Heaven is our home. Pilgrims. Strangers. Citizens of the kingdom of God.
The Scriptures are riddled with axioms on Christian citizenship. In the gospel of John, Jesus says that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). He implores us to not only be aware that His kingdom is of heaven, but to actively “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). Through Jesus’ mediating work on the cross, we who were once separated from God are now “no longer strangers and foreigners but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God” (Eph. 2:19). Simply put: our citizenship is in heaven.
Considering this reality, is it possible for Christians to be good earthly citizens? Since our identity is meant to be found in Him, are both allegiances contradictory?
To some, these questions make Christian citizenship an oxymoron–an incongruous figure of speech wrought in the imagination of those who haphazardly marry their two loves. In an early critique of Christian citizenship, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract opposes the notion that Christianity can produce good citizens. He argues that because of its believers’ heavenly commitments, Christianity and civil society can never be unified in their direction. According to him, “this religion, having no special relation to the body politic… so far from binding the citizens’ hearts to the state…detaches them from that and from all earthly things” (p 71). Thus, while Christians may do their civic duty, they are simply too inattentive to earthly matters to maintain the patriotism necessary for societal growth.
For Rousseau, Christianity’s shortcomings lie in the very notion of “the kingdom of God.” Its emphasis on a spiritual kingdom, he contends, dilutes the power of the state. It seeks to bind believers into a community cutting across all identities, including national ones (p 71). This in effect creates a weak, dualistic religion–one that produces apathy, encourages suffering, and splits allegiances. To Rousseau, both the destruction and prosperity of the state matter not to the Christian (p 70-73). They idolize the spiritual to the neglect of the physical, compelling the Christian to choose one at the expense of the other.
What is the solution to this dilemma? Rousseau suggests that an all-encompassing nationalism, or civil religion, should replace Christianity so that “there’s a purely civil profession of faith, the content of which should be fixed by the sovereign–as social sentiments that are needed for to be a good citizen” (p 72). Since Christians desire to primarily serve an ultimate Being, a utilitarian formulation of “religion” may conform their interests to the state. By merging religion with national identity, “the Kingdom” may harmoniously coexist with a loyalty to the state’s prosperity.
I wish one could say that Rousseau’s civil religion failed to become a reality, but this would be a lie. It is with heartfelt grief that I acknowledge its infiltration into American Christianity. From “God and country” worship services to the blatant sacrilege of declaring Trump as “God’s anointed,” every manifestation of “Christian Nationalism” is idolatrous. It politicizes the Christian faith to the distortion of gospel.
Examples from recent events are further evidence of how deeply politicized Christianity has become. During the Jericho March, speaker Eric Metaxas equated Americans in doubt of election fraud with the Germans who were ignorant of what Hitler “was preparing to do.” Is Christ evident within such an accusation? Notably, around 14,000 tweets calling to “Hang Mike Pence” trended on Twitter after the Capitol riot. Is it cultivating an agape love that spans across all identities, commitments, and cultures to condone such language as simply locker-room talk?
Christian Nationalism equates political success with God’s favor–unraveling the entire point of Christianity’s inclusiveness. Chapter after chapter, the Gospel is given to all nations (Gen. 12:3, Ps. 72:11, Matt 24:14). If the primary purpose of Christianity is to transform men and women from every rebellious nation, tribe, and tongue into holy brothers and sisters, there can be no theological justification for this ideology. We have only one Savior–our hope is not found in any politician, party, or policy. The impulse of Christian leaders, pastors, and laymen to prophesy political figures as “appointed” by God is not only deeply troubling: it is heretical and corrosive to Christianity.
While Rousseau’s idea of a civil religion originated from his trepidation about apathetic Christianity, the inverse–zealous Christianity–has also proven to be deceitful. However, there is still hope. In returning to the lost soul of Christian citizenship, we can take our reverence for Christ and boldly participate in the world without falling into apathy.
In The City of God, Augustine addressed the substance of Rousseau’s very accusations. During his time, Christianity was indicted for leading the Roman Empire to its demise (book III). Many claimed that the abandonment of Roman state religion and the pursuit of a new God made Rome, “the Eternal City”, a temporary construct. In response, Augustine points out that the Roman gods were truly the ones that created discord within the “Eternal City.” Their lack of virtue, incitation of sexual immorality, covetousness, murder, and other unrepentant sins (1 Cor. 6:9-10, Mark 7:21-23) contributed to a climate where it was only inevitable for people to engage in morally bankrupt behavior. Augustine contended that it was this moral decay, not Christianity, that led to the fall of Rome. The concepts of “the city of God” and “the city of Man” illuminated his historical context. Augustine believed Christianity did not undermine government, but instead placed the intersection between the two cities in perspective. If Rome was prosperous, it was because of the will of God. If Rome fell, it was also because of the will of God (Book IV, 7; James 4:13).
Contrary to Rousseau, Augustine argued that rightly ordered love did not create a dualistic, cheap, or spiteful faith. Instead, it accomplished the reverse. Rightly ordered love means that the Christian can love their state, neighbor, and even political party while recognizing that God is sovereign over them all. One does not need to idolize their nation to be a good earthly citizen (Book I, 36).
This holistic view of the two cities should be a comfort to the Christian. Instead of weakening the state with indifferent, fruitless apathy, Christianity strengthens it by pursuing a heavenly kingdom of harmony and order. A biblically consistent life does not conflate the heavenly city with the earthly; it views the earth within its proper context. Religious motivation should balance political issues by grounding them firmly in Scriptural truths–those that bond believers and non-believers alike across time, space, and class. Hope in Christ both in life and death calls us to be fearless in our proclamations and bold in our faith.
For Augustine, the Christian citizen is not an oxymoron–it is an imperative (book II, 19, 143). Instead of strictly fragmenting our allegiances, as Rousseau contends, Christianity anchors the demands on the believer’s life. It is a dual commitment that does not sever us in half, but simply yields two distinct spheres we can dedicate to the kingdom of God. Christians must realize that the integration of faith and life is integral to preserving their identity. At the same time, however, the Christian should also avoid conflating the “city of God” with political magistrates, earthly identities, or social movements. No political leader, country, ideology, or policy is inherently salvific; none can replace our Savior.
Yes, there can be Christian citizens. Yes, politics and faith do come alongside one another. Knowing these truths, it is imperative that our roles within the public sphere exhibit “the reason for the hope that is in us.” If Christians can confidently demonstrate this fundamental commitment, we may with candor and courage resolvedly say: “I too belong at the table.”
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.