The Politics of Baptism

The Americans Logo

IN OUR SECULAR AGE, Christianity is often thought of as being merely a private set of beliefs held by individuals, which makes little tangible difference in their public lives. This modern divide between religion and politics is, in some sense, a product of the Enlightenment’s vision of a purely rational, secular and objective public space. If we are after “pure reason” in the public realm then there is no room for the subjective dogmas of the faithful. This understanding of faith has made its way into popular media as well. The majority of Christian characters on TV fit into certain banal caricatures: the self-righteous prig, the Bible-thumping fundamentalist, or the rigid evangelical… Fortunately, this is not the case with the FX original series The Americans, whose 4th season premieres on March 16.

****Spoiler alert: For those of you who are not caught up on the show. ****

Set during the Cold War, the show follows Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American couple in the suburbs of Washington, DC.* The couple has two children, Paige and Henry, who are both unaware of their parents’ true identity. Paige has had a growing attraction to Christianity ever since the second season, but her faith and her parents’ ideology have only come into direct conflict in the third season. As Paige’s faith has been growing, the Soviets have been putting more pressure on her parents to recruit her to the communist cause (as a US citizen, Paige could infiltrate government/military agencies much more easily than her parents.)  In the beginning, Elizabeth believed that her daughter’s faith and strong ethical beliefs (honesty, non-violence, etc.) could be transferred to the revolutionary cause, but as the show progresses she begins to realize that her daughter’s faith can’t simply be replaced by a political ideology. Paige’s faith produces an alternative to the left/right politics, which she finds herself pulled between. She resists both her parent’s atheism/Marxism, and the consumerism/militarism of America. What I find interesting is the role baptism plays in this political struggle.

In her article How TV made Christianity radical again, Alyssa Rosenberg points out that, “Where most shows might suggest that behind the veil of baptism lies only human psychological needs that can be filled by religious rituals, the couple now perceive profound mysteries, a draw to something they can’t understand or divert into another channel. Paige’s faith threatens the couple as communists, as atheists…”

As Christians in America we don’t usually think about baptism in political terms, but for the early Christians it was unambiguously political. Baptism was not merely the convert’s innocuous affirmation of a spiritual truth. To confess that “Jesus was Lord” (and Caesar was not), was to subvert the authority of the ruler, which meant putting your life at risk. The Christians in Rome were not killed because they wanted to try out a new type of spirituality; they were killed because they believed that a new kingdom had begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To enter the waters of baptism was to be made part of this new society. This new kingdom, offered the world a radical new way of life. As Stanley Hauerwas says,

“[Jesus] gave [his followers] a new way to deal with offenders—by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence—by suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money—by sharing it. He gave them a new way to deal with problems of leadership—by drawing on the gift of every member, even the most humble. He gave them a new way to deal with a corrupt society—by building a new order, not making the old. He gave them a new pattern of relationships between man and woman, between parent and child, between master and slave, in which was made concrete a radical new vision of what it means to be a human person. He gave them a new attitude toward the state and toward the ‘enemy nation.'”

Obviously, Christians throughout the centuries have failed to live in this way. Too often the gospel, which was meant to overthrow the powers of the age, has been used to legitimate those very earthly powers. I think Paige’s baptism, in The Americans, helps remind us that the kingdom of God is a political reality. The “good news” of the gospel is not merely that we will be saved when we die, but that a new form of life is available for us here and now.


*I was going to write a post about this show last year, but never got around to it. I thought I’d write about it now because of the new season coming out. If some of the details are off about the show it’s because I haven’t watched it for awhile…

If you want to read a really good article on Christian history/politics check this article out.

Also: The Americans is rated “TV-MA,” and it contains violence, sexual activity and language. So I definitely wouldn’t recommend that everyone watch it.