There’s a new “Reclaiming Jesus” declaration from some Protestant voices that’ll culminate with a May 24 rally in Washington, D.C. Signers include the Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop and Jim Wallis, among others. It’s mostly a protest against Trump era rhetoric, and doubtless a thoughtful critique could be useful. Unfortunately this declaration mostly defaults to conventional verbiage long common to Mainline Protestant elites & the Evangelical Left.
Its most provocative charge is a “heresy” allegation. Here’s that paragraph:
THEREFORE, WE REJECT “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. While we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal. We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources, toward genuine global development that brings human flourishing for all of God’s children. Serving our own communities is essential, but the global connections between us are undeniable. Global poverty, environmental damage, violent conflict, weapons of mass destruction, and deadly diseases in some places ultimately affect all places, and we need wise political leadership to deal with each of these.
Should political stances, even if believed to be bad, be deemed “heresy” by church leaders? Historically heresy in an attack from within the church on the church’s understanding of God’s core identity. Arius was heretical for claiming Christ was created rather than eternal. But in theology there’s a distinction between heresy and false teaching.
Claiming Christ’s miracle of the fishes and loaves was merely about the crowd generously sharing with each other is the latter, not the former. The liberal sexuality views of some signers to this declaration can be called false but probably not heretical. Not every false doctrine is heretical. Not every sin or wickedness is heretical, though heresy may breed them. Lying, stealing and murdering of course are sins. But they aren’t of themselves theological heresies, as the church understands them.
Christian doctrine doesn’t provide direct dogmatic guidance in most of temporal politics. The church can offer broad principles for a good society but should be reluctant to demand specific policies that are subject to prudential judgment, not dogma. Helping the poor and outcast is a Christian principle. The best state policies in pursuit of this task are matters of debate about which Christians can disagree.
Denouncing a temporal political agenda as heresy has almost no warrant in Christian teaching. “America first” is an approach to foreign policy, immigration, and trade, but it makes no specific theological claims, as my Anglican friend Doug LeBlanc notes. Christian critics of policies associated with “America first” are welcome to the debate. But Christians and especially church officers, like the Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop, should be loath to oppose or embrace particular American political causes as definitely Christian or anti-Christian, much less heretical.
It’s dangerous to accuse political opponents of heresy. To do so implies there can be no debate, that they are evil, and they do not merit a voice in society. Church leaders are at their best not when they stridently embrace partisan causes but when they advocate the common good in which differences are robustly and fairly debated.
Politics are not for crusades led by church prelates. Allegations of heresy only polarize and weaponize politics. The Protestants behind the “Reclaiming Jesus” declaration should temper their rhetoric and their ambitions. And maybe they should focus on doctrinal fidelity within their own ecclesial communities. Churches faithful to Christian teaching will better advocate a truly good society.