The timing of the recent papal visit to the United States could not have been better. The bitter, divisive rhetoric of election year politics was, if only for a brief time, drowned out by the message of hope and peace offered by Pope Benedict XVI, a message void of politics and firmly centered on faith. Yet, it did not take long for those who seek a fusion of politics and faith to distort the Holy Father's message so as to serve the cause of justifying a theology that blends the kingdoms of this world (government, economic prosperity, military power) with the Kingdom promised to us in the next world.
History has shown us that politics and religion are a volatile mix. Pope Benedict XVI wrote of the dangers of integrating religion and politics in his compelling portrait of Jesus entitled Jesus of Nazareth. He warns that "the temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power." He goes on to describe this hijacking of the faith by those seeking worldly power as a long term danger to the integrity of the Church and the message of Jesus: "The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus' Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century."
It is interesting that this description of the dangers of theocracy is a part of a larger work in which Pope Benedict XVI seeks to help us rediscover the historical Jesus by rescuing Him from the sanitized and repackaged modern version that has been thrust upon us by scholars, theologians and televangelists who are driven by an agenda that wrongly centers on power in this world. The Jesus who walked the earth among us at a particular place and time in human history, preaching a gospel of compassion, humility, peace and kindness to others, has been largely forgotten. The Jesus who ministered to the poor and marginalized, who challenged the hypocrisy of those in power, who rejected the political role that many of his followers desired Him to seize, has been expediently set aside in this culture that yearns for a more convenient Jesus, one who endorses our prosperity and our politics and condemns those who do not share our beliefs, culture or lifestyle.
How far removed is this modern version of Jesus from the true Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict XVI writes about? Go to the web site of the Christian Broadcasting Network and you will find Pat Robertson's Financial Success Booklet, which sums up the basic tenets of his theology of prosperity with the following: "It would be terrible to think that our loving heavenly Father gave the wealth and beauty of the world to estranged sinners and insisted His own people live impoverished and offensive lives." Or read the wide variety of literature offered by James Dobson and Focus on the Family that creates a Jesus who came to seek out, isolate and rehabilitate homosexuals, including The Bible and Homosexuality, Responding to Gay Theology and Coming Out of Homosexuality. Or read the works of the late Dr. D. James Kennedy, founder of the Coral Ridge Ministries, who, by turning the Prince of Peace into a politician, created an army of "vice regents of God" whose duty is to "reclaim America for Christ" and "exercise godly dominion...over every aspect of life."
So how do Catholics and other Christians in the United States rescue the real Jesus of Nazareth that Pope Benedict XVI writes about from those who have turned Him into a front man for their particular political, social or economic agendas? We can first and foremost heed the words of Pope Benedict XVI and reject the notion that the Kingdom of Jesus can be identified with any political enterprise found in this world. Secondly, we can reacquaint ourselves with the historical Jesus by reading and reflecting upon what the Gospels tell us about Him. We can pay particular attention to His message of compassion, humility, kindness, peace and unconditional love. We can also note how, despite the pleas of His followers, He left the politics to Caesar and instead focused His ministry on the poor and marginalized (think less Pat Robertson and more Mother Teresa). Finally, instead of wasting time and energy on proclaiming that we are a Christian nation, we should instead carry the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth with us into the voting booth and make sure we have a government that ensures we continually act like a Christian nation.
Dan D. Schinzel, Ed.D.
Founding member of Catholic Democrats of Nebraska.