The American people are deeply divided and polarized in their political stances and choices. The divisiveness and polarization in the American political realm have also affected Christian churches and communities even though some of them have chosen not to formally address the challenges that politics raises for the people’s personal and communal lives. The relation of politics and Christian faith is a highly complex issue that deserves careful attention, since Christian faith and politics determine, to a great extent, people’s personal and collective life. As we address religion’s relation with politics, it is imperative to be cautious not to reduce or surrender the one to the other, or vice-versa. Furthermore, because of the complex nature of the relationship between religion and politics, we must resist the temptation to consider our thoughts on this matter as a final prescription for how the religious communities and the Christian churches should identify the root causes of the political challenges and choose the issues that deserve their thoughtful contribution.
In Christian circles, the Church’s witness to the world is often contrasted with her sacred otherworldly tradition. Through political actions and involvement, it is often suggested that the Church skirts from her primary sacred responsibility. She substitutes immanence for transcendence. She replaces the Gospel of love and forgiveness with social reforms, legislative change, political programs, and actions. Thus, by focusing so much on social and political matters, the churches increasingly fail in their sacred mission to unite the world with God. They become inauthentic. If such an attitude prevails, the churches consciously choose to ignore political challenges or be indifferent to violence, injustice, racism, homelessness, violations of human rights, and assaults on human dignity.
Your children have been hearing a lot about the election in their schools, in your family, among friends, online and on television. As a Christian parent, priest, or teacher, what can you say? Does God care about the election? Here are some thoughts to help shape your conversation.
The answer is yes, God cares about elections. Because elections are about people, and God cares about everything that happens to people. In an election, we choose leaders to govern and care for the people at every level of our country’s life. Jesus said that even a sparrow is not forgotten by God. If God cares for the tiniest bird, then think how he cares for every single human being. “Even the hairs of your head are numbered,” said Jesus (Matthew 10:30). That’s how extreme God’s love is for us.
In a recent piece in the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie writes:
Our society was built on the racial segmentation of personhood. Some people were full humans, guaranteed non-enslavement, secured from expropriation and given the protection of law, and some people – blacks, Natives and other nonwhites – were not. That unequal distribution of personhood was an economic reality as well. It shaped your access to employment and capital; determined whether you would be doomed to the margins of labor or given access to its elevated ranks; marked who might share in the bounty of capitalist production and who would most likely be cast out as disposable. (“Beyond ‘White Fragility’“)
These words are a vivid backdrop for reflecting on the economics of Father Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944). They provide the social parameters for appreciating the insights of one of the most profound and creative Orthodox theologians of the 20th century. While Bulgakov does not pretend to solve the problem of poverty, he offers a prophetic voice for how the Church can address, in an industrialized context, the social structures that foster it. He extends the work of previous pastor theologians who recognized that social structures perpetuate social and economic disparity.
Earlier this year, I published a short piece with Anthropology News on Coptic Christian persecution in Egypt, American power, and racism in the United States. I then received a barrage of social media criticism claiming that I overemphasized racism against Copts in the US, and in so doing eschewed focus on persecution of Copts in Egypt. Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute wrote: “While some have experienced prejudice in America, [Copts] reject the attempt to create a moral equivalence between the persecution they faced in Egypt and whatever experiences they have in America…the Coptic experience in the United States has been extraordinarily successful, with Copts reaching heights they wouldn’t have dreamt of in Egypt.” Rather than noting the racialization of Copts alongside Muslims in America, by his account, I should draw attention to the relative success of American Copts and compare it to Muslim oppression of Copts in Egypt. In this modest response, I briefly elaborate on why American Coptic life must be taken on its own terms, and how the politicization of Coptic oppression in Egypt by American religio-political actors leads to real methodological issues.
As a minority Christian community in a majority Christian nation, American Copts are enmeshed in current debates on whiteness and American Christianity—whereby evangelical responses to racism have been theologically mired in individualism and consumed in culture wars, rather than the ways that broader social forces, institutions, and culture can constrain and shape social responses to societal ills. Earlier this summer, former attorney general Jeff Sessions, described to the New York Times how he considered his support of Trump from the standpoint of his faith as an evangelical Christian, and evoked the Copts as persecuted kin who turned to a strongman (Egyptian President al-Sisi) for protection: “And that’s basically what the Christians in the United States did [when they elected Trump]. They felt they were under attack, and the strong guy [like Sisi] promised to defend them. And he has.” Likewise, an older American Coptic man recently noted to me: “Trump is a Christian, and he’s trying to keep America a Christian nation. Under Obama, it was Happy Holidays! Now, we can say Merry Christmas again. We came to the US to escape discrimination in Egypt. We don’t want to be stripped of our rights as Christians here.” Although the diaspora offers opportunities to form new solidarities, the happy convergence of otherwise divergent persecution narratives has placed American Copts into vectors of political belonging with the Christian Right seeking to preserve a white, conservative Christian America. Sometimes at the expense of those very Copts.