The Corner

Politics & Policy

Bringing Protest Politics to a Sanctuary Near You

Your neighborhood church might seem like the wrong place for a political demonstration, but one Christian writer believes that greater politicization is just what “imperialist” houses of worship need. In an article for Sojourners titled “Take the Politics of Disruption to Church,” Mark Van Steenwyk argues that left-wing parishioners should attempt hostile takeovers of local churches on the grounds that “Christian supremacy has been the justification for the deepest of our national sins.”

In Van Steenwyk’s understanding, the election of Donald Trump constitutes a clarion call to all true Christians to finally “take an ax to the root” of America’s problems: the church. “Trumpian neo-fascism is simply the latest fruit from a much older tree,” he writes. “The worst imperial impulses of the United States of America find their root in a form of Christianity that legitimizes militarism, economic exploitation, racism, and sexism.”

As a self-described “Mennonite anarchist,” Van Steenwyk thinks that “disruption” — e.g., the stopping of interstate traffic by Black Lives Matter activists — is the only way to reason with souls that are blinkered not only by conservative Christianity, but by a progressive Christianity that is not strident enough.

“Progressive Christians,” he writes, “out of a sense of politeness, unity, and respectability, have failed to challenge directly those churches that provide the theological justification that gave us Trump.” Quoting Martin Luther King Jr. on the failure of moderate Christians to stand up for civil rights, Van Steenwyk reasons that protesting in the streets is not enough (nor, presumably, is voting, running for office, or the other forms of civic engagement that go unmentioned). Instead, this is his command: “Raise our angry voices in the pews as well as the streets.”

I don’t mean that figuratively. . . . 

I literally mean we should disrupt our churches. Just as Black Lives Matter has employed a politics of disruption to raise the national alarm about racist policing. Just as the water protectors at Standing Rock have created a human barrier against pipeline construction. So too, should we disrupt and confound any and every congregation that fuels militarism, economic exploitation, sexism, racism, Islamophobia, or transphobia.

Considering his belief that essentially all American Christianity promotes the above “-isms,” Van Steenwyk’s prescription would lead to the seizing of control in almost every American church for the purpose of promoting a political vision. Moreover, it seems logical that such a call would eventually require church leaders to endorse political candidates — something that is currently prohibited under the Johnson amendment. (Ironically, Donald Trump has proposed overturning that rule, only to be met with hostility from the left.)

Van Steenwyk, like the magazine that published his article, is a vociferous yet isolated voice of leftism posing as a theological authority. Not only is his program ludicrous (there are not enough progressive Christians to conquer “any and every congregation” that disagrees with his program), it also encourages an attitude that is wrong even on a small scale.

Churches should be places where political disagreements are put into context, not magnified. Faith must be welcomed into the public square, but the two ought not be conflated. Just as conservative co-religionists should reflect before turning on those who didn’t support Trump, no church community should allow political disagreements to disrupt worship. When politics ruins sports or movies, America stands to lose the unifying power of a shared leisure activity. When politics ruins worship, our societal foundations are placed in jeopardy.

Activism of the kind Van Steenwyk champions also wrongly places politics above religion — a problem Saint Augustine’s conception of virtue as “rightly ordered love” sought to clarify. The things of this world should be loved in the way they warrant, but not loved above God, the highest good. Van Steenwyk should ruminate on that the next time he considers shouting down biblical preaching in favor of the political kind.