Thursday, May 6, 2010

Christianity and Public Life: Theory vs Practice

I just got through reading an article in First Things by Peter Leithart, whose blog I follow regularly. Leithart seems to be one of those Christian thinkers who fits a trend I've discovered recently, which is to react against modern assumptions about religion and the public square. I think it best to summarize this reaction in his own words:
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.


  1. Come now - the whole question is one of foundational principle, not of specific application. I think Leithart would agree with you most heartily - "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." And I think he would argue for something you'd call "theocracy."

    I think you're falling prey to exactly what Leithart criticizes Meacham for; you can imagine a government that claims to speak for God and suppresses any debate on what Christ might have in mind for how a civil society ought to operate, and you can imagine a government that pretends to stand on neutral ground between all religious claims. But a government that submits to Christ is a different creature altogether, even if (as I suppose you can argue) it's never been seen.

    But I do think, with Leithart, that any government does have the responsibility to self-consciously seek Christ's will, and you can hardly argue that a cultic neutrality such as Meacham espouses is an expression of such a quest.

  2. I disagree. In fact, I think it's Leithart whose imagination is limited to too few choices. The fact that he uses Emperor Constantine to illustrate his point about Christianity does not help his case. It would appear from that illustration that Leithart can only imagine different modes of government which hold equal amounts of power, but which have different goals and agendas. This is not what America's founders had in mind.

    In contrast to previous forms of government (even previous forms of democracy) America set out to form a government restrained by the principle of individual rights and sanctity. Whereas other forms of government saw the State as having the right and even the duty to set out to achieve a grand vision, America set out to construct a government that defers to the individual. The only visions that are meant to be realized in a liberal democracy are those of individuals, not of government. This is because we believe no human being has any more of a privileged place in this world than any other. Indeed, the concept of Constantine's "election" has no place here. Nor should it, in my opinion. I don't think we have any more need of Constantine than we do of Augustus.

    This American desire to put government at the feet of individuals, and not the other way around, seems to me to be wholly Christ-like. And yet I do think it requires some sort of "cultic neutrality." This need not be the kind of epistemological arrogance that comes out of the modern scientific age--as in, "Oh, I'm just sticking to the facts, as opposed to faith." Rather, true neutrality is epistemological humility. It simply means, the government doesn't have any special knowledge about this world, and it has no right to coerce anyone into actions that are based on limited knowledge.

    So in the end I am agreeing that government has the responsibility to pursue Christ's will, but I am disagreeing on how that ought to be done. And more to the point, I am giving what I hope is a somewhat clear picture of what exactly ought to be done, whereas Leithart seems to be arguing for a principle and then not explaining what it means practically. This, as I was saying, is critical. If we truly wish to influence the public square, well-defined pictures are needed far more than vague theological principles. Constantine is not the picture I would be presenting.


I love to hear feedback!