I confess that most of my religious-political life has been an entangled hot mess. Growing up in a conservative, Christian, affluent, middle-class family, allegiance to the Republican party seemed dead-set enough to be listed as the fourth step on an ABC Gospel tract (Admit you are a sinner, Believe Jesus Christ is Lord, Confess your faith in Christ, and Donate to the GOP).
I was so certain all of my God-fearing friends were Republicans that when my family went to a Bush rally held in Moody Coliseum at SMU, I grabbed a handful of Bush/Cheney bumper stickers to give to my friends at church the next day. As I merrily passed them out in Sunday School, a member of our posse screeched “ICK! Get that thing away from me!” You would have thought I had just witnessed this friend get drunk, smoke pot, reach third base with her boyfriend, and (gasp) dance all in one breath. “You’re a Democrat?! But how?! Don’t you love Jesus??”
Thankfully, life grows one up a bit between the tender age of twelve and the less-tender age of thirty, but it still to this day remains one of my more cringe-worthy albeit formative moments.
When American Christians have conversed about politics, it traditionally has taken a “believers needing to enforce faithful practice on the unbelievers” approach. Growing up in my conservative context, it meant that we, the conservative Christians, had to vote for and implement policies that would promote our more conservative ideals nationwide, whether other citizens held those same ideals or not.
It was somewhat of a holy war of principle rather than of physical arms. Our president needed to look like us, talk like us, consult our pastors, and hold the same ideals we held. Our president needed to lead the nation not only in policy but in faith. Essentially, we needed to know that he had Jesus on speed-dial. We looked to the president to be our shepherd and to protect our fragile way of life. If these things were not met, we felt invalidated, ignored, or worse, persecuted.
In reflecting on what has been an incredibly exhausting and excruciating election cycle, the worn-out idea that we need our leader to essentially look like an “Evangelical, American Jesus” is something that needs evaluation. As a pastor it feels odd to say this, but I don’t need the president to be a professing Christian. I don’t really need the president to be white, or upper-middle class, or religious at all. What I need from a national leader is decorum, the ability to lead sensibly and respectfully, a desire to bring people together across party lines, a keen intellect that is always seeking to learn from others and from their own mistakes, and a desire to protect and advance the rights of all citizens (especially the marginalized who have limited voice), which, funny enough, is very Christ-like.
When I think about this more fully, I am reminded of a sermon preached by Lillian Daniel at the North Carolina Preaching Festival in 2015. Daniel read the well-trod Gospel allegory of the shepherd and the sheep from John and then brilliantly pointed out to the room full of pastors, “I wonder how many of you when you heard this immediately assumed you were the shepherd?” (Guilty.)
As Christians, our shepherd is Christ. It is his voice that we listen to and follow. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” It is his mind that we seek to emulate. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” It is his grace and compassion that we seek to impart to the world. “Neither do I condemn you.”
To use a line from my childhood: “our allegiance is to Christ.” Unlike my childhood, however, I am okay with that sentiment being devoid of bald eagles, confetti cannons, and cheesy paintings of the Founding Fathers praying over the Declaration of Independence with Jesus standing benevolently in the background. (Besides, Jesus was never that fond of empire in the first place.)
With this kind of allegiance comes the responsibility to grow in humility, to love our fellow humans and to treat them with respect, to be good stewards of the environment and our natural resources, and to create spheres of grace and peace in our communities and in our world. We are not called to hang all of our hopes and dreams on one person, or a group of people, or a “single issue” or policy. We ourselves are called to create peace and act justly, not because a politician or pastor said so, but because Christ said so.