Speech

Political Celebrities Won’t Save the Church

For people of faith, compelling leaders are not the primary unit of social or political change.
“The big marketing problem for you protestants and evangelicals is that you don’t have a person you can point to. The Catholics have the Pope. Who do you have?”

Defining Terms
Many of the terms we use when we discuss faith, politics and culture have a range of meanings. At points in this article, the author may use the following familiar terms in specific ways:

Evangelical
Someone who believes in the historicity of Jesus, the reliability of the Judeo-Christian canon, the need for personal conversion, and the truth of his eventual return.

Politics (“Life of the many.”)
The systems, practices and institutions we use to structure our relationships to greater numbers of people than we could know personally.

I was a very new Christian when a mentor in the faith recounted a friend posing that question to him. It’s a question that could only be asked by someone outside of the church—any cursory exposure to American evangelicalism should leave believers convinced that evangelicals have too many figureheads, not too few.

This is especially true when it comes to figuring out how our ancient faith transforms the way we navigate modern politics. People of good faith can still disagree about the best relationship between an individual’s convictions and the shape of public policy, or about the best strategies for pursuing shared principles. No matter where you land on the political spectrum, no matter which American sub-culture you’re part of, no matter what your greatest fears or frustrations are, there are Christian leaders and Christian institutions ready to champion your favorite political goals in ways that will leave you feeling satisfied and validated.

Most of these leaders are sincere in their faith and operating out of good intentions, and I’m grateful for their work. They see pressing problems, they have a vision for how the promises of Christ can move a Christian’s heart to address those problems, and they want the church to be seen following Christ into that struggle. But this approach will always have two fundamental shortcomings: First, our faith is not meant to be led by an individual; second, attempts to frame the Christian vision through public policy will always leave the church appearing subordinate to other interests and personally irrelevant.

CELEBRITY: THE BASIC UNIT OF AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE

American public life is dominated by celebrities. Ideas don’t take root in politics unless they can be tied to a charismatic individual (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin, Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez). The worthiest of causes don’t gain national attention without high-profile spokespeople hosting benefit concerts or representing them in red-carpet interviews.

It’s natural and good to find people in the church who have been equipped by God to dive deeply into particular questions and help explain the dynamics of those questions to others. This is part of what it means to be one body with many parts. But when it comes to contentious issues of national politics, taking our lead on what our faith means for our politics from the example of someone known for his or her commitment to a particular political goal often results in us scoffing at those who are committed to other goals, even good ones!

But Christians aren’t permitted to find validation in the humans we rally behind.

The church was warned very early on against taking pride in our own faith or denigrating the faith of brothers and sisters based on which teachers we sat under. While this caution was laid out explicitly in the New Testament, it is also entirely consistent with the Old Testament, in which God chastised Israel for wanting “a king like all the other nations.”

At a time when spiritual powers didn’t dare claim authority beyond particular tribes, national borders, or spheres of influence, Israel was singled out as the people whose God made all the heavens and the earth. When other nations had to bow and scrape for the approval of their local gods or else suffer the consequences, Israel was promised a total and unrelenting faithfulness from their almighty Lord. Yet this special relationship wasn’t enough for them. All their neighbors had human figureheads to rally behind, and it was too easy for Israel to slip into conformity with that model. They demanded a king.

God doesn’t want the identity of his people to rest on one of their own, but after the desert and the judges, Israel wanted exactly that, and so do most people—even Christians, and even today.

But the organizing principle of our surrounding world’s public life is not meant to be the organizing principle of public life in the church. Celebrity culture is an idolatry. When Christians believe that we can heal our country’s politics by raising up Christian political celebrities, we are being cruel to those emerging leaders, confusing to our neighbors and possibly even heretical in our faith.

The Cruelty of Political Celebrity

At the heart of evangelical Christianity lies a fundamental belief: Our attempts to define, sustain and/or validate ourselves will never be sufficient. Christians need Jesus because even our best works are shot through with vanity and self-interest, or proceed from moral blind spots we have no way of accounting for, let alone correcting for.

If we believe people can’t sustain themselves, that the identity of even one person is too much for any of us to shoulder reliably, then it is cruel of us to position any person to sustain an entire community or movement.

Christ was in very nature God. He was born for the work of taking responsibility for others, equipped for it by the Holy Spirit, and diligently prepared for it for decades before finally assuming it at Golgotha. And even with all of those resources and all of that preparation, he still felt crushed by it. Bearing responsibility for the identity and validity of others put the strongest, healthiest, most cosmically powerful person to ever live through such emotional turmoil that blood from ruptured vessels was leaking out through his pores as he begged to get out of it. What right do we have to put anything resembling that pressure on any of the broken, flailing, drowning people he was gearing himself up to dive in and save?

The Confusion of Political Celebrity

Because our culture has conditioned us to understand so much of public life through the lens of celebrity leadership, rallying behind Christian celebrities ties the meaning of our faith to the identity of a few prominent individuals, which muddies the waters in some very real ways:

First, there are Christian political activists across the political spectrum, working on a range of issues, conducting themselves in a range of ways. Many of us look at the landscape of Christian political celebrities and wish that the ones whose politics more closely reflect our own had bigger followings and broader influence. But working to elevate one of them above the others, or working to introduce a new one whose approach we like better, won’t make the other ones go away, or make their supporters less enthusiastic. It’s just introducing one more signal into the noise. Introducing another point of view can be a worthy goal all on its own, but it’s irrelevant if our goal is to make the culture of our politics healthier.

Original image from: https://xkcd.com/927/

Second, not all people get along with one another. Not all people like the same things for the same reasons. The same qualities in a public figure that may be charming to some of our neighbors might be off-putting to others. If we point to a Christian pundit, official or activists and say, “This person is expressing what Christianity really means,” and then our neighbors look at that person and see someone behaving in ways that are confusing or alienating to them, then we’ve turned the personality of someone our neighbors will never meet into a barrier obscuring their vision of God’s gospel.

Third, public figures are limited. Everyone stumbles—all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Staking a cultural movement on the public authority of an individual only works until that individual’s humanity becomes visible in a moment of weakness or failure. Seasons change, and people are typically equipped by God for specific works at specific times. Being seen by non-Christians to declare that a certain political leader is “the prophetic voice our country needs” is only persuasive if the national conversation never moves on from issues that person is especially comfortable discussing.

It’s not a matter of “what if.” It’s a matter of “when and where.”

The Heresy of Political Celebrity

Our national political discourse is typically consumed by either the simplest or the most universal questions about how to order American society, but to be an effective Christian is to make God’s promises real and tangible to people in the messy, complicated specifics of their lives. 

Christianity is not a platonic faith—we don’t believe that our faith is about pursuing an imaginary ideal. And it’s not a dualistic faith—we aren’t called to shun the physical world for the sake of some kind of separate spiritual world. Instead, scripture tells us that Christianity is an incarnate faith. The Bible is the story of God saving the world by intervening in the physical, the local and the specific. He calls (and sometimes carries) his people into specific places, embeds them among people and in cities with their own local cultures. Then he commissions his people to embody his coming renewal and restoration in ways their neighbors and surrounding culture can see, hear, touch and understand. 

As a people, Christians don’t believe there is a perfect, timeless, impersonal expression of the Christian faith—we follow a God who saved the world by making himself known to broken people in their most personal and intimate moments of crisis. God’s work in this world was dependent on Abraham’s marital struggles, Joseph’s sibling rivalries, Esther’s political risk-taking. And these people weren’t just means to a bigger end. God didn’t work in the minutiae of their lives so that he could use them as stepping stones to something bigger and better. He used them to bring Jesus into the world, so that Jesus could affirm the friendships of a leper, help a sick woman stop bleeding, put a tax collector at ease with his conscience, bring a Samaritan woman to peace with her five broken marriages. 

Christians believe that the gospel is more than just good news for the world in a general sense—we believe that it if it’s not also good news for every person, then it’s not the real gospel. Pointing to Christians who are talking about national politics as exemplars of the faith risks making a dynamic and personal relationship with Christ look like a simplistic and impersonal set of talking points or action items.

God Gave Us a Figurehead

The biggest danger of transposing American political celebrity culture into the church is that celebrity culture expresses a longing God has already fulfilled.

God warned Israel against conforming to the patterns of the world by establishing a king. But when Israel demanded that God appoint a King for them to rally behind so that they could have the same kind of figurehead as the surrounding nations, God turned them over to the desires of their hearts. It didn’t go well.

Being human, their kings were always broken and imperfect in their leadership. Even their best king, the “man after God’s own heart,” repeatedly let them down in major ways. This inconsistent leadership was sometimes bad for the country as an institution: Mistakes in policy, statecraft and military strategy eventually broke the country apart and scattered its people into foreign empires as captive exiles. It was also bad for the people themselves: It was easier for Israelites to slip into prolonged seasons of idolatry and spiritual malfeasance when they had a king leading the way.

But, of course, God may have turned the people over to the desire of their hearts, but he didn’t abandon them to those desires. Instead, he entered into the story to redeem those desires through Christ.

By bringing Christ into the world through the line of kings, God effectively told Israel (and all of humanity), “I know you long for a person among you but above you, who you can look at for inspiration and guidance, but that’s a heavier burden than you realize. None of you can do it. So, I’m going to give you someone who can, and he’s going to be better than you’d want for yourself. And I know you’re looking to this family lineage for that desire to be fulfilled, so that’s where I’m going to put that person, so that there’s no chance you’ll miss him.”

Looking to Christian political celebrities the way the world looks to other political celebrities does those Christians a dis-service by asking them as individuals to do something Christ has already claimed for himself. Humans were meant to stake our hearts and our identities and the coherence of our communities on God himself, but that was broken in the fall. Since then, we have looked to kings, champions, teachers, leaders and celebrities to provide ordering logic for our hearts and lives, but they’ve all fallen short. Eventually, God brought Christ into the world to be given that place in our hearts and minds, but he ascended into Heaven and won’t descend again until he comes bringing his Kingdom.

So what are we supposed to do in the mean time? Are we meant to operate with that position empty, on the promise it will be filled one day? Or did God provide us with anything to fill that role in the “already” so that we can live differently until the “not yet?”

Our Figurehead Has a Vehicle for Leadership

As best I can tell, he did provide us with something to fill that role between now and Christ’s return. And what he provided us is actually pretty radical: Local gatherings of Jesus’ followers, operating as his body in his name until he returns.

Jesus said that where two or more are gathered, there he would be, also. Not, “Where one good leader or preacher or champion is, there you should flock to learn how to act like me.” (In fact, the final book in the canon specifically warns Christians against flocking to lone individuals who position themselves as trustworthy barometers of spiritual truth and practice.) And this wasn’t a one-time proclamation—it’s borne out throughout the language and strategy of the New Testament. The word we translate as “church” literally means “gathering.” When Paul wrote the letter to the church in Colossae, for example, he was not sending a letter to whomever happened to be worshipping at the most influential church in the city that week—he was addressing encouragement to all of the city’s “gathered believers.” And when he said that anyone who is in Christ is part of a new person, and called believers “members of Christ’s body,” he wasn’t reminding them that they’re on the mailing list for a voluntary organization. He was emphasizing for them that the community of faith is the vehicle Christ has chosen through which he will exercise his presence and make his influence felt—the gathered believers are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, literally Christ present and at work in their towns.

The role we offered kings and leaders in our hearts is the role Jesus came to fulfill, so it’s the role his church—the gathered expressions of his body that only exists when his people are together—is meant to play until he returns.

I’m not saying that celebrities are individual Power Rangers while the church is a spiritual MegaZord, because that would be silly. But if the analogy is helpful, who am I to withhold it from you?

How Churches Change Politics

Local Christian communities, rather than even the noblest national figures, are meant to be the basic unit of influence and witness for the church—but when it comes to politics, it’s a different kind of influence. Christ’s influence on our politics seeks to redeem, not dominate. Our local churches don’t heal our politics by taking sides in the relentless, divisive partisan battles. They heal our politics by healing the hearts of the body politic—the people whose character shapes the character of our political parties and our governing institutions.

Almost every community in the country is politically diverse, and the divide between political opponents in this country is deep and real. Rallying behind celebrities encourages us to view one another as enemies, but local churches are places where natural enemies learn to bow together before a common King. They are the places where we experience dying to ourselves, seeing our old lives crucified with Christ right alongside people who don’t share our politics—and where we experience new life, being raised from the dead alongside them, as well.

Local Christian communities encourage their members to love God deeply and to take his calling in our lives seriously. Those callings include the responsibility of participatory government, which he’s entrusted us with by deliberately placing us in this time and place. Christians should take that responsibility as seriously as any other calling we discern, and in the process develop a reputation among our neighbors for reliability.

Local churches can also teach citizens about our neighbors’ specific needs in ways that national celebrities cannot. Our local churches, being gatherings of many different people each crafted deliberately by God to love and serve people in different ways, have the human resources necessary to offer more consistent comfort and healing than any individual celebrity can. Individuals get tired sometimes, but many hands make light labor. Who is better equipped to learn about the needs facing a neighborhood or town than the people commissioned by God to pour themselves out for the comfort of their grieving neighbors? There’s no path to healthier national politics that doesn’t start with healthier citizens, healthier communities and healthier states. But national political celebrities can’t change the culture of local politics. Local church communities can.

THE CHOICE BEFORE US

Christians can engage the public square the way the world engages the public square. We can focus exclusively on the simplest moral questions or the broadest national issues, find charismatic individual Christians dedicated to tackling those questions, and throw our support behind them. If we did that, those key political celebrities would build their brands and extend their platforms—and sometimes even advance their agendas. But our victories would be lowest-common-denominator, and our vision would never adequately honor the needs of the people and communities God places us among day-by-day.

Alternatively, we can engage the public square with a different set of strategies and priorities. We can think about Christ’s influence being extended in ways that are always initially local, undeniably specific, and primarily through the presence of his gathered body.

Do we want Christianity to be seen as just another interest group raising up pundits and activists that are just as divisive as every other political figure? Or do we want Christian churches to be seen as the lynchpins of healthy public life in every neighborhood where they are found?

Many of us cringe when Christian public leaders speak or behave in ways that seem at odds with the promises of God’s good news. When we elevate Christian celebrities, we set our neighbors up to look at those cringe-worthy moments and assume that it invalidates our faith. I don’t want my neighbors to write off my King because they don’t connect with a particular national leader, or because someone I’m a fan of falls out of favor. I’d rather my neighbors look at stumbling national leaders and say, “That person might be failing, but they’re nothing like the Christians I actually know.”

This is a massive paradigm shift. But it’s also something we can more easily do, because building vibrant local Christian communities that embody our King in tangible ways is every Christian’s full-time vocation.

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Authors

  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

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