Friday, 31 March 2006 00:00
Matthew Vinson is a Graduate Research Assistant at the Institute for Global Engagement. He is a student at Princeton Theological Seminary.
At the fall 2004 board meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals, a document concerning public engagement titled "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility" was adopted by a vote of 42-0. The document is an indication that segments of the American evangelical realm are seeking a systematic, biblically-based, unified, and vocal expression of their faith in current debates over public policy. This intention is generally laudable; in fact, if anything, the advent of such a document is past-due. However, as it now stands the Call lacks sufficient theological specificity and systematic coherence to serve its purpose as a rallying cry to the American evangelical community.
It should be noted at the outset that "For the Health of the Nation" does have areas of strength, and readers should approach it charitably as well as critically. The document highlights the need for careful ethological investigation (the study of the human ethos and its formation) prior to political engagement, and at several points there are calls for political experts to lend advice to citizen activists. Further, the very fact that this document exists is remarkable: as asserted on the NAE website, the document is "a milestone in the movement of evangelicals from the insularity of a revival tent mind-set in the early 20th century to the political activism of the 21st century."
Yet, such a movement, good as it may be, must be undertaken with extreme care. Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, cited frequently since its 1994 publication, reveals tremendous weaknesses in American evangelical thought: among other problems, evangelicals have tended to reject tradition, disconnect themselves from nuanced Catholic and mainline Protestant theological discussion in favor of personal interpretations of scripture, and approached politics with a greater desire to win immediate battles than achieve long-term goals.1
The NAE's "For the Health of the Nation" is indeed a sign of hope. Yet, if American evangelicals wish to engage in true kingdom work in the public realm, they must undertake the hard, tedious effort of formulating a rigorous and refined theological foundation for their activism; "For the Health of the Nation," which begins such an effort, must therefore be critiqued with a constructively critical eye.
There are, then, at least two problem areas within the document. The first problem is an error of omission in the section "The Basis for Christian Civic Engagement." Here the document asserts that "Jesus is Lord over every area of life ... To restrict our stewardship to the private sphere would be to deny an important part of his dominion and to functionally abandon it to the Evil One." Based on this statement, the document further asserts that "the Lord calls the church to speak prophetically to society and work for the renewal and reform of its structures."
Bypassing this theologically loose notion of "prophetic" speech, the argument of this section goes something like this: Jesus is Lord; As Lord, Jesus rules over every area of life; We are Jesus' servants; As servants, we have been charged with stewardship; If we restrict stewardship to the private sphere, the Evil One will take power over the spheres left untended. Left omitted from this chain of argument, however, is any specification of the exact manner of the "Lord's rule," or any precise connection between the Lord's rule and our activity as members of the Kingdom. As such, the conclusion does not necessarily follow and could even be construed as contradicting the premise: If Jesus is Lord, why does he need us at all?
This theological problem is not merely a logical nicety. Volumes of theology and theologically-interested political theory are here quickly glossed, avoiding necessary complexity almost whimsically. For instance: what happens to the church in the church-state dyad when the two begin to blur together? Or, if Reinhold Niebuhr is correct in his assertion that any state is intrinsically and necessarily self-centered, does the Evil One hold a degree of power over any state simply due to its intrinsic character? Is the church corrupted when evangelicals take up activism in the affairs of the state? These are particularly important questions for evangelicals, given the already blurry and fragmented nature of their ecclesiology.
If evangelicals are to remain true to their Lord, they need to show how social engagement is a natural, necessary outpouring of the Gospel. Social justice must be shown to clearly and certainly flow from the person of Jesus Christ crucified and raised. After all, the document itself, in discussing method, states "we must maintain our integrity and keep our biblical values intact."
The second problem area deals with a needed corrective to scope, and has to do with expanding the way in which the document frames itself. The title is "For the Health of the Nation." That is well and good; evangelicals live in this country and should indeed think about what it means to be Christian citizens in the United States, and to consider what normative vision should define its health. Yet, there is a danger inherent in this project, namely, that evangelicals will self-define primarily as American Christians rather than Christians who happen to be American. The document does note this: "we must…balance our natural affection for our country with a love for people of all nations and an active desire to see them prosper." However, the danger is not avoided by such a simple assertion.
Certainly, it is no bad thing to love one's country and to desire holy stewardship among the members of one's polity (in fact, it is necessary). But this cannot limit the Christian vision of the Kingdom. If there is to be any significant talk of the Kingdom of God, it must address the entire body of Christ and show concern for the global church as the defining Christian polity.
The document makes some movement toward this idea under the section "Principles of Christian Political Engagement," but a robust theology that addresses the complexities of Christian global engagement is not given. Instead, the document presents a platitudinous set of principles so vague that no one could disagree with their formulation. For instance, while it is good to say that, due to the imago dei, "we owe each other help in time of need," or that "we should, in our civic capacity, work to reduce conflict by promoting international understanding and engaging in non-violent conflict resolution," such statements lacks sufficient theological grounding to precisely guide evangelical political activism.
While this document may not have been intended primarily to address global concerns, such a vision is necessary for any call for Christian engagement in public life today. In an era of globalization the boundaries between "domestic" and "international" affairs — especially for the world's only superpower — are evaporating. Moreover, if social justice must flow from a relationship with Jesus Christ, and Jesus commands us to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself," then social engagement must flow from an all-encompassing understanding of "neighbor." Engagement nationally must be informed and driven by global concerns, the meta-narrative guiding local action even as the Author pens individual character.
Hammering out a theology of church and state is a long, difficult process with no easy answers. Yet, it can perhaps be said that the NAE document attempts to do for the American evangelical community what Gaudium et Spes (the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World") did for the Catholic Church. If this is a reasonable comparison, is it perhaps time for evangelicals to press for a more rigorous kingdom theology? If the matters covered in the NAE document are truly as grave and serious as evangelicals claim, is it worth holding some form of conference — or series of conferences — to critically, deeply, and prayerfully consider the foundation of evangelical civic engagement?
Notwithstanding its shortcomings, "For the Health of the Nation" is a positive indicator in the sense that a beginning has been made. It is a sign that evangelical political action is ready to outgrow its reactive, insular, and ad hoc nature and to mature into a global political theology worthy of His Kingdom.