The United States of America has shifted from an emphasis on market power (neoliberal capitalism)1 toward authoritarianism.2 With ever increasing frequency the state, while claiming democratic power, wields the sword against its own citizens in order to protect and secure capital. Though not yet a full-blown fascist state, the U.S. is toying with violent xenophobia and racism, natural consequences of a resurgence in the state-protection of wealth. One need only to look at recent uses of militarized power against protestor this summer, which alone racked up over five hundred cases of police brutality. Whistleblower accounts of I.C.E. preforming forced hysterectomies on migrant women have yet to awaken us to the result of allowing xenophobia to direct policy. Dissenting ideologies are marked as treasonous to the nation’s moneyed interests, evidenced by the Trump administration’s incessant decrying of Critical Race Theory. On the whole, the white Evangelical church (nearly 80% of white Evangelicals support Trump and his policies) promotes these forces, consistently reinforcing the status-quo.
The problem is much larger than the likes of Donald Trump, whose role, at its core, is to spark in the white Evangelical base, an explicit fetishization of authoritarian modes of power—a fetish that is a disordered distortion of the Christ they proclaim (Lk. 4:1-13). Trump stands as the fulfillment of a lineage of market and military power politics supported by the Evangelical Right, his forefathers being the likes of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bush Sr. and Jr. The rise of dominionist theology in the 70’s serves as a key point of reason for their support. If white Evangelicalism “wins” (as far as that word is worth much) via the militaristic tendencies of Donald Trump, they seal a victory in their fantastical “culture war.” From this perspective, they believe that God will essentially be materialized as an arm of the state; as a result, those who find themselves at the margins of the United States will be buried under the name of Jesus Christ.
These trends have exposed white Evangelicalism’s deep-seated desire for authoritarian leadership; in turn, this has exposed its chief identity crisis—simply put, these believers do not know which god they worship.
Neither do the so-called “progressive” white Christians who designate themselves as the antithesis of white Evangelicalism. The result is that American Christians are not aware of the reasons behind their propensity to support authoritarian figures, let alone why the others oppose them. This confusion is precisely the identity problem I mentioned. American Christians largely worship a vision of god who himself is an authoritarian force, a monolithic and unmovable oneness. It is not enough to appeal to the teachings of Christ in order to convince white Evangelicals of the immoral nature of these policies (as is apparent with the likes of Jerry Falwell Jr. and Eric Metaxas, who publicly declare that said teachings have no weight in political reality). What is needed is a re-identification of who the Christian God is. Who exactly is the Christian God for us today in the context of these authoritarian movements?
The Christian proclamation centers on the person of Jesus Christ. This has the potential, however, to fall into the same identity trap; it is easy to imagine, for example, “Christian” riot police agreeing to this basic proposition of the centering of Christ while carrying out various types of brutalization. Additionally, white liberalism in Christian circles too claims the centrality of Christ while often upholding neoliberal policies and militaristic protection of wealth (Obama administration’s use of drones, the racialized policies of the Clinton administration). Yet, the specific content of this proclamation reveals that God has decided – from eternity – to stand with humanity through His incarnation in the God-man Jesus Christ.3 Christ is the point of reconciliation of humanity, a free decision made out of self-giving love. This takes place within the very triune life of God. Christ the Son is both the elected one and the elector—He is at once human and divine. As human, Jesus stands before God as a free subject, the true human, and as the objective side of God’s decision He represents the divine turning toward humanity. Jesus reconciles all things to Himself (Col. 1:15-20), proclaims the liberation of the oppressed (Lk. 4:16-30) and overcomes the forces of the world in all their vain, pompous trappings (Jn. 16:25-35). In Christ the world’s reality is reconciled with God’s reality—there is only a single reality.4 Injustice and evil, present as they are in these authoritarian moments, are revealed to be acts of unreality—failures to accept the invitation to participate in God’s own life at best, violent denials of God’s life for humanity at worst. Christ’s own existence as flesh precludes two temptations that govern modern U.S. Evangelicalism: disengagement with the world (which denies Christ’s reconciliation) and the desire to coerce the world through “culture war” (the replacement of Christ’s self-giving work for the world with bare power).
In the context of this authoritarian moment, Evangelicals proclaim a starkly different Christ. It seems that the present political failure reveals that not only have they lost sight of the content of Christ, but they have also effectively replaced Him with a monolithic deity that employs brutality to maintain the appetite of lesser deities such as mammon (Matt. 6:4).5 Because God has chosen to love in freedom, in particular to be for us in Jesus Christ, all of history must be filtered through that reality. We can say that Christ’s existence opposes any conception of God that holds up authoritarian models because God acts on behalf of the “other” in His own life. His rule is “neither a barracks or prison, but the home of those who even, with and by Him, are free.”6
In Christ we see who God really is. An Evangelical objection to the anti- authoritarian (and by proxy, an anti-Trumpian) proposal I am offering might claim that I have neglected to speak of God beyond Jesus. Of course, the objection itself is a bit puzzling, given that Jesus is the fullness of God in flesh (Col. 1:1-20); the sight of Him, after all, reveals the true character of the Father (Jn. 14). The objection, however, is not without rhetorical force, and in the consciousness of many Christians (in the U.S., Brazil, etc.) it grounds the bifurcation of God’s general relation to authoritarianism (or even authority) and Christ’s specific role in being for the “Other.” To this I claim that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has a definite character, or for our purposes, a definite politic. The Triune God— known in the relations as Father, Son, and Spirit—is constituted by the relationships between persons (hypostases). Perichoresis (or interrelatedness) posits mutual, processional self-giving within God’s own life. If Christ has reconciled the two realities (God’s own Triune life and the world), the proclamation of the Triune God—as revealed in the Incarnation– is a full-fledged denial of the possibility that the authoritarian impulse can exist in the heart of the Christian body.
God’s Triune life should inform the Christian political life. Rather than supporting unbridled coercion of citizens, participating in the life of the Trinity should prevent the Evangelical’s temptation to equate militaristic protection of wealth with God’s character. Our human participation in God’s life via the Incarnation means the outright opposition to economic systems of exploitation, structures of white supremacy, and the use of violent subjugation. Thus, the white Evangelical predicament is an issue of identity— these believers are unable to proclaim this God with the same tongue that gives license to authoritarianism. Which God will they choose?
I must confess I am not optimistic that they (or we) will choose the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Whatever is against the flourishing of creation and whatever exploits or coerces human life is against the Triune God both in His Incarnation and His own immanent life. What a task! How dark the odds!
The cognitive affirmation of these realities is not enough. We must be formed by them. Now the task for Christians who have chosen to live in participation with the Triune God is full commitment to opposing the ex-carnational forces of authoritarianism in all its expressions, particularly, ones that use Christianity as a mere veneer. Only if we are able to see the person[s] before us (both those in the margins and those who empower authoritarianism) as ways of encountering the living God revealed in Jesus Christ can there be any semblance of hope. We must ask “who is Christ for us today?” To learn the praxis of the God who is for us—this is our only way forward.
- David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014).
- Karl Barth, The Church Dogmatics, ed. Bromiley, Geoffrey William & Torrance, Thomas Forsyth, trans. Bromiley, Geoffrey William, J. C. Campbell, Iain Wilson, J. Strathearn McNab, Harold Knight, R. A. Stewart, vol. CD Volume II/2, 14 vols. (Hendrickson Publishers, n.d.).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Ilse Tödt et al., trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Dougles W. Stott, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).
- Adam Kotsko, Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).
- Barth, CD II/2,312.