Ted Cruz became the first major candidate to declare a presidential run for 2016. His formal announcement came this morning at Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world.
Cruz’s announcement at Liberty University was an important political strategy. Cruz is the poster child of the Tea Party movement. He wants to spread his influence by appealing to evangelicals. There is no better place to garner the evangelical vote than the largest Christian university on the planet.
Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post says that Cruz’s message at Liberty was essentially this, “I am one of you; I will put my religious faith at the center of this campaign.”
Cruz put his religious faith at the center of his campaign by invoking God and American exceptionalism, while at the same time critiquing Democrats and Obamacare. Liberty students cheered as Cruz passionately claimed, “God bless Liberty University…God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet. I believe in you. I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to re-ignite the promise of America.”
Cruz is the first serious candidate to officially throw his hat in the presidential ring. Because he quickly invoked God, it’s a safe bet that future Republican and Democratic candidates will also invoke the blessings of God the Almighty.
So, let’s talk God and politics.
There is a good reason that we aren’t supposed to talk about those two topics at the dinner table. It’s because of the human tendency to claim that God is on our side of the religious and political divide. And, if God is on our side, that means that God is against our enemies. In this sense, the term “God” is merely a social projection of group identity that pits us over-and-against a wicked “other.”
A God who stands with us over-and-against our religious and political enemies is no God at all. It’s an idol; a mere function of human social projection. I would rather be an atheist than believe in that God.
Fortunately, that’s not the God of the Bible. The human understanding of God in the Bible moves from being a tribal god to becoming God of the universe. This God is infinitely bigger than our rivalries of group identity; in fact, the God of the Bible is on a completely different plane than our rivalries over-and-against one another. As such, God subverts our tendency to form group identity over-and-against a wicked other. As James Alison points out in his book Undergoing God, the great Hebrew insight, made first with the prophet Isaiah, is that of monotheism. Alison claims this is important because,
…if there is a God who is not one of the gods, who is not on the same level as anything else at all, then of course it is true to say that there can be no “as opposed to” in God. Or in other words, there is no rivalry at all between God and anything that is.
That insight begins with the prophet Isaiah and culminates in the teaching of Jesus to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Jesus calls his followers to be like the one true God, who subverts the violent human inclination to form group identity in opposition to a scapegoat by modeling God’s love that embraces all people, including those we call our enemies.
But faith in God goes a step further. The Bible never, ever talks about national exceptionalism. Any politician or Christian who invokes American exceptionalism doesn’t do so from biblical faith. As opposed to national exceptionalism, biblical faith is based on national self-critique. Far from God being the one who shores up our exceptionalism, God is the one who comes in our midst and leads us to self-critique. Amos is the earliest prophetic voice in the Bible and other prophets follow his lead of critiquing the nation. Sure, as Alison states,
The first two chapters of Amos consist of a series of quick prophecies against the nations…But this is the build-up to the real criticism, which is of Israel. Where each of the nations gets a couple of verses of criticism, Israel gets ten, and then, from chapter 3 onward, the blast is entirely directed at the ‘we’ (Israel).
The prophets critiqued political institutions when they formed identity over-and-against a convenient other who functioned as the political a scapegoat. That scapegoat might have been a political opponent, another nation, immigrants, or the poor, weak, and marginalized within their society.
I do not want to scapegoat Ted Cruz for invoking the name of God, American exceptionalism, or for critiquing his political opponents. After all, Democrats will likely do the same. In fact, they are already uniting against Ted Cruz.
That’s because uniting over-and-against a wicked other has become the default mechanism of human identity formation. Fortunately, God has nothing to do with that kind of formation because God is not over-and-against anything at all. Rather, God is for us, all of us, finding new ways to develop social cohesion through the spirit of love, forgiveness, and self-criticism.