While recently watching a mini-series on the famed English monarch, King Henry VIII, it was impossible not to notice the continuing thread of intermingled power, religion and corruption.
While historical fiction allowed for great liberties with the storylines, the cultural context of the decade-old series was unmistakable. And readings of more informed accounts of the reign provided even clearer understandings of these dynamics at play.
Henry’s reign was largely one of using pliable religious convictions to do as one pleases and to enforce complete control by subjugating (or eliminating) those who might threaten his power.
The resulting conflict and corruption were often aided by power-seeking (or, at least, head protecting) religious leaders quick to bend a knee and grant their will (along with assurances of God’s blessings) to an earthly lord.
Such soul selling — often masquerading as noble quests for doctrinal purity — must have seemed worth the resulting carnage and cheapening of the very humanity for whom Jesus died.
Apparently, self-preservation and placement in positions of power — as opposed to the way of Christ — could be as seductive to some as a charming court mistress.
When it comes to religion, power and corruption, some things remain unchanged — even after the passing of nearly five centuries.
Today’s “court evangelicals” — as historian John Fea of Messiah University has aptly called them — have many of the same attributes as the church leaders who enabled the lustful, obese and tyrannical monarch of 16th-century England, whose primary interest in religious matters rested on how his interests were best served.
Based on their recent grand performances on the stage of American politics, “court evangelicals” — like Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, Al Mohler, Ralph Reed, Jack Graham, Eric Metaxas and James Dobson — could have been effectively cast in the mini-series’ religious roles.
To borrow a line from the late songwriter Johnny Russell: All they had to do was “act naturally.”
Destructive alliances between political power and religious opportunism have a long and abiding history — always producing a compromised and bastardized faith. While the forms vary over time, the damaging characteristics have much in common.
Heresy hunting that leads to public head chopping and burnings at the stake may not have the same precise results today. But these American evangelical enablers clearly share responsibilities for stirred-up racial fears, advancement of provable untruths, violent and even deadly uprisings, ramped-up executions and the demonizing and abuses of families seeking refuge among us.
Such anti-life evils would not have happened as they did in recent years without the helping hands of contemporary religious leaders who granted their devotion in exchange for brighter spotlights, a few political favors and invitations to places of power.
Writing for Faith & Leadership, historian Fea noted the sad and unfaithful role of many American evangelicals — as participants, and often leaders, in “some of the nation’s darkest moments.”
Their relentless dabbling and quick defenses, despite witnessing repeated shenanigans at odds with basic Sunday School-taught morality, Fea noted, “pulled back the veil on the woeful state of evangelical political engagement and exposed a movement led by (mostly) men who have been unable to articulate a vision for how to live Christianly in a pluralistic society.”
It is that fear of pluralism — leading to the loss of cultural dominance — that drives white American evangelicals to cast aside Jesus for any slim chance of continuing social favors and privileges.
Therefore, they eagerly attach themselves to any authoritarian leader, no matter how amoral, who is willing to fight against such changes that dilute their influence.
Lessons seem particularly hard to learn when it comes to the murky merger of religious faith and practice with the danger-lurking halls and hands of power.
There are always those religious leaders willing to cast their lots with earthly overseers who will use such human devotion to exert undeserving power for the benefit of some but never for the common good.
Where one bends a knee reveals much about what resides in one’s heart — and about whom one ultimately deems to be lord.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.