This is the possibility that Meacham cannot allow himself to contemplate. He can imagine government sponsorship of religion and the religious coercion that frequently has followed, and he recoils. He can imagine religion standing prissily to the side, going to the garden alone, and his heart is strangely warmed. What he cannot imagine is the possibility that Christ might lay demands on Caesar. Yet it’s that third, unthinkable prospect that is inherent to the Christian gospel; it’s that third, unthinkable prospect that marked the political difference between Christianity and paganism.
Thinkers like Leithart get their inspiration from deeply held theological convictions, based on a thorough understanding of Scripture and ancient history. I appreciate much of what they're saying, but I'm afraid I don't think they've been able to bring their ideas effectively into a modern context. Worse, I'm not sure they ever can while still following the same train of thought.
My basic complaint about Leithart's thesis is that he can't explain how it would work. He argues his way into a trap, it seems. Either we really ought to implement the practical applications of his theological points, which seems to me to establish theocracy in America, or we have to back off from those practical applications and stick to saying very abstract things about the relationship between God and public life. If the latter is true, we're no better off than where we started. If the former is true, well, even he would probably admit the pitfalls of theocracy in this world.
Theologians who insist on reminding us that God must have sway over the public sphere have completely failed to illustrate what that looks like. I'm not sure which is more tragic: when theologians stay very vague and abstract and make God look like a vaporous nothing, or when they get very specific, thus reminding us how many different Gods--even Christian Gods--there really are. The sheer amount of disagreement among theologians over what God really demands of us should be enough to make the necessary point, namely that God and society will always have a very tricky relationship.
If one understands the New Testament very well and believes that it is absolutely true, then I can see how one would be inspired to make a whole-hearted effort to say to the world, "Jesus is Lord!" I respect that, and I can only hope that my life is somehow an expression of that reality. And yet both when I read the New Testament and when I simply look at the world around me, I am faced with a rather unfortunate fact: Jesus is not here. The eyes of faith, it is true, can see the Holy Spirit at work in this world; and yet this takes a great deal of faith precisely because of the undeniable fact that Jesus is not with us. We wouldn't be waiting for anything called a Second Coming if he were, in fact, here right now.
Why does this matter? Well, it means that if Jesus is Lord, he is surely not the kind of Lord the world is used to. If, as Leithart says, he makes demands of "Caesar" (i.e. the American government) then he's not making them the way most lords would. If Jesus wanted to be like other lords, he could have made his demands abundantly clear, and backed up those demands with an army of weapons. What does he do instead? He speaks in parables, tells his disciples to put away their swords, and submits to the punishment of crucifixion. And then--here's the best part--just when he has been vindicated through his resurrection, he leaves! This is no ordinary lord, indeed.
Far from considering this any fault of Christ's, I personally view this as the tension that all Christians must embrace in faith. God's style of government has never been what we wanted it to be. God said no idols, but the people constantly wanted something to look at. God alone was to be King in Israel, but the people wanted a king just like everyone else. The people wanted a military ruler to defeat the Romans for them, but God became man in order to die on a cross.
And I think now there are a lot of Christians just repeating the same old mistakes. Dare I call it idolatry, when it's coming from such brilliant and dedicated theologians? I don't know what to call it, other than "wrong." What I mean is, it doesn't work. If our government must be subject to Christ, then what does that mean? Should we demand an increased Welfare State out of concern for the poor, or should we diminish it out of concern for good stewardship and a productive workforce? Should we demand state-run health insurance, or not? Should we enact strict environmental controls, or not? What should be done about immigration? And how about the war in Afghanistan?
None of these questions can be answered by appealing to the authority of Christ, because Christ has not made his voice clearly heard on any of these issues. Does he speak through Scripture? The troubling thing about Scripture is the number of careful and insightful interpretations there are--for they are all mutually inconsistent. Does he speak through the Church? Which one? Who gets to call themselves the Church? Do people who disagree with each other get to be called one Church?
The fact is, no matter what source of authority you choose--papal authority or Sola Scriptura or whatever--none of these authorities actually is the authority of Christ. Christ, in his strange unworldly wisdom, has chosen to exercise his authority by not lording it over us, "as the Gentiles do." Perhaps that is the main clue for how government ought to behave. Indeed, I think the most intolerable thing in the world is for the government to act as if it had instructions from God on how the country ought to live--which is an attitude I associate with the Secular Left as much as the Religious Right.
And as for this whole issue of the "National Day of Prayer" being "unconstitutional," if that's really all Leithart's article was about, then frankly, that's just silly. I don't even know when National Day of Prayer is, and I certainly don't pray more fervently on that day than on any other. It would feel a little idolatrous if I did.
To sum up my main point, theologians will never get any credibility with the general public if they don't grapple with the troubling realities of the real world. As much as all of us Christians define our lives by the words, "Jesus is Lord," it is simply not possible to say those words without a hint of sadness and perhaps uneasiness. Why has it been this long, anyway? When will he return? And what is it exactly that we're supposed to be doing in the meantime? If any Christian thinks he knows the precise answers to these questions, I would kindly recommend he go dunk his head in a bucket of water.
I say this not as someone who wishes to tear down the faith, but as someone who is sensitive to the political and social challenges we face. These challenges are very closely related to our theology. We hurt ourselves by disconnecting our theology from our lives, and we do even worse by reconnecting our lives with our theology only to disconnect our lives from reality. The best we can do is enter into the public arena with patience and restraint. Patience, because God is going to redeem the world in his own power. Restraint, because we are not God. This is perhaps the most important rule of good government.