Reclaiming Jesus

May 15, 2018

Politics & Heresy

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.


14 Responses to Politics & Heresy

  1. Luke says:

    Very poorly written.

    They could’ve easily said it is a heresy for Christians to claim that God has chosen any secular state to rule over the rest, and if pressed on the statement, that’s what they’d doubtlessly fall back to. But that statement would have substantially less force, seeing as Trump has never said anything like that and they’re mainly trying to score political points here.

    I don’t even particularly like the president, but I know shabby grandstanding when I see it.

  2. Lee says:

    They wrongly conflate “America first” with “white supremacy” – hence the reference to “xenophobic or ethnic nationalism.”

    Also, their religion is primarily political – so their “heresies” are also political.

  3. David F Miller says:

    In the declaration appears, “toward genuine global development that brings human flourishing for all of God’s children.” I am interested in the words ‘God’s children’. Who are the writers speaking of? All of humanity? Can that be correct? My reading of the Bible identifies ‘children of God’ as those individuals who have accepted Jesus. This is the traditional interpretation. Therefore can it be said that the writers of the Declaration are themselves heretics?

  4. Fr Weber says:

    +Curry may not be wrong when he calls Trump a heretic. He may not even be wrong that American Exceptionalism is heretical. But for him to play this particular card while ignoring the material heresy taught and believed by so many of his own clergy and laity is fatuous and transparent. He is clearly only interested in an accusation of heresy if it will score political points.

    For the record, I despise Trump and find him embarrassing. But I find the Episcopal Church’s tendency to pat itself on the back like this just as embarrassing.

  5. Vaughan Hayden says:

    I may be naive and confused, but I have believed that heresy is teaching contrary to orthodoxy which is espoused and taught by the church or church leaders. Arius was not a common person or even a political figure that was convicted of heresy, he was a church leader. As was Nestorius, and even Martin Luther.
    My naivety may be revealed in my confusion of equating President Trump with a religious or Church leader. We have declared freedom from England since 1776 and have ensured in our constitution that we do not have a state sponsored religion, therefore whatever the President (whatever the last name may be) espouses does not speak for Christianity, or any other religion. They speak their own political views, whether informed or not by religion and the attempts of any church group to grandstand against them as hereticaly only elevates the president’s power beyond what it should be. No one who understands our country would ever believe the President speaks for The Church of America, because there is no such thing. It as if they create the straw man to burn him in effigy, to prop themselves up on the ashes of their own burn pile.
    To think the President Speaks for Christianity is as ridiculous as thinking that Jim Wallis speaks for The United Methodist Church. Not a chance.

  6. John Smith says:

    Mark,
    You are correct that political differences are not normally heresy for Christians. You are wrong in mistaking the gospel as the theology of these churches. Their doctrine is: “Global poverty, environmental damage, violent conflict, weapons of mass destruction, and deadly diseases” as well as the normal laundry list of progressive causes. To them that is the heresy, the deity or resurrection of Jesus is just idle speculation that has no real impact.

  7. Lisa Policano Pearson says:

    I was very, very disappointed by this article, especially as a former employee of the IRD.

    I would much rather hang my hat with those who are reclaiming Jesus than those who support a man who has made a mockery of the teachings of Christ.

  8. Gary says:

    “There is nothing wrong with putting America first,” Robert Jeffress, a pastor at First Baptist Dallas and a prominent member of the president’s evangelical advisory board, told Fox News. “That is what a government is supposed to do. That is God’s responsibility for government. As individual Christians, yes, we put others before ourselves but government doesn’t do that. Jeffress said Curry was “sincere” in his message but also “sincerely wrong” in his understanding of what the Bible says about the role of government.

    If one is going to use the phrase “what the Bible says” then one is promoting/espousing a particular theology. Both sides of this argument quite obviously base their political ideology on their theology so we can drop the pretext that the ‘America First’ doctrine is just ‘politics’ because it is not.

  9. Gary says:

    As the article asked “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.“ To which I would answer YES, when the political stances in question are admittedly based on a theology which claims to have THE correct picture of Gods core identity.

  10. Your last twp paragraphs sound like you are talking about evangelicals, not the Reclaiming Jesus movement. Franklin Graham is just one example of evangelicals who are totally immersed in politics. And evangelicals’ failure to stand up for what they believe in (other than making abortion unavailable n and putting right-wing conservatives on the Supreme Court) is EXACTLY why we need this return to what Jesus said, how Jesus told us to live. I wonder what Jesus would say about Donald Trump and his contention he doesn’t need to ask God for forgiveness, his crass attitudes towards women, the disabled, refugees, the poor, people from other countries? We are supposed to put God first, not Donald Trump’s version of the USA.

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