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In contemporary American society, the relationship between religion (in this case, Christian religion) and civil government is one defined by privatization. The noble and well-intended concept of the separation of church and state has devolved into the strict bifurcation of the sacred and the secular, the invisible and the visible, the subjective elements of human life and the objective elements of human life, the values that endow our lives with meaning and the brute facts and raw data that inform public policy. In this schema, Christianity, and religion in general, has been relegated to the private sphere, where highly-subjective, faith-oriented belief systems are able to coexist in a peaceful manner. On the other hand, the physical and social sciences, as well as all fields of study, or human disciplines, that can be tested via the scientific method and substantiated in the marketplace of ideas have been elevated to the public sphere of human life within American society.

Not taking into consideration the faulty philosophical presuppositions that undergird this kind of extreme fragmentation, or compartmentalization, of human life–as if one could simply divorce one’s philosophical orientations, or theological commitments (whether atheistic, deistic, agnostic, or theistic), from one’s political dispositions–this, unfortunately, is where our society currently stands.

With this in mind, if given the opportunity, how would we change the current landscape? What is the ideal relationship between Christianity and American politics? From an ethical perspective, how should Christian faith and civil government relate to one another? Of course, there have been many historical responses to this dilemma. Two of the more prolific approaches are separatism and Constantinianism.

Separatism, which is similar to what Richard Niebuhr refers to as the “Christ against culture” model, is defined by a strict attitude of withdrawal from the prevailing mechanisms of society, which inevitably includes disengagement from the political arena. According to Hollinger, “Christians who adhere to this approach draw a sharp line between the redeemed people of God and fallen society and culture. The world is so evil that believers must withdraw from it or in some way reject it” (Choosing the Good, 191). Early ascetic and monastic expressions, as well as modern Anabaptist movements, are good historical examples of this paradigm.

On the other side of the spectrum, Constantinianism is characterized by an unmitigated fusion of church and state, such that the two basically become one. Proponents of this approach view civil government as a vehicle of God’s redemptive purposes in the world, and thus they believe that public policy should be an extension of the divine will. The magisterial reformer John Calvin is a great example of this outlook. For Calvin, the state is to be the mouthpiece of the church; the government is established in order to enforce the laws and commands of God.

Overall, I find both of these options to be unsatisfactory. Separatism does not take the Great Commission seriously enough. Christians are called to be “salt” and “light;” we are summoned to bear the very image of Christ in this world. In doing this, we are to draw all people to the living God. How can we accomplish this if we withdraw from the world, out of sight from the societies and cultures that God so badly desires to redeem?

At the same time, Constantinianism is far too optimistic; it simply does not take into account the depravity and sinfulness of humankind. Because political systems are run by fallible human beings, political systems will never be able to perfectly carry out the will of God. Power tends to be prone to corruption and thus is easily polluted. Historically, when church and state have been intimately wedded, and thus when the church has been endowed with a great deal of political power, the church has often fallen prey to coercion, manipulation, and outright violence. Furthermore, civil laws and legislation alone do not have the ability to transform hearts and renew minds; only the Spirit of God can truly change a person from within and thus procure true redemption.

Based on my general dissatisfaction with these two historic approaches, I would like to offer a third option: The “Christian engagement model.” Like separatism, the Christian engagement model emphasizes the importance of the church being holy and set apart. However, contrary to separatism, we do not withdraw from society, but engage every aspect of it. Like Constantinianism, this model stresses the need to dramatically impact the world for Christ. However, we do this through means of influence and persuasion rather than through coercion, control, and force. Christians are called to engage every area of human life with the gospel of Christ Jesus. Therefore, in opposition to the current landscape, Christians must have a voice in the marketplace; we must make our mark in the public square. The kind of compartmentalism that the privatization of religion demands is psychologically unhealthy and downright damaging to human society. Thus, the Christian engagement model calls for Christian voices in mathematics, philosophy, the arts, the sciences, politics and every human discipline imaginable.

Diverging from the blind optimism of Constantinianism, however, the Christian engagement paradigm is built on the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. Taking into account the sheer depth of human sinfulness, we must realize that, within the parameters of finite human history, the ethic of Christ is an “impossible possibility” (Niebuhr, From Christ to the World, 246). Though we strive to further the Kingdom of God in our society, we must realize that full and final consummation is reserved for the eschaton.

Currently a Master of Arts in Theological Studies candidate at Asbury Theological Seminary

2 Comment on “A Healthy Alternative to the Privatization of Religion; A Theology of Political Engagement

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