American politics is fundamentally unserious about Christianity

Twice this week my Twitter feed has been roiled over basic, long-established aspects of the world’s largest religion. Both controversies were instructive glimpses into the status of faith in American culture and the fundamentally unserious engagement with Christianity we too often see in American politics.

The first round happened Monday, when North Carolina Representative-elect Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old Republican, gave an interview to Jewish Insider in which he said he’s attempted to convert people to Christianity. Already teed up by Cawthorn’s callow election night victory tweet, the outrage from the left was swift, and much of it focused specifically on Cawthorn’s evangelism.

The objection was not that his efforts, per his own description, sound painfully awkward and ignorant, but that he would dare to proselytize at all. Cawthorn “has admitted he tried to convert Jews and Muslims to Christianity,” The Daily Beast reported, its verbal selection (“admitted”) suggesting witnessing to one’s faith is something shameful, deserving of a reluctance Cawthorn didn’t display. The Twitter skirmishes I browsed described proselytization as inherently disrespectful, harassing, antisemitic, invalidating, and mean.

A day later, the scene of the battle shifted. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted out a brief video of Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock preaching.

This juxtaposition caught my eye. The partisan roles swap, but in each case outrage centered on extremely old and (within the church) uncontroversial aspects of Christianity, the religion to which most Americans still claim to adhere.

Cawthorn’s personal style of evangelism — which appears to be a talking-to-strangers model many Christians, like me, literally never contemplate — doesn’t seem terribly winsome. But evangelism is not a strange thing for Christians. The final command Jesus gave in the Gospel of Matthew was for his followers to expand their ranks, and from the Christian perspective, trying to convert people is grounded in love. If you accept foundational Christian beliefs about God and humanity, declining to share your faith isn’t respectful but negligent, apathetic, and cruel.

The message of undivided allegiance Warnock gave is equally ordinary for Christians. “You can’t serve God and the military,” he said, as Rubio quoted. Then he continued: “You can’t serve God and money. You cannot serve God and mammon at the same time. America, choose ye this day whom you will serve.”

With this full context, it’s obvious — as I’m sure Rubio, a Catholic, knows perfectly well — Warnock is quoting from Jesus’s best-known teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, and a famous Old Testament story. It is a common practice of Christian instruction to replace “money,” the original alternative Jesus gave to serving God, with anything that could compete for loyalty and love we owe to God alone. The point is not to prohibit things like the military or money (to make that case you’d need other biblical support) but to insist that God gets ultimate priority in the Christian life, no matter the cost.

Subbing in “the military” is hardly unique to Warnock, and not necessarily an endorsement of Christian pacifism, though that too would be nothing strange. As Rubio undoubtedly is aware, “radical” Christian nonviolence predates the Democratic Party and its donors by about 17 centuries and has often coincided with the most dedicated and beautiful expressions of our faith. While Cawthorn’s critics outside the church are wary of Christian witness, Rubio chose to score political points by bearing false witness against his fellow Christians.

As certain as I am that Rubio’s bad-faith critique of Warnock is explained entirely by partisan hackery (Warnock’s runoff race will help decide the Senate majority), the thinking of other players in these dramas is less clear to me. It’s difficult to parse what is pure partisanship and what is sincere ignorance of Christianity, even among people who consider themselves Christians. How many of those who piled on Cawthorn for his proselytization (I’m distinguishing between that and his other words and alleged deeds) or Warnock for his sermon would seize any chance to punch across the aisle, and how many are confronting something they truly find unfamiliar and unethical?

I’ve written here and elsewhere on the growing distance between religious and nonreligious Americans, such that we are increasingly discomfited by public encounters with religions not our own and increasingly unable to communicate across ir/religious lines. The baseline knowledge of Christianity that could have precluded both these controversies is no longer a given in American culture. Recent survey data shows about a third of the country is truly secular — not raised religious and later deconverted, but entirely foreign to any organized faith. Another third is only nominally religious, engaged with their faith at a level that could allow them, say, to sustain at once Christian self-identification and ignorance of Christ’s parting words or most influential sermon.

The misunderstanding, whether willful or innocent, between those two groups and the actively religious final third of Americans make vignettes like these with Cawthorn and Warnock unavoidable in our public life. If we can’t escape them, we should at least use them to better understand how our fellow citizens think.

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