Captain Moroni stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6th. This isn’t true, of course. A pro-Trump protester stormed the U.S. Capitol building carrying the Title of Liberty, thereby taking upon himself the righteous mantle of modern-day Captain Moroni. By storming the U.S. Capitol, this protestor was demonstrating that he was willing to fight to defend his right to worship, his wife, his children, his freedoms, etc., against violent, anti-government activists hell-bent on overturning a legitimate election in favor of a demagogue. Wait a minute. Wasn’t this activist the one attempting to overturn a legitimate election in favor of his preferred king-like candidate? The irony is terrible.

Clearly something has gone wrong among us.

Politics has been my obsession since Sarah Palin gave her famous address at the 2008 Republican National Convention. This obsession drove me from my couch in 2008 to a PhD in 2020. This journey has been one of disappointment, disillusionment, and, ultimately, exasperation with what I call the politics of salvation.

In 2015, my husband and I moved to Los Angeles County for work and school. I studied in Claremont and we lived in Hawthorne. The geographic space here is deeply symbolic to me. In Claremont I studied political theory and American politics. Here I asked: What is the purpose of politics? What is the truth of it? And who correctly applies that truth in the American setting? At home in Hawthorne, I lived in a decidedly non-academic, working class atmosphere. Politics was extremely practical and local. And every morning for four years I got up in the ungodly hours of the morning to teach seminary. In our semi-circle set up in the Relief Society room, we asked: What is the purpose of my life? How do I attain salvation? Who is Jesus Christ?

My studies in Claremont were discouraging. No matter how I tried, I felt conflicted and confused about what the “right answer” was. Then I interned at the Claremont Review of Books, a conservative publication, during the 2016 election cycle. I watched in bewilderment as conservative thought leaders threw in their lot with Trump. I left the CRB wondering if everyone had gone mad. I realize now that we all had the same problem. I was discouraged with my studies because I was confusing Claremont for Hawthorne; D.C. for Zion. I was trying to find answers in Claremont that could only come in a seminary room in Hawthorne. Politics has no ultimate truth, no capacity for salvation. Similarly, my friends on the Right had finally thrown in their lot with my friends on the Left, attempting to find salvation in a political system that is meant only to create room for the personal pursuit of such.

The Left has long bought into the politics of salvation, or the idea that humankind can be saved through political action. For example, a core tenet of Marxism is the salvation of man by man. By changing the economic modes of production, the very nature of mankind could be changed. By changing the physical, outward, economic reality, human nature itself is changed, for human nature is only ever a product of the historical epoch and economic reality. Man must dethrone God in pursuit of his own salvation. Indeed, this is the core belief underlying all leftist ideologies. Human nature is changeable, and man is the one to do it. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand—man’s hand, specifically. Of course, leftist ideologies exist along a scale, but this view of human nature as malleable is consistent. There is a reason that progressivism found a ready partner in Christian political actors in the early 20th century. Both were in the business of changing a fallen human nature. Much is taught by the vignette of Teddy Roosevelt leading a chorus of “Onward Christian Soldiers” during the 1912 Progressive Party Convention. This fundamental idea is even more dangerous in non-religious, or explicitly anti-religious, hands.

A belief in the capacity of politics to save humanity led to gulags and state-sponsored famines, forced sterilizations and mass killings, as salvation so often came enforced at the point of a gun. In short, man committed terrible violence against the human spirit in the name of his own salvation. In so many ways, the 20th century demonstrated a political Christianity stripped of Christ and stripped of agency.

I support many policies and proposals associated with the Left, such as family leave and attention to environmental preservation. That said, I have long been wary of the idea that so often lies at the base of such efforts: that enough of these programs can create a utopia. As a Christian, I believe that human nature is changeable—and salvation is possible—only through the atonement of Jesus Christ.

I thought my friends on the Right agreed—at least on the principle that salvation won’t come from D.C. But 2020 has taught me that the politics of salvation has been fully embraced by the Right as well. The sin may even be worse on the Right because the politics of salvation are played out under the guise of the Christian religion which makes a distinction between that which is Caesar’s and that which is God’s. Partisans on the Right do violence to the gospel by politicizing it, by trying to usher in the Kingdom through their own political efforts. Moreover, by attaching Christ’s name to a political platform designed by men, the message of Christianity becomes muddled and confused in the scrum of political discourse. One who might have come to believe will find it difficult to parse Christianity from, say, an economic policy, or may find themselves unwilling to hear the message because of its attachment to a political movement he or she rejects.

Too often, the salvation-through-politics approach involves a denial of agency and an embrace of state-enforced morality. In a last gasp effort to reverse the cultural tide toward non-religion, many on the Right seek to impose their religious convictions on fellow citizens through the force of the state. It is as if they are saying “I will force you to be saved.” This is eerily reminiscent of “I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1). Seeking to destroy the agency of man is the bad guy’s plan, remember? The photo-op of President Trump holding a Bible in front of a church was very powerful to so many of his followers for a reason. At last, here was a president who would bring Christianity back to American government. Here was the political Messiah, even though all political Messiahs are false Christs. I wonder if Iranians felt the same way about the Ayatollah.

Here is the problem with the politics of salvation: if every policy is a matter of salvation or damnation, there can be no compromise. The other side truly is your enemy. We can’t lower the temperature of American politics until we lower the stakes of politics. The best way to do that is to abandon the politics of salvation in favor of more moderate, measured expectation. Government will not and cannot provide salvation; D.C. will never be Zion. But, D.C. can provide room for individuals to grow worthy of Zion through personal conversion and participation in the body of Christ. By refusing to allow D.C. to claim the mantle of Zion, private space for Zion is allowed to flourish. With such personal space, the intensely personal nature of religion need not be infringed upon, for the salvation of your soul is of no concern to Washington. The provision of this space by the government is a high bar. It requires that neither the political religions of the Left nor of the Right are thrust upon individuals using the force of the state.

With all that being said, what should the role of religion be in politics? Religion must inform the behavior of its members and undergird an individual’s deepest political ideas, such as love for equality, agency, and justice. It should inform political opinions, but it should also require of its members a commitment to not demonize those who disagree with you on matters of mere policy. If anything, religion should make your political convictions less absolute, less intransigent, less extreme. Religion should bridge the gap between camps, rather than function as a bludgeon to push them further apart.

Before I am misunderstood, I want to acknowledge that the role of Christianity in the abolitionist movement, the early suffragette movement, and the Civil Rights movement was integral to their respective successes. Do I think that Christians should have left their religion out of the slavery question? Am I so desperate to keep the peace that I would deny the right of believers to stand up for the enslaved person? Of course not. Some questions are simply above the left-right spectrum and concern the gravest questions of morality, reality, and national conscience. In these cases, religion calls us to be charitable and humble—in short, Christlike—in boldly defending truth. Even so, I assert that the vast majority of policy questions are just that: questions of policy on which reasonable people can disagree or have competing priorities. For example, proponents of universal healthcare are generally not trying to implement socialism, and opponents of universal healthcare generally don’t want to see poor people dying on the streets. It’s a question of how best to do healthcare in the nation; it’s a question of policy and priorities. It’s also worth noting that opponents of the abolitionist, suffragette, and civil rights movements also used Christianity to justify their opposition. Strong religious fervor attached to a position is often unrelated to the moral content of that position.

In summary, it’s important to remember that you are not Captain Moroni, the federal government is not under the control of modern day Gadianton Robbers, and you will not succeed in bringing about Zion through the machinations of Washington.

You may be wondering if I have any hope in the political process. I do, within reason. I believe the vast majority of people have good intentions. I also believe civilizations have a unique capacity to destroy themselves. Given that I don’t believe that Zion is a realistic destination for D.C., what do I see happening politically in the future? I expect the tentative balance between liberty and morality to destabilize as personal morality falters. I anticipate disaster, whether in the form of anarchy or tyranny, as a result of the disintegration of our social fabric. But that is no excuse for me to sit on the couch! I am judged on what I do in the here and now. I currently work in Congress, after all. Am I anxiously engaged in a good cause? Am I good neighbor? Am I an active citizen? How do I treat my political opponents? My concern is preserving civilization in this generation and passing it on to my children and grandchildren as intact as possible. As for Zion? I’ll strive to become worthy of it and wait for the great millennial day when it’s established with Jesus at its head.

If there is a truth to politics that I have learned from three degrees in political science and experience in government, it is this: there is no salvation here. Look elsewhere.

Full Citation for this Article: Johnston, Savannah Eccles (2021) "Against the Politics of Salvation," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Spring 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

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