Christianity and Power

In his Newsweek cover-essay, Andrew Sullivan expresses his longing for a “simpler, purer, apolitical Christianity” and anticipates that the religion will rise from its current crisis when “when politics and doctrine and pride recede.”  I’m sympathetic to Sullivan’s vision–less so to Jefferson’s, on which he builds–but as much as I think the church would benefit from a renunciation of “the things of the world,” such as power, Sullivan’s ideal Christianity cannot exist.

As I wrote in a post below, starting at the most fundamental level, the transmission of Jesus’s “simple, pure” message necessitates the exercise of power.  According to Sullivan, “if we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be—rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was—he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.”  No, he doesn’t, not really, because there’s no getting to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be without passing through what we and others say or believe he was.  We may assume that the words ascribed to Jesus were actually his, but we have no way of knowing this. We only know of the “pure message” because a network of self-described religious authorities (i.e., those with power) wrote the words, attributed them to Jesus, and incorporated them into a sacred text–a text that has developed and changed, that has been reinterpreted and re-translated, all works of power.

If I’ve understood him correctly, Sullivan wishes to separate the “unknowable intricacies” that make up Christian theology and doctrine and that were born of power from the radical message of Jesus that calls us to renounce power, but this wish for separation presumes a false dichotomy between political Christianity and sheer, apolitical Christianity.  The latter can never exist.  Christianity needs power, so its renunciation of it cannot be absolute.  Instead, Christians need to learn, especially in our pluralistic and secular age, how to exercise religious power responsibly and virtuously and with respect for others who do not share their faith.  We’ve seen the devastating results of power exerted by Christians for their own selfish ends.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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27 Responses

  1. MikeSchilling says:

    In the US, at least, Christianity is now content to let Jews alone. (This is quite new; Key 73 was less than 40 years ago.) I’ll settle for that.

    • BlaiseP says:

      Ecch, Christianity has been condescending to Jews for quite some while now, what with all these Millenialists using the State of Israel as an eschatological variable, lookin’ for Jesus to return in Power ‘n Glory. If times have changed, the underlying idiocy has not. Cause, you know, when Jesus returns, all those poor deluded Jews are going to become Protestants, heh heh.

      • MikeSchilling says:

        I didn’t say was ecstatic, I said I’d settle 🙂

        • BlaiseP says:

          To practice Zen and the art of Jewish motorcycle maintenance, do the following:
          Get rid of the motorcycle.
          What were you thinking?

          Learn of the pine from the pine.
          Learn of the bamboo from the bamboo.
          Learn of the kugel from the kugel.

          Be aware of your body.
          Be aware of your perceptions.
          Keep in mind that not every physical sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness.

          Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
          Forget these simple things and attaining Enlightenment
          will be the least of your problems.

          The Tao has no expectations.
          The Tao demands nothing of others.
          The Tao does not speak.
          The Tao does not blame.
          The Tao does not take sides.
          The Tao is not Jewish.

          • MikeSchilling says:

            How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?

            I understand, you’re very busy. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine, I’ll sit here in the dark.

  2. DensityDuck says:

    It is always funny when someone who doesn’t know anything about Christianity other than what they see in fiction tries to explain what Christianity means. You end up with this weird parody of biblical literalism, like religion is a role-playing game and the bible is a splatbook.

    • Burt Likko says:

      To whom is this comment addressed? To Sullivan, or to Kyle? Both, I think, have spent considerable and serious time meditating upon what Christianity means to them both personally and culturally, and how Christianity relates to the world around them and the United States in particular.

      As a non-Christian, I consider myself less privileged to pronounce what Christianity is about than a Christian. “Less privileged” is different than “unqualified.”

      I also think it’s fair to use the Christians’ holy book as a source of critique or discussion — provided that the non-Christian takes seriously a meaningful and thoughtful response to such a challenge. (Ideally the exchange should be respectful, too, which does not mean that it should eschew intellectual bit on either end.) If the Christian tells me, “That needs to be understood in context,” or “That’s not something we take literally,” I’ll hear that out before responding to it. Doesn’t mean I’ll change my mind, but it does mean I’ll listen.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      A priest once told me (correctly) that I know shit about theology, but I’d say I know at least something about Christianity.

    • Kimmi says:

      Quiz Bowl Question:
      “Who was the son of G-d?”
      Quiz Bowl Response:
      “umm…. Satan?”

  3. Serena says:

    “We only know of the “pure message” because a network of self-described religious authorities (i.e., those with power) wrote the words, attributed them to Jesus, and incorporated them into a sacred text” How much power was possible pre-Constatine for the Church or was it more their authority they were perceived to have by the rest of the flock?

    Not having read Sullivan’s piece-I have been interested the past few weeks in the various atonement theories that have been developed in last 2,000 years, I wonder if Sullivan’s ideal would come to fruition if there was a consensus; specifically on moral exemplar/union with God

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I’m not sure, Serena. The New Testament narratives and letters indicate that the early church had a power structure of sorts, but we know that it didn’t yet wield political power through the secular authorities. Burton Russell, in his book on power, talks at length about priestly power, the kind of power that rests less on force and more on reverence.

  4. Tom Van Dyke says:

    I run across this a lot in my study of Protestants. “Be not political” is usually advice from the left-leaning given to those who vote GOP.

    Just a coincidence, no doubt. With a 100% correlation.

    • Patrick Cahalan says:

      Well, someone who is right-leaning who followed “be not political” would be… who? These guys? Someone who rejected which parts of the plank but voted GOP anyway?

      I certainly grant that one could be a “be not political” sort (economic conservative, socially liberal?) and still vote GOP, but that N% correlation being pretty close to 100% doesn’t surprise me much and seems to be sort of natural.

      • Tom Van Dyke says:

        I dunno who those “Republicans” are, PatC. I was actually getting into the tall weeds of evangelicalism, the best & brightest possibly the Front Porch Republic dudes, esp Prof Darryl G. Hart, quite an ace Calvinist. I was not shooting from the hip, I’d hoped you’d be able to rest assured by now.

        Perhaps you recognize this Southern California icon:

        That’s me, with the hammer behind his back. 😉

        Word up to my would-be friends, and to the uncautious.

        • Patrick Cahalan says:

          I’m not sure we’re not talking past each other, here.

          It seems to me that encoding one’s standing social beliefs is more popular on the side of the conservative than the liberal. The liberal likes to encode his lack of beliefs, or so he or she says with a straight face.

          Given this, a “be not political” stance would highly correlate with the liberal, and a “be political” would correlate pretty highly with a conservative, all religious beliefs taken into account, no?

          • Kimmi says:

            not really. Look to Islam to explain why. There they have a real belief that political power is /wrong/amoral/not “the kingdom of god on earth.” Thus being conservative is very easily seen as “don’t participate in bad things, but try and make good things happen”
            [note: I may mischaracterize in the above. ask someone who knows!]

          • BlaiseP says:

            Islam draws no distinction between religion and politics. The Shiites have tried to make some distinction, but they never got far. Muhammad the Prophet was a king on this earth and he did what kings do. He made laws and treaties, made wars, executed his enemies and his followers viewed their mission as extending the rule of Islam over everyone they conquered, in every sense of that word, following the edicts of the Qu’ran to that effect.

            From the Qu’ran, sura Al Kafh, verse 26: “Allah maketh none to share in his government.”

          • Kimmi says:

            Maybe that was seen as “secular politics”? Aka ones that aren’t ruled exclusively by Muslims? (again, another religion that sees its endgoal as having everyone be muslim — peaceably).

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            PatC, the current narrative of the Religious Right among historians is actually that evangelicals were rather apolitical up until Roe v. Wade and the social tumult of the late ’60s-early 70s. In this world but not of this world. This is the argument of the Front Porch Republic types, render unto caesar what is Caesar’s, but I think they miss the fact that in our democracy, we are all citizen-rulers. We are Caesar.

            It was the Left, the “social Gospel” [social democrat], Catholic Worker Movement, unions, etc., that were the Bible in Action in the early part of the 20th century. The evangelicals were less political, focusing on church & family.

            In the current day, I think there are plenty of religious Left/Social Gospel types: Would Jesus favor Obamacare, that kind of thing. The Religious Right is socially conservative, but let’s recall that means only preserving the existing social mores and order.

            Me, I think all Bible-in-Action courses are valid; my disagreement with the religious left is more theological than one of political philosophy. I don’t think Jesus says that, I think what used to be called “Christian charity” must be voluntary. [The atheist libertarian Murray Rothbard says charity cannot be coerced, obviously leaving the “Christian” part out.]

            But if your faith says Jesus wants universal healthcare, I’m cool with that. No sarcasm. I’m a pluralist when it comes to these things, do what your heart says you must.

          • Kolohe says:

            “It was the Left, the “social Gospel” [social democrat], Catholic Worker Movement, unions, etc., that were the Bible in Action in the early part of the 20th century. The evangelicals were less political, focusing on church & family.”

            The Progressive movement of the late 19th / early 20th century was an alliance and mismash of (what would now be considered) left wing economic views and (what would now be considered) right wing social views. Plus middle class good government third way reformist sentiment.

            Which is why the 16th-20th amendments came as a box set. And why, among others, William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Bob LaFollette would be hard to pin in a specific political party these days.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            That fits, Mr. Kohole. It’s all there in William Jennings Bryan, int it?


            William Jennings Bryan stepped off the train at Dayton in July of 1925, ready to fight for a “righteous cause.” For thirty years the Great Commoner had been a progressive force in the Democratic Party. As a congressman from Lincoln, Nebraska, his eloquent “Cross of Gold” speech won him the first of three presidential nominations. He supported women’s suffrage, championed the rights of farmers and laborers and believed passionately in majority rule.

            In 1921, when he was 61 years old, Bryan began a new campaign — to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. Many wondered if Bryan had given up his progressive ideals. Had his religious faith turned him against science, education and free speech? Few understood his reasons for opposing evolution.

            As a young man, Bryan had been open-minded about the origins of man. But over the years he became convinced that Darwin’s theory was responsible for much that was wrong with the modern world. “The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate,” Bryan said, “Evolution is the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak.” He believed that the Bible countered this merciless law with “the law of love.”

            Bryan was progressive in politics and a conservative in religion. According to biographer Lawrence Levine, “Bryan always mixed religion and politics. He couldn’t conceive of one without the other because religion to him was the basis of politics. Without religion there could be no desire to change in a positive way. Why should anyone want to do that?”

  5. Scott says:

    I am not convinced Jesus’s message was anti-power, if we define power in such a way as to cover the means necessary to carry on His message. We must be careful not to equivocate.

    Inasmuch as Christ laid claim to authority, especially on the Divine Who created humanity, let alone claimed to be that Divinity (and although it may not look that way to the average modern reader, it is fairly easy to see with some basic knowledge of the Hebrew/Jewish culture Christ and His first followers were a part of), He would by extension claim authority on what is good or bad for any of us humans; inasmuch as He chose to pass His message on to us via our fellow humans rather than hang around talking to each of us individually, He must have made some assurance that these would do so more or less correctly — correctly enough, at any rate; put the two together and it’s a simple matter of logic to conclude that the Christian claim must imply that Christians will pass down knowledge of the authoritaty on right and wrong, which would almost certainly by extension tell us some things about right and wrong (pretty much barring only the fantastical notion that what is right and wrong, good or bad for us does not matter — which would contradict every account we have of Christ, in which He attempts to make various moral corrections).

    Now, Christians must, according to their own doctrines about free will and related issues, respect that others may honestly not believe them; however, they cannot get away from their revelation containing thou shalts and thou shalt nots (to speak in simplistic language) of some sort, and they likewise cannot get away from the fact that if their revelation is worth anything at all those thou shalts and thou shalt nots will themselves be protected in the passing down.

    (Even Protestantism, which attempts to sidestep the human by referring only to the book, gets entangled in this; the book is merely the only manner they accept of the passing down, and much of the entanglement occurs in the hairy area of individual interpretation of this book given that there isn’t supposed to be anyone who’s more an authority to interpret it than anyone else.)

    So what is someone to make of this? If they think that no one can or should ever be able to tell anyone else what is right or wrong, then they really must reject the entire notion of Christianity. If they do not, then they cannot object to power or authority in Christianity as a rule, but must rather make the claim to have or follow some authority (even if that authority is the human intellect itself) that judges another alleged authority within Christianity to be in error.

    But then, if someone claims that it is wrong for anyone to ever tell anyone else what is wrong…

    As for politicalness, if the Church teaches something for centuries and one day the government tells the Church it is wrong, the Church is not being political for teaching it in the first place; she would be political if she up and changed her teaching based on the government, she is just being the Church if she teaches what she teaches whether the government likes it or not. I’ve never understood why raising controversy about a thing in a court of law turns it into “a political issue”, let alone why any stance taken for any reason on “a political issue” is thought by that mere fact to be reduced to being “political”. It smacks of being too bound up in the politics to conceive of anything outside of politics; which is to say it smacks of projection; which is to say it smacks of fallacious psychology.

  6. Crafty Bernardo says:

    I don’t know much about Christianity.. certainly not as much as Sullivan or Kyle Cupp…

    But I do know that Sullivan’s article was (at least to me) a powerful, well-reasoned, and thought-provoking piece of work.. and I feel this response by Kyle Cupp is an exercise in faulty, circular logic… I don’t feel it really addresses the issue at hand as much as tries to muddy the subject up in order to distract from Sullivan’s point.

    It also is entirely based on the false premise that Sullivan is saying that Christianity needs to do away with “power”… when, in my opinion, it seems to be saying the exact opposite… Sullivan’s article seems to me to be a prescription for making Christianity more powerful, not less.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I’m curious where you think my reasoning is circular. I agree with much of what Sullivan has to say in the article, and my post here shouldn’t be read as a response to the article as a whole. Perhaps I’m misreading him, but I take Sullivan to be advancing the Jesus of “practical commandments” and “radical ideas” in place of the Jesus that has historically been tied to politics and power. The problem is that we only have access to the former because of the latter. Sullivan’s “sheer Christianity” doesn’t exist. Christianity necessitates a minimum use of worldly power, which, by the way, isn’t to say that it necessitates what Sullivan calls “Christianism.” I’m totally with Sullivan in desiring a secular state marked by a separation of priestly power and the power of princes.

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    I am amazed that Sullivan can offer Jefferson as a path toward an “apolitical Christianity”. Jefferson was US president twice, and ran for the office three times. During his service as Secretary of State, he went behind Washington’s back to undermine him. So much for being “apolitical”.

    Then there is the question of “Christian”. Jefferson’s selection of what he perceived as “diamonds” in the “manure” of the New Testament apparently did not affect Jefferson’s own behavior to the point of persuading him to free his slaves, or significantly improve their living conditions, or (if the DNA evidence from Jefferson’s confirmed relatives and the descendants of Sally Hemings does in fact mean that he had a liaison with her) even free his own children who were enmeshed in that system, and their mother. In his ordinary behavior, Jefferson was largely not more Christian than any of his contemporaries in the plantation class of his day.

  8. Bethany says:

    I read a few responses throughout this commentary, and I have a very simplistic response myself. To some of those who self-proclaimed having knowledge of Christianity, I am not here to discount what you may already know, but I can tell you just by reading your responses, you have much more to learn about Christianity. I have been on both sides of the fence as far as faith goes, athiest as well as my current and permanent status as a devout Christian. In order to make a correct statement regarding any portion of scripture you need to actually study it…actually engage yourself in the reading of the word, take notes, and translate it into its original language; you can do so with a Strongs Concordance. I’m a little confused on why this topic even brings up so much discussion: power or no power, apolitical or not? Jesus is power, he is every kind of power that is good and Holy, and righteous. Nothing is made that he did not make and allow, for the father’s master plan. He was here before the foundation of the Earth. As a Christian who studies the Holy word of God daily, and thourough studies as i have described, I do not pick through the Bible according to what seems convienient to what my own corrupted human will feels, like the majority of Christian denominational doctrines, nor do i “not take literally” certain portions of scripture; thus I feel confident that i could answer any question that you may ask. And for any other questions, everyone who sees this should visit the link i have made available, which is a link to the church i am member of. The key is the translation of scripture to original text, and knowing that the Old Testament tabernacle is a picture (foretelling) of Jesus Christ and his stature that he attained, that we must also mirror.

    ” Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him , and given him a name which is above every name :

    Phl 2:10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow , of [things] in heaven , and [things] in earth , and [things] under the earth ;

    Phl 2:11 And [that] every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ [is] Lord , to the glory of God the Father .