Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Are Evangelicals Devotees of a New Imperial Cult?

            It was not uncommon in the ancient world for rulers to be deified. In the case of the Roman empire deceased emperors were often elevated to divine status and temples built in their honor. Cities, particularly in the east, would vie for the right to promote a cult of the emperor as a way of currying favor in Rome and bringing in revenue. Eventually residents of the Roman Empire would be required to make offerings to the “genius” or spirit of the living emperor. Most people in the Roman world saw this as a political act, rather like standing for the national anthem, and were outraged that Christians refused to perform what they considered an ordinary civic duty. In John’s Revelation he describes a beast (some scholars think he is alluding to Nero) who had recovered from a fatal wound: “The beast is given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies” (Rev. 13:5). The Beast comes to dominate the world and moves against God’s people. A bit later John describes another beast who encourages the inhabitants of the earth to worship the first beast: “It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the first beast. . . . It also forced people, great and small . . . to receive a mark on their right hands and their foreheads, so they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark” (Rev. 13:14,16). Some scholars think this second beast is an allusion to the imperial priesthood who promoted the cult of the emperor and the mark an allusion to the requirement that citizens participate in the imperial cult in order to do business in Roman cities. John did not see this as a “civic duty” but nothing short of idolatry.
            Let me hasten to say that I do not think John’s Revelation is “prediction” in the normal sense of the term. I do not believe that Revelation 13 is referring to a “beast” yet to come who will dominate the entire world. I rather think that Revelation is a prophetic reflection on the threat of the Roman Empire to the emerging church and the dangers of compromise with its seductive power. Its enduring significance is that it speaks to the threat the state has always represented for the church (and always will). The state will consistently offer its power to the church only at the price of the church’s integrity and faithfulness to God--as the last 1500 years of church history has made abundantly clear. John’s Revelation continues to be powerful, not because it is predicting the future, but because it is interpreting the present. And this brings me to Donald Trump.
            Evangelicals famously voted for Donald Trump in droves. And they have continued to support him regardless of his frequent violations of the law and common decency. It doesn’t seem to matter to many, if not most, Evangelicals that he lies constantly, cheated on his wives, paid off his sexual partners, posts cruel tweets, and in general is the poster boy for what Paul calls “the acts of the sinful nature”—sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy (see Galatians 5:19,20). I can recall the sonorous condemnations of Bill Clinton for his sexual misbehaviors back in the 90s by many of the very same people who are today continuing in their enthusiasm for Trump.  So, why is this? I would suggest that a considerable portion of the Evangelical world has always been a cult of America. Christianity in the Evangelical world has frequently been identified with “American values”. Many of the American values touted by American Evangelicals would be shared by most Americans, even other American Christians. But Evangelicals often include values that appear to have little or nothing to do with Christian faith per se. It is not clear that support for market capitalism and a strong military, opposition to welfare programs and fears of big government are particularly Christian. These values, which are certainly debatable by reasonable people, are often accompanied by values that clearly are not Christian: nativism, racism and misogyny—to name a few. In short, today’s Evangelicalism is a form of religious nationalism, where is it not always clear where the nationalism ends and the religion begins. 
In Donald Trump these Evangelicals have found their president—their “dream president”, as Jerry Falwell, Jr. put it. Many have noted that Trump’s following resembles a cult. I would suggest it resembles nothing so much as the imperial cult—a cult that has seduced a large swath of the Evangelical world. Falwell, Franklin Graham, and all the others are now the new high priests of the cult of Trump. In order to sustain their bigoted forms of nationalism, in order to indulge their fears of the “other” (Muslims, immigrants, women, gays and lesbians, “liberals”, etc.), in order have access to the so-called halls of power, they will evidently compromise their faith and integrity to sustain the beast’s approval.  In one of his letters to the seven churches John has the risen Christ say to the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Constantine did Christianity no favor. Our subsequent and persistent
    identification with empire have deeply compromised the faith.


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