As American politics has become more polarized, American Christians have followed suit. On the left, many progressive Christians embrace socialist ideas and semi-revolutionary tactics as the most effective means of achieving social justice. On the right, post-liberals of nationalist and integralist leanings call into question free-market capitalism and the pluralistic political project, both of which might be considered fundamental to American governance.
These progressive and post-liberal conservative movements appear diametrically opposed. But whether they realize it or not, I believe they are both manifestations of a Christianity that is excessively preoccupied with the material world. They do not deny the existence of the soul or the possibility of life after death. Nevertheless, both groups tend to view the physical realities of this world as more important than the spiritual.
Those on the left generally emphasize that Christ came to free humanity from evil and suffering in all its forms. Adopting the terminology of liberation theology, they may speak of God as having a “preference for the poor,” meaning that He is more present in places of need and want than in places of wealth and self-satisfaction. They believe Christians have a divine mission to minister to the poor and work against systems of oppression. All this most Christians agree on. For thousands of years, the Church has taught that God cares about the material world and how humans interact with it.
But at the same time, and with similar consistency, the Church has taught the priority of the spiritual over the material. Augustine writes in the City of God that “human life … is happy through hope in a future world.” He says we must remember that for the time being we are “among evils, which we must endure patiently.” In the modern era, Oscar Romero, one of the founders of liberation theology, refers to “injustices and abuses” as the result of sin, and he writes that it is primarily the latter that “God comes to free us from.” Critics of liberation theology in its extreme forms point out that material suffering is important yet still only one part of a larger problem, at the crux of which is evil and death in men and women’s souls.
In contrast, progressive Christians tend to prioritize material over spiritual want, if not always in theory then in practice. For them, the Christian mission is so intimately connected with the plight of the physically poor and oppressed that saving people from sin and inner darkness takes on the status of a distraction, or even irrelevancy. This is especially true for progressive Christians influenced by Marx. For instance, liberation theologians in the vein of Paolo Freire (one of the fathers of modern critical theory as well as a self-described Christian) dethrone charity as the chief virtue and replace it with justice. As such, they see power––especially political power––as all-important, because it is the most effective tool for establishing worldly justice.
Those on the far right reach similar conclusions, though for different reasons. Instead of connecting the Christian mission with the alleviation of suffering, conservatives tend to connect it with the establishment of a holy kingdom or civilization on Earth. They care not so much that society is just as that it is good. The well being of individual citizens is less important than the nation’s embrace of Truth, which is often conflated with democracy, free markets, or “family values.” By subscribing to this vision of politics, conservatives are tapping into a long theological tradition, stretching back to the Old Testament, in which God is shown to judge political communities when their citizens violate moral laws and reward them when their citizens are pure.
Today’s post-liberal conservatives, particularly Christian nationalists and integralists, take the traditional conservative line of thought a few steps further. They fault American liberalism for dissociating normative claims about right and wrong from the public square. They claim that complete neutrality in government is logically impossible, and that attempting to achieve it only creates a vacuum easily filled by moral relativist and utilitarian philosophies. It is then believed that the state’s patriotic duty is to embrace a particular vision of the human good––orthodox Christianity––and promulgate it throughout society.
Christian nationalists and integralists have some compelling arguments. But just like their counterparts on the far left, they tend toward a power-centric Christianity that is all too earthly in its orientation. A state-sponsored vision of the good might indeed be beneficial for citizens’ souls. However, post-liberal conservatives often appear more concerned with politics than they are with spirituality. Their passion seems to be for the American way of life and Western civilization as an end in itself, not as a means oriented toward the Kingdom of God. In short, their understanding of Christian public engagement focuses on achieving the right political outcomes. This is in contrast to a more traditional Augustinian view of politics in which faithfulness is valued over effectiveness.
The image of God’s reign brought down to earth in physical form is and always has been an attractive image. In fact, it is this image that Satan uses as his final temptation of Jesus in the desert. Pope Benedict XVI meditates on this Gospel story in his masterwork, Jesus of Nazareth. Benedict writes that by denying Satan’s offer, Jesus “declares that the concept of the Messiah … means not worldly power, but the Cross, and the radically different community that comes into being through the Cross.” In other words, the Kingdom of God is immanent as well as transcendent, but its immanence is manifested in faith, not in political systems. Believers should of course engage in the world around them, but they should ultimately be motivated by love, not a desire for control. According to Benedict, ambition for the “Christian empire or the secular power of the [Church]” and “the proclamation of universal prosperity as the real goal of … Christianity” are one and the same. They both involve a prioritization of the material over the spiritual and should therefore be repudiated by the believer (42–43).
Following Christ means working for the good of others in tangible, physical ways. It also means devotion to one’s country in the pursuit of communal holiness. But at its core, it is about dying to one’s self for love of God and neighbor. A Christianity that is excessively preoccupied with the material world, whether originating in progressivism or conservatism, is at odds with this mission because self-sacrifice is not a winning strategy in any earthly sense. Nevertheless, it is through self-sacrifice that the Kingdom of God is made manifest in this life. As such, it is toward that end––not temporary political gains––that Christian public engagement should be directed.