Popes, Protestants, Power and Politics

The Christian faith and politics have been strange bedfellows throughout history, but this nexus has never been as notable as with the Catholic Church, and most recently, modern-day conservative Christians.

Throughout history, the church’s role in society has been predicated on matters of faith or power; adversarial or accommodation; a dichotomy between itself and politics, or a nexus.

Jonathan Merritt gives a spot-on indictment of modern-day evangelicals when he states: “The power core of the evangelical movement is now not only intoxicated by political power, it’s driven by political power and making decisions based on how they get the most access to power.”

In this quote by Merritt, we are provided an example where faith has accommodated the political in exchange for access to power and influence.

In the book: “The Benedict Option”, author Rod Dreher writes: “…support for (President) Trump has hurt the integrity of those on the Christian right who maintain support for a man whose shady business practices, abuse of women, boastful arrogance, tolerance of racists, and disregard for the truth are condemned by Christian teaching.”

An upcoming post will explore the historical consequences when the influence of the church has been lost in society.  I believe Jonathan Merritt and Rod Dreher demonstrate how those groups that profess to Christian teachings, but are seen as hypocrites by an ever-increasing hostile society, play a role in the erosion of that influence.

Another example can be found in the 16th century account of Pope Leo X, who was known for accelerating the rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica by selling indulgences to the unwary faithful.  This was a vexing symptom of a church embroiled in politics and corruption, and served as the catalyst for Luther’s Protestant Reformation.

Although reformers had many complaints about the Catholic Church of the 16th century, the practice of selling “indulgences” raised the most opposition. An indulgence was a payment to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment (penance) for some types of sins.  The customers for indulgences were Catholic believers who feared that if one of their sins went unnoticed or unconfessed, they would spend extra time in purgatory before reaching heaven or worse, wind up in hell for failing to repent.”  –   Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2012).

The papacy of Leo X was characterized by nepotism and spiritual deprivation in high places.  His power was strengthened by his political alliances with Emperor Maximilian I of Germany, King Ferdinand V of Spain, and King Henry VIII of England.

Are you beginning to see parallels here?

These are but two examples where power and politics form an unholy alliance with the Christian faith.

One last example, and the most prolific, occurred during the very genesis of Christianity – that being the alliance between the Pharisees and the Roman Empire.

In exchange for their support of Roman occupation, this religious sect of priests was given the authority to be rulers and judges in their own right – thus erasing the line between church and state and resulting in the crucifixion of Jesus, whom the Pharisees perceived as a threat to their authority and the lavish lifestyles that accompanied it.

Contrast these examples of accommodating the political for power and influence, with that of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who having experienced Hitler’s totalitarianism as a young student, saw the relationship between the church and state during that time as being adversarial, positing that the Christian faith should limit its obedience to the state *for the sake of the liberty of obeying God.

Today’s church and para-church principals who would accommodate the political for influence and power, should learn from the lessons of the past, and return to feeding Christ’s sheep…

just as he commanded.

*partial quotation by Pope Francis in the forward to “Faith and Politics” – a book to be released later this year, containing select writings of Pope Benedict XVI, and sure to be a good read.