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A Healthy Alternative to the Privatization of Religion; A Theology of Political Engagement

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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.

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

  1. Ryan,

    I agree with you. Christians have a responsibility to their communities to affect change and support the weakest of those communities, while at the same time remaining a people distinct and set apart, as you said, for God alone. I do think that the political engagement of Christians will look different in every country because each country has a different set of laws concerning the involvement of citizens in governing.

    One of the greatest aspects of our American Republic is that we indirectly govern ourselves in a way that, in my opinion, is the closest to self-governing you can get without anarchy. When citizens have this sort of power to influence law, the laws of the country will become popularized. We have a constitution that was designed to protect individual freedoms from dictative or monarchial forces yet we yield the power to amend the constitution when popular ideologies change such as the notion of owning slaves.

    I say all of this to say that if our American laws reflect the ethical and moral convictions of the citizens (or the influential citizens at least), any Christian engaging to influence legislation will necessarily be working to legislate Christian ideals and ethics. There is no way to engage in legislative initiatives in this country without trying, in some way, to introduce your individual worldview as policy. This action is not tantamount to Constantinianism, but it will sometimes look like a theocracy initiative. The Constitution is designed in a way that allows each citizen to vote and influence public policy according to individual conscience, protecting each individual’s right to be heard while at the same time protecting counter-interests to be heard equally.

    The Constitution is not the secular police, trying to steer the citizenship to secularism, it is the facilitator that brings the secular and religious together in an effort to let the will of the people decide which worldview governs best. My question is “Given the American legislative model, where is the line between Christian activism and the pursuit for a theocracy?”

  2. I completely agree with everything that you have said here. With the way our system of government is set up in the United States, we are basically safe-guarded against “constantinianism.” Because we live in a pluralistic society, within the context of a representative democracy, we are protected from the kind of coercion and violence that often characterized medieval Christendom, for example. People have a voice in our Country. Sometimes the “Christian voice” will win out and sometimes the “non-Christian voice” will win out, but no one can complain about their voice not being heard. I am a big fan of the separation of church and state, but, as I pointed out, I think that it has been perverted, or distorted, in our society–devolving into privatization.

    In terms of the connection between laws and ethics/morals, you are absolutely right. Name a law that does not have some kind of ethic or moral that undergirds it. When I hear people say, “you can’t legislate morality,” I cannot help but conclude that they have no idea what they are talking about. This kind of attitude is just another attempt to privatize religion, to separate reason from faith, to drive a wedge between politics and morality. The anthropology that it is assumed here is ridiculous. It’s a direct consequence of Enlightenment thinking. We try to compartmentalize the human person; we assume that political thinking can take place independently of other fundamental aspects of human nature. There are so many unchallenged presuppositions that need to be deconstructed. I was thinking about writing a post on this very issue because it’s something that really needs to be addressed.

    Your question is obviously a difficult one. We certainly can be Christian activists without being advocates of a theocratic political model. I think, as Christians, we have to be selective, and our selectiveness needs to be informed by history. The evangelical church in the United States has a rich history of political activism, which sometimes is forgotten and goes unnoticed. The early evangelicals who took a stand against slavery were selective; they deliberately chose the issue of slavery over other alternative issues. There are definitely battles that are worth fighting and then there are some that might be better left alone. There are also certain things that are worth trying to legislate, while there are other things that should simply be promoted or spoken out against. I’m trying to avoid establishing a definitive criteria for assessing when we should take concrete political action and when we should not. All cases are different, and it will always be a judgment call.

    But anyway, the easiest way to answer your question is to say that Christian activism is selective, whereas the pursuit of a theocracy is all-encompassing and uncritical. So, I suppose we have crossed the line once we start trying to legislate every single moral precept in the Bible.

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