Eugene Cho

“and american democracy is not my idol…”


I can’t help but keep thinking about this quote from Cornel West again and again and wonder what it means to be a follower of Christ as a citizen of a great country that is simultaneously the most powerful empire in the world.  And then wonder if the [C]hurch is more in tune to the rhythms of this Empire rather than the songs of the Gospel.

People question why I keep saying we live in a great country.  Because people like Cornel West can say this. And people like me can write and share about it. Freedom is a great thing. It’s what God intended and while we can all agree that the US is not a perfect country, we have the opportunities that many don’t  have.

Read the quote from his book, Democracy Matters. Then, read it again.  What do you think?

“I speak as a Christian- one whose commitment to democracy is very deep but whose Christian convictions are deeper. Democracy is not my faith. And American democracy is not my idol. To see the gospel of Jesus Christ bastardized by imperial Christiansand pulverized by Constantinian believers and then exploited by nihilistic elites of the American empire makes my blood boil. To be a Christian- a follower of Jesus Christ- is to love wisdom, love justice, and love freedom. This is the radical love in Christian freedom and the radical freedom in Christian love that embraces socratic questioning, prophetic witness, and tragicomic hope.

If Christians do not exemplify this love and freedom, then we side with the nihilists of the Roman empire (cowardly elite Romans and subjugated Jews) who put Jesus to a humiliating death. Instead of receiving his love in freedom as a life-enhancing gift of grace, we end up believing in the idols of the empire that nailed him to the cross. I do not want to be numbered among those who sold their souls for a mess of pottage- who surrendered their democratic Christian identity for a comfortable place at the table of the American empire while, like Lazarus, the least of these cried out and I was too intoxicated with worldly power and might to hear, beckon, and heed their cries.

To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely- to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away. This is the kind of vision and courage required to enable the renewal of prophetic, democratic Christian identity in the age of the American empire.”

Filed under: christianity, culture, Jesus, religion,

27 Responses

  1. Jake Johnson says:

    This is a great quote, but knowing a little of Cornel’s work, I wonder what he would consider the the definition of loving “wisdom”, “justice”, and “freedom”. Yes, it is important to love these things, but are they the definition of being a Chrisitan, as Cornel implies? And by what basis does he define them?

    West claims a form of Christianity (which I think really masquerades as moralism) but denies its power. My understanding is that he does not believe in the inspiration of the scriptures nor does he believe in the resurrection of Jesus as a bodily resurrection, but more as a passing on of a way to live that is ideal – a catalyst for political and social action – but not transformational. Thus he can say something like this in a conversation on religion with Bill Moyers:

    “I think in our present moment, though, it seems to me, the major challenge has to do with the sentimentalism, on one hand, which is an escape from reality, history, memory, and mortality and the flipside, which is cynicism. Which is just preoccupation with the 11th commandment, ‘Though shall not get caught.’

    And just read the business pages these days. What do we see? Gangster activity. Scandal after scandal. Stealing, stealing. Embezzlement, embezzlement. That is the back- this is the after effect of greed, indifference and fear.

    Now we – as a Christian, I know there’ll never be paradise in space and time. There’ll never be utopia in human history. The question is: do we have the kind of conviction, commitment, courage and willingness to serve to make things better the short time that we are here to pass onto our children?

    Capitalism is tamed only when those persons who are victimized, be they children or workers and others, love each other and justice enough to organize and mobilize and push capitalism into, like in the 1930s, collective bargaining rights for workers, right?

    Or the 1960s. Black folk against American terrorism, Jim Crowe. They love enough. And even our elites. Our elites are not to be demonized. Elites can make choices. They’re not locked into a category. That are connected to truth and justice. But it takes courage.” (you can see the whole interview here:

    The very hope of Christianity is that we as Christians are made new in the risen Christ and that this world will be made new as well at the time of Christ’s coming. West’s pluralistic moralism and rants against imperialism (as needed as they are) are not the answer if they are not founded on the hope of the risen Jesus and the Kingdom of God at hand.

  2. Kevin Womack says:

    Amen, and Amen!

  3. Matt says:

    “bastardized by imperial Christians and pulverized by Constantinian believers and then exploited by nihilistic elites of the American empire”

    so, who’s to say that his version of Christianity is the true Christianity? everyone does some sort of “bastardizing/pulverizing/exploiting”. Obviously, some more severe than others, but how does he know that his Chrisitianity is a Christianity of the early church? Is it? Isn’t his christianity, in some for shaped by the bastardizing/pulverizing/exploiting?
    Aren’t the doctrines that we all believe based off from theologians within these circles that he quickly castigates?

    Of course I agree that Christians shouldn’t hold onto American democracy as our God. But, those who hold onto love, freedom, justice are all shaped by the empire that we live in the present time. Rather than simply bashing it, can’t we work within it?

  4. Wow, thanks for this. Where is it from?

  5. […] “and american democracy is not my idol…” « eugene cho – view page – cached I can’t help but keep thinking about this quote from Cornel West again and again and wonder what it means to be a follower of Christ as a citizen of a great country that is simultaneously the most… (Read more)I can’t help but keep thinking about this quote from Cornel West again and again and wonder what it means to be a follower of Christ as a citizen of a great country that is simultaneously the most powerful empire in the world. (Read less) — From the page […]

  6. Eugene Cho says:


    it’s from his book, democracy matters.

  7. tom steers says:

    How often have i (you, we) prayed, “Thy Kingdom come” and really didn’t mean it? How often do Bush bashers or Obama bashers pray for those they are bashing? More prayer than bashing, or, more bashing than prayer? Pride is a very sneaky thing, eh?

  8. what.a.quote. man that’s a direct hit, very challenging but beautiful and true. cornell is such a gem.

    @ tom steers- i follow your point but please exercise caution before you label stuff “bush bashing or obama bashing.” part of seeking freedom and justice means speaking out against the abuses by (in this case) our two most recent presidents, and working for actual, real change when their policies favor the corporate class, or the medical and military industrial complexes. That is quite different from those drunk on partisanship. It’s also essential to keeping a republic free and healthy.

  9. I knew this would stir the pot Eugene…hope I add something of value here.

    Let’s be COMPLETELY honest hear, most of our Christian in America is more closely tied ot American culture than it is to Jesus. Most of us would reject the implications of what was taking place in Acts 2 and 6. We’d call it communism and say its unAmerican for us to share everything in common. We’d reject Jesus kicking out the money changers because its those people’s “right” to make a dollar as long as they aren’t hurting anyone. Most Christians ARE more in tune w/ the pulse of the culture. Most of us equate the promises God made to Israel to the promises of America. 2 Chron 7:14 wasn’t written for America but we hold our prayer services like it was. Our American global elitism has its strongest foothold in the American Church.

    The proof most American Christians are more American than Christian – many would be more upset about desparaging remarks about their country than their God. They’d more publicly defend the Constitution than the Scriptures.

  10. ryan says:

    I love what Dr. West has to say on the public / social side of my faith. He certainly addresses society and powers in the prophetic tradition. But I wrestle a bit with the questions Jake raises. Eugene, it would be interesting to hear how you process interacting with other leaders who don’t hold the same views on things like the resurrection, Christ’s deity, miracles and his future return. It makes me think of Mother Teresa’s long quote about appreciating various denominations for their various strengths, etc.

  11. Tony says:

    I think you make some great points Steve. I agree with you. Whether it be our “Americanness” or a certain political party, I am always frustrated to get into conversations with Christians who are so in bed with a political party that they cannot or will not cast a critical eye at everything said party stands for. Even when certain things are clearly not in line with Christ’s kingdom values revealed in scripture.

    Identity is a complex thing made of multiple intersecting components but we must be Christians who are also Americans rather than Americans who just so happen to be Christians too.

  12. randall says:

    There’ve been a bunch of comments about Dr. West’s theology. And while my ideas are not fully formed yet, I thought I’d respond with what I’ve been learning and thinking about lately in regards to orthodoxy.

    I believe that the lines that divide christian from non-christian doctrine can be drawn far broader (and with a far softer edge) than we (and I include myself in this) think they can be. I believe His creation tells us that God is a WILDLY creative God, delighting in diversity (he never made one kind of anything), and I can’t help but believe that His creativity extends to the way He allows himself to be seen and understood by we who are made in His image.

    Our tendency (derived from Modernism) is to define and contain but I wonder if God is at work playfully cutting through the lines we like to draw between things.

    Case in point: Matthew 21-22. During the time of Jesus’ ministry, there were at least two Jewish religious factions that confronted him – the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They both had different views about how scripture should be read. If correct doctrine was a primary concern for Jesus, he could have just said, “Pharisees, you’re right on this and this but wrong on this and that.” Likewise with the Sadducees.

    Instead, when confronted by religious leaders, he responds with open-ended questions and with parables ripe with metaphor, open to different readings.

    If there is any doctrine that Jesus is concerned with getting right it’s this: Love God and love neighbor. And on that, I think Dr. West is squarely, soundly orthodox.

  13. Rich says:

    So, explain to a simple-minded brother, all you guys: What does he mean by Christianity being “bastardized”? What is an “imperial Christian”, and what is a “Constantinian Believer”? (Speak to a 5-yr-old, people, a 5-yr-old…)

    And who does his hair? Last time I saw that kind of face, a cat stuck it’s paw in a wall-socket.

  14. Brian says:

    Matt, If you’re going to change something you have to acknowledge what’s wrong with it. Communicating the current issues is not always bashing. You have to be able to look at them honestly and critically before you can fix them, even from the inside.

    Good word, Patton. If you step outside church culture and take a critical look at it, it is pretty scary to see how in tune we are with society instead of Jesus.

    Randall, better be careful. You’ll get the baptists all worked up. (In all seriousness, I am so thankful for a creative God…)

  15. Matt says:

    He’s not communicating. he’s bashing. he just gets away with it because he’s cornel west. And that’s not an honest and critical look. it’s the easiest thing you can do. just say that everyone else is doing something wrong, and a lot of words to make what’s supposed to be right so attractive…. but missing any sound/practical advice.

    yeah. that’s old and tired to me.

  16. Chuck says:

    Cornel West is black so he must bea muslim. How pathetic is that. I agree with his quote perhaps the right wing religious republicans should pay heed. We need more socialist programs in this country such as social security, workmans comp, medicare, medicade, the 8 hour work day, and the paid vacation. All programs that would surely destroy the fabric of American life according to the right wing. It seems to me that Jesus would approve of there programs and christians would be lving their faith if the took better care of the un-empowered 98% of this country. live your faith more and society less.

  17. Chris says:

    This is the best blog post I’ve seen of any kind in a while.

    I don’t know much about Cornel West but I love his use of the term “bastardized”.

    Rich, what I think he means is that the American gospel can be linked more with the founding fathers than the Christ. A bastard is someone without a father, and since the gospel has been ripped away from it’s origins, it has since been bastardized (hope that helps, Rich, although I would never use the word bastard with a 5 year old).

    I often share in Cornel’s thoughts here, but it often leads me to lose faith in the entire structure of church in general. The only conclusion I ever come to is that Jesus never tried to run a country or even a church for that matter. He invested his life in helping many, and mentoring 12. We don’t really see a church until Acts, and then we can debate all night about what that looked like.

    In the gospels, Jesus appeared to be entirely apathetic to his government. In our current democratic structure of government that type of behavior would seem irresponsible to me. Just because my faith is in Jesus, doesn’t mean I can neglect my role in shaping the structure of our country. In the end, I think there must be some balance between being true to your faith, and also being a socially responsible, politically active person.

    Ultimately, I think Christianity was meant to be a radical religion, rather than a mainstream way of life. I also think the gospel tells us that most of us at church aren’t really “getting it” anyway, for whatever that’s worth.

  18. danderson says:

    There seems to be a strand of American Christianity increasing in popularity that believes its mission to be against everything the “Christian Right” has supported. Abortion? We really can’t determine when life begins, and we can’t push moral standards on unbelievers. Homosexuality? New research says it’s driven by genetics, and besides we don’t know where Jesus really stood on marriage. Cultural decline? Again, we can’t impose our values on others.

    But, OTOH, we certainly can make sure that values of the Democratic party become the values of our Christian faith. So, the God is not a Republican…or a Democrat mantra really means that God is not a Republican. Period. And that’s the way of people such as Cornel West or Bill Moyers. Or Jim Wallis. Meet the new bosses. Same as the old bosses.

  19. Chris says:

    @danderson, you could be right. The new bosses could be worse than the old bosses. I think it’s the whole boss mentality that’s got to go. Any time someone is trying to put together a church movement bigger than the community in front of them, I’m weary. In those situations the movement becomes more important than any of the people involved and I don’t think that’s what Jesus has in mind for us. I don’t think Jesus would rely on Cesar to fight abortion, so I don’t think we as Christians need to polorize ourselves in the political world either.

    In a sense, I’d like to say I agree with Cornel without supporting him.

  20. danderson says:

    I agree with you to a certain extent. That’s why I’m much more heartened by this blog than the God’s Politics blog, from which I found this one. Jim Wallis is now part of the power structure of American politics, in the same way he was critical of Christians who were too involved in the previous administration. If we don’t agree with Obama on health care reform — and by extension, Jim Wallis, we are wrong-headed in the same way the Christian Left has been critical of the Right on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. We can’t have it both ways. Personally, I think it’s possible to be consistently pro-life — including anti-abortion — and for traditional marriage while also being in favor of health care reform, pro-poor, etc. Unfortunately, that’s not how American politics works, and I see Cornel West as nothing more than part of the paradigm that would argue that abortion and homosexuality are not imporant issues, but fighting poverty and racism are. It’s all agenda driven, and that’s why I’m so disillusioned with the political process, but heartened that there are less political types out there — the true evangelical moderates — who are driven more by principle than by politics.

  21. lukedaniel says:

    I listened to “Jesus for President” the other day, and found that the views expressed by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw resonated strongly with me. They share the view that when the church goes to bed with the government and the power structures of this world, it begins to take on the manner and shape of those power structures. The powers begin to manipulate the religious structure to help perpetuate power and control. Anytime this happens the church suffers.
    West hits on this with his reference to Constantine and imperial Christians, but thinking about this part of his quote- “To be a Christian- a follower of Jesus Christ- is to love wisdom, love justice, and love freedom” is in my opinion the very thing that West is trying to speak against. To be a christian is to love Christ, love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. We are to love mercy, we are to leave the judging to God and his Justice. We are to turn the other cheek and stare our violent brother in the eye. We are to forsake the wisdom of this world (even if it is the socratic method, which I personally really like) for the wisdom of the cross. We are called to yoke ourselves to christ in so doing giving up freedom, while gaining the freedom of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are to pray for our enemies (not to give lip service, but to love them).
    Wisdom, Justice, and Freedom are good things. Don’t get me wrong, but they are loaded dice. I personally don’t know if there can ever be a Christian state other than the Kingdom of heaven. To strive for a “democratic Christian identity” is probably a good thing, but I feel that it distracts us from the real work of the kingdom of heaven. Someone posted earlier about movements in chruches and that the movement becomes more important than the people, i feel this is true for any movement and/or governing program. In my opinion christains should focus on loving people right outside of their door. The state will continue to exploit those not in power and maybe they will become more socialist or maybe they won’t. In the end the Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t rest on these entities, but on the shoulders of christians and the church. The church should be prophetic, the church should be moving out in love rather than sleeping with the state. Where the state fails the church should be there, no excuse, if it isn’t then it isn’t being the church.
    Anyway this is part of my process; I’d love to hear some feedback on what other people think about this.

  22. danderson says:

    What do you think about Jim Wallis and his strong connection to the Obama administration? He has always prided himself in being a prophetic voice who rises above partisan politics. Now one wonders if the proverbial chicken has come home to roost.

  23. lukedaniel says:

    I don’t really know what I think. I briefly read part of his book and found him to be very insightful. As I am trying to process my own interactions with the state it is difficult for me to form an opinion about other people’s relation with it. From the brief things that I read, and the one time I heard him speak, I feel that his heart is in the right place, but I don’t think I would follow him and work in the same way that he does. I would be saddened if I were to discover that he had been drawn into politics to the point where he was sacraficing what is good and pure for the ability to speak into power structures.
    I think that as Christians we should think about what our interaction with the state should look like. Should we consider the anabaptist position and not interact with it? or should we follow the path of Jim Wallis, Cornel West, and George Bush (Yes I lumped them together) and try to meld politics with the church?
    Should we be like the Desert Fathers who went into the desert as a statement against the union of church and state, or should we try to navigate the way of the world while trying to remain seperated from it. What does Christ call us to?

  24. Randall says:

    What about all of the above?
    Why not respond to issues of power and politics and protest with a variety of stances – each as God has gifted and called them in whatever context they find themselves in?

  25. lukedaniel says:

    That is my initial reaction as well, but something (whether it is the holy spirit, or a strange kind of inner caution reaction) makes me question all of the above. The pre-constantine church was very specific about non-violence and seperating themselves from the roman state, and Christ never seemed to disdain the state. Not deeming to become a part of it or even to comment on it other than giving complex puzzling answers whenever he was questioned about it. If Christians are followers of Christ, how could they follow him where he never went? He never joined the politics of his day (even though satan offered all the nations to him, which are under Satan’s dominioin by the way. Jesus doesn’t dispute that). He never joined the military, his only violence was when he found money changers in the temple, and even that was just flipping tables. When he was being taken away, instead of having his followers fight for his freedom in a power struggle, he instead rebukes peter and heals the soldier who is taking him to his death. When I read the gospel I don’t see Jesus engaging politics on their level.
    When speaking to Pilot in John 18:36-37 he talks about how his Kingdom is not of this world. In the same way we are to be in this world but not of it. Our kingdom is not here and as citizens in a foreign land are we not to follow Christ to the cross, to be set apart?
    I don’t have answers, all I have are the gospels the holy spirit and some historical context. Christ’s teachings are complex for a reason, but i believe that so many christians mistake the complexity for vagueness and so doing take away the radical message of the gospel. They let the church and state mix and call it a blessed nation. And then the world looks at Christians and says “look at their nation state. They are no different than us, they go to war like us, they commerce like us, they exploit like us, they are no different than us.” The church suffers when this happens.
    Anyway those are my thoughts. This is a new way of thinking for me and I am still processing so If you have more push back, I’d love to hear it.

  26. randall says:

    @lukedaniel – I loved Claiborne’s first book, /Ordinary Radicals/ but wasn’t as big of a fan of /Jesus For President/ because ironically, I felt that it was far more political than OR was. Because working outside of power structures is itself a political move.

    I guess I’m always wary when “real” christianity is reduced rather than enlarged in scope. I agree with you that “many christians mistake the complexity for vagueness and so doing take away the radical message of the gospel.” But that presupposes that there is a single radical message. What if the radical message is that God’s design for the world is one of radical diversity – diversity that thrives alongside and is comfortable with the differences within it? Look at the variety of styles and techniques present in the Bible – books of poetry, history, prophecy, letters, etc. The Bible itself, in its motley assemblage, points to a God who reveals Himself through a variety of means and perhaps that is because he allows himself to be seen in a variety of ways.

    On another note, I agree that things get dicey when the church gets too cozy with the state (red or blue). But again, I think Jesus is constantly at work on multiple levels. Yes, his Kingdom is not of this world, but it gets worked out in this world. The Great Commission, for example. It always puzzles me that Jesus commands us to make disciples, not of individuals, but of nations (Matthew 28:19). What’s going on there? How does one disciple a nation? And then there is Paul’s instruction about respecting authority since it is God who put them there (Romans 13:1-8). There’s seems to be something in both those verses about working within existing power structures. If the Gospel is only about individuals then Jesus would have instructed us to make disciples of individuals. Instead, he directs us towards nations.

    I haven’t totally worked out my thoughts on this – these are new ideas for me as well. However, one thing that really encourages me about your response is the bit at the end where you share your openness to and desire for dialogue. I honestly believe that in most cases, the dialogue between different ideas is far more important than one side winning over another. And in this sound bite world of ours, dialogue has all but disappeared.

  27. elderj says:

    I met Cornell West more than a decade ago. I enjoy his work, though I’m not sure what kind of Christian he is.

    As for his quote and for the comments here, I believe he makes some interesting points. It is very easy for Christians to get too tied in to the political system and become apoologists for it. On the other hand, it think it is a bit naive to underestimate the extent to which the American political system was indeed revolutionary and creates a context for the flourishing of authentic personal liberty, which is not the sine qua non for Christians, but is significant nonetheless. We ought to also not underestimate the extent to which Christian rhetoric is as easily subverted (if not more easily) for the political agenda of the “left wing” as the right, indeed, more easily. Let me also add that critiques of so called ring wing Christians in a political sense often comes down more to questions of what is the proper function of government rather than if they are concerned about poverty or justice.

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Jesus came during the darkest hour, bringing hope and light. Even in times of apparent silence, God is not absent. God is at work. God is not yet done.


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