While it may seem that religion is more deeply involved in politics today than in past generations, in truth, politics has become a theological struggle. It is not unreasonable to see contemporary American politics as a struggle between a fully Biblical religion and one that takes it point of departure from the second century heretic Marcion of Sinope.
Historically, American civilization attempted to be fully Biblical. From the explicitly religious basis of much of colonial America (Congregationalism in New England, Anglicanism in the South), the new American nation thrived and grew with formal disestablishment of religious bodies which had a real intensity of religious life. The Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century was surely the greatest religious event in American history. America was widely considered a “Christian nation,” with no substantial objection to religious influence in public life, as long as it fell within a broad Protestant consensus. The late nineteenth century saw the appearance of a radical attack on this consensus involving Biblical criticism, the geology of Charles Lyell, and biological evolution. Along with the post-Civil War urban, industrial society this attack began the secularization of the educated classes, while the mass of Americans remained spontaneously oriented to traditional Christianity. The civil religion inaugurated at the American founding thus remained unaffected, since neither the liberalized leadership nor the populace objected to it.
The Progressive Era of the early twentieth century focused the country on social and personal well-being as an objective of government, in addition to the government’s historic and perennial role of properly maintaining public order. The expansion of this vision in the New Deal of the 1930s and (in itself) the Great Society of the 1960s did not much affect America’s religious and cultural consensus. Civil religion was still broad enough to claim the allegiance of orthodox Christians and religious liberals. But the attempt to add the sexual revolution to the American consensus, and firmly separate traditional Christianity from public life (e.g., eliminating prayer at public functions and specifically Christian symbols from public property) has left the nation with an identity crisis. It is a crisis driven by people who are at the pinnacles of culture in colleges and universities, the legal profession, and the entertainment industry (if the last category can be considered a “pinnacle”), but it remains grave, affecting the lives of millions of Americans.
Economic security and employment, race relations, medical care, education, immigration, and foreign involvements are all part of contemporary politics, but what really moves politics is a war of gospels. America’s bipartisan politics, which once focused on competition in how to best address problems using classical, Lockean/Jeffersonian liberalism, with a background of traditional Christianity providing life’s meaning, has become conflict between two parties with different gospels. One is the party of the old consensus, the other advances a liberalism altered to include a theme of liberation from traditional authority.
As mentioned above, the essence of new, rival gospel might best be described as a kind of Marcionism. The historical Marcion advanced what he thought was the true gospel of Jesus and Paul, denying that the God of Israel was the true God because of his wrath, contending that God is a deity of only love and compassion. With far greater honesty than Enlightenment liberals and their successors, Marcion saw the need of canon reduction for what he wanted to do, eliminating the entire Old Testament and a large part of the New. Only part of the Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles were included in what he claimed was the true canon. But the contemporary Marcionism of the Left must do the same thing if its advocates are to use the Bible to support their agendas of social and personal liberation. The orthodox canon is criticized as prescientific, to a considerable degree inaccurate in its truth claims, in some considerable measure inauthentic (not written by claimed authors), and ethically deficient in its descriptions of God’s actions and law. It may still contain the same documents as the precritical canon, but after anyone has accepted these criticisms, it is open to re-interpretation in light of a controlling idea of liberation, justified by the Bible’s evident concern for deliverance from oppression.
Scholars have differed on whether ancient Marcionism was a form of Gnosticism. But there was certainly a commonality between the two in strong Platonic influence, a philosophical deity markedly different from the passionate, acting God of the Old Testament, the latter of which appears instead as a “demiurge” by whom the material world was created, and Docetism (denial of a material body) with respect to Jesus Christ. Because of all this, it is easy to see the importance (and the righteousness) of spiritual reality as against material. In line with this, Marcion denied the Second Coming of Christ. Thus the creation is not to be redeemed. As for the individual, what truly matters is one’s spiritual life, not the life of the body. This well accords with the contemporary passion for finding personal identity, with self-definition put above criticism, and has been called a kind of “new Gnosticism.” The nonjudgmental God of Marcion agrees well with the self-defining self, and the self-defining self agrees well with belief in the self as a spiritual reality, independent of the body. The emphasis on spiritual reality as key in defining the self also ironically makes possible judgments (although necessarily arbitrary and subjective) about who is a person (thus destroying the equality of human beings). Finally, the “new Gnosticism” (and the closely related, if distinct Marcionism) agree with the old Progressive focus of the early twentieth century on education and self-improvement (in contrast to repentance from sin) as the way of salvation.
One aspect of ancient Marcionism might not strike the average person as characteristic of today’s social liberalism. Only the celibate were admitted to baptism, although Marcionism survived for several centuries. But perhaps today’s “progressives” are not as far along in their thinking as Marcion was. Sexual liberation has meant the destruction of the real categories of male and female – perhaps sexual pleasure will eventually be discovered to be inherently dominatory of the “other,” and thus oppressive.
But people in fact do have to acknowledge reality beyond themselves, and their wishes and desires. To have any finally firm footing, we really need basis in a reality beyond this world, and by the grace of God Christians understand that the Holy Spirit led the apostles into all the truth (Jn. 16:13). We know from Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit spoke in Scripture (Mk. 12:35-37), and thus that in Jesus’ gospel, both testaments are a true revelation from God. The Biblical God is there whether we agree with him or not. He indeed heard the cries of the Israelites in Egypt, but this was important because he was there independently of what we might want. The law he gave as a way to life does not, because of our condition as sinners, give life, but Jesus practically set aside only its ceremonial, not moral, precepts (Mk. 7:1-23).
Jesus’ ethical teachings, starting with the Sermon on the Mount, are taken by modern Marcionites as an attack on authority (religious and otherwise), and as being the true gospel of Jesus. But Jesus’ teachings do not overthrow the Old Testament moral law, nor the commands of Christ himself and the apostles. They are instead commands to piety, humility, obedience, and evangelism. The true gospel is salvation from sin and the wrath of God through Jesus death and resurrection, and requiring repentance from sin for forgiveness of sin (as the Bible defines sin) (Lk. 24:44-49).
When Biblical quotations or ideas drawn from the Bible are used to advance revolution in a “progressive” sense, whether political revolution (twentieth century) or social revolution (twenty-first), a new Marcionite gospel is being advanced, which says that salvation consists in liberation (people getting what they want). Opposition to the gospel of liberation causes “harm,” it is “hurtful,” it is “mean.” But whether people deserve what they want must depend on some standard outside themselves, and the revolutionary gospel recognizes none.
The new Marcionite gospel, when it is heard, must be challenged with the Biblical gospel of deliverance from sin. In the Bible God has compassion on penitent sinners (Lk. 18:10-14), but condemned impenitent sinners (Lk. 13:1-5). It is true that Jesus came to save the world rather than condemn it, but “condemnation” in that sense refers to a judicial sentence. It would have been ludicrous for Jesus to ask the woman taken in adultery whether she had been “condemned,” or for her to respond that no one had “condemned” her if Jesus had only meant accused or threatened. She clearly was condemned in the everyday sense the word is used. Similarly, Jesus also condemned the woman at the well for having had five husbands, living with a man who was not her husband, while he also implicitly rebuked her for not worshiping God in spirit and truth.
In the coming months and the next several years, the ever intensifying political conflict over the true gospel can be expected to reach a fever pitch. Faithful Christians can expect to hear much passion about Jesus as a friend of the oppressed (without mentioning that he said all must repent), one who called out religious authorities (without mentioning that his criticism was of their hypocrisy, not the law of God they advanced), and of God as a God of love and mercy and not severity and condemnation. We have heard it for generations – it is as old as theological liberalism itself, and the gospel of Marcion, arguably the first liberal. But it is crucial, both for the indifferent public that rarely thinks of the Bible, and for young people unfamiliar with the Biblical gospel, to hear the new Marcionite gospel challenged with the truth.Google+