Getting frustrated with things in general is a normal response to much of what we see in this old world. I’m no exception, and as I told someone not long ago, "You and I should run for Congress, and we’ll solve everything once we get there."
That, of course, is not true. First, we could never be elected in today’s political environment, and secondly, we must not be naïve about the power of the establishment. I’m reminded about a not-so-obscure prophecy in the Book of Revelation the interpretation of which has been horribly skewed. Brace yourself, as I am about to give you a different understanding of this passage:
"Then the angel carried me away by the Spirit to the desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a red beast. It was covered with names against God written on it, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and red and was shining with gold, precious jewels, and pearls she was wearing. She had a golden cup in her hand, a cup filled with evil things and the uncleanness of her sexual sin. On her forehead a title was written that was secret. This is what was written: The Great Babylon, Mother of Prostitutes and of the Evil Things of the Earth." (Revelation 17:3-5 New Century Version)
Whoever this woman is, God is not impressed with her. In most quarters where this prophecy is discussed, one particular church gets beat over the head with it. That interpretation, however, is much too narrow, for the passage is addressing a larger deception than the traditional explanation allows.
Take a look at what this woman is doing. She is riding the beast, which means she was trying to control it, but as we learn later in the chapter, she doesn’t really control the beast at all. The beast is the one in control and hates the woman to the point of destroying her (17:15-16).
And therein is the source of the problem. A religious organization trying to use the political structures of this world runs the grave risk of prostituting itself to the whims of the state. History has not been kind to the illegitimate marriage of church and state that dominated Europe from the time of Constantine to the Reformation. And let us not forget that the reformation saw Protestant unholy political alliances and atrocities that, to a visitor from Mars, would look just like any other garden variety Inquisition.
Theocratic governments in the hands of man become tyranny. The church becomes corrupted and drunk on its own power, and in the end the church prostituting itself to one political movement or another causes the church to suffer.
The Founders of our nation understood history and the danger an officially state sanctioned church (which the establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits) poses to both church and state. In 1785 James Madison wrote, "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution." (Memory and Remonstrance, June 20, 1785)
In an 1822 letter to Edward Livingston, he wrote that "religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed."
Lest this essay be misunderstood, I make a distinction between "church" and God, and I also make a distinction between individual people of faith running for office vs. a specific denomination or theocratic hierarchy sitting in tribunal as happened in Europe in ages past and is happening in Iran right now. The concept is to keep two highly political structures away from each other in order to preserve the greater liberty.
One evangelical leader lamented during this election cycle that he felt the Republican Party had treated the Christian Right like a mistress. The party courted them, promised them everything, but once they got the money and the votes, the party asked them not to be an embarrassment by showing up at the ball. I don’t know if he realized how apt his metaphor is in light of Revelation 17.
Having said all of this, there is a place for religion in politics. People of faith have served faithfully in government from the time of Joseph in Egypt to the many fine public servants today. But their task is not to bring utopia to this earth. Rather, they serve to do what the Constitution says: "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."
And there is also the prophetic function of the church, to "cry aloud, spare not, and show my people their sins" (Isaiah 58:1) as would a Jeremiah or an Isaiah. But let’s not expect signs and wonders from mere human beings who too often are tempted to believe that they can solve all problems. That job belongs to Somebody else, who hasn’t yet seen fit to intervene.