cross, Christianity became the favored religion. Christianity as a state religion—“Christendom”—persisted for centuries. Christianity mixed with political power resulted in the Crusades, great wealth in the official church, religious wars, and subjugation of Africa and the Americas (under the Doctrine of Discovery). The result brought disrepute on the cause of Christ and caused untold damage.
Yes, of course, much good was also done in the name of the church throughout those years. Hospitals were built, schools were established, orphans were cared for. But imagine what could have been if the church had followed the methods of Jesus.
Ironically, many evangelicals—those now seeking political power—come from traditions that rejected a state church, a church allied with political power. Think of the Puritan rejection of the church of England. Or the pietist movement. Or Baptists. Or Anabaptists—the tradition that continues today in Mennonite churches. Given their origin in movements that mistrusted state-allied religion, evangelicals ought to be deeply suspicious of the call to political power.
Yet, when the bargain was on the table, many took it. Perhaps they thought they could shape the policies of elected officials for the good. But that’s not the way the deal works. The deal is: you must bow down and worship, and as many have pointed out, we become like what we worship. The Psalmist says, “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:8). Evangelicals have themselves been reshaped by the political power they wanted to shape.
What is the path back? It must begin with sorrow and repentance. It requires renewal of the church so that the body of Christ, Jesus’s representatives on earth, live as people who really believe: who believe in the Sermon on the Mount, who believe in loving enemies, who believe in yoking up with Jesus, who believe in the cross. That is the way Jesus showed us, and it leads to resurrection!