Nate Jones | Monday, 27 October 2008 15:09
The American election cycle allows a closer examination of presidential candidates' faith. Every four years, the relationship between a candidate's faith and his or her practice of politics-previously a personal concern-is submitted to the scrutiny and judgment of the public. It collectively must evaluate the implications for America's ongoing church-state balancing experiment. Examining the roots of that experiment may prompt evangelicals to reconsider traditional understandings of faith and politics and explore alternate models of cross-crown engagement drawn from non-European traditions.
Allegations that Barack Obama's policies could be tainted by the preaching of his former minister may seem cheap, but at least America's presidential candidates can expect personal security and legal protection as they discuss matters of faith and policy. In first century Palestine, locals lived with a hostile occupying power claiming divine prerogatives. This meant religio-political accommodation could be linked to the possibility of treason. In this charged context, Jesus' advice to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" was shrewdly ambiguous, side-stepping the very real possibility of trouble with the authorities while simultaneously challenging religious leaders to rethink their own accommodations with Rome.
Of course, Jesus' loaded words hardly resolved the quandary of church-state relations. Since Christ's ascension, his followers have adopted a wide variety of responses to the relationship between God and government. Christian responses to Christ's challenge were most codified in Europe, where the post-Constantine association of church and state allowed the collection and allocation of state resources to formal theological projects. Constantine's fourth-century conversion to Christianity was welcome news to Christian communities living in the Roman Empire. The profound implications of this institutionalized relationship between the church and the state, however, were not immediately obvious. Yet Constantine's conversion and effective sponsorship of the Christian faith established a powerful precedent that shaped the emerging power structures of medieval Europe and the Byzantine Empire. Constantine's solution ensured state protection and sponsorship for the church in return for the blessing of divine legitimacy upon the state. The church ceded the sphere of civil authority to the state in return for a free hand in the religious domain; cooperation and coordination were embodied either in the person of the sovereign or through formal links between church leadership and the Emperor.
Outside European and Byzantine Christendoms, Christian communities did not have the luxury of state sponsorship or its resources for the development of formalized political theology. Living on the margins, most Christian groups practiced their theology through a lived accommodation with powerful other-faith empires; they frequently adapted their religio-political convictions to the opportunities and exigencies of the moment.
More than fourteen centuries after Constantine established the precedent of formal links between the Christian church and the state, the American heirs of this Constantinian tradition decisively rejected such a formal linkage, establishing the world's first church-free state. Ironically, the apparent disestablishment of religion written into the American Constitution still maintained some of the fundamental distinctives of the Constantinian tradition. Even though the American experiment blocked official sponsorship for one faith, it kept the Constantinian dichotomy between the separate spheres of religion and politics.
The Founding Fathers' political approach to the disestablishment of religion made sense at the time. As they followed Enlightenment inclinations and reacted to the recent war with Britain, the Constitution's drafters were primarily concerned with protecting individuals from the potential predations of a Leviathan-like government. In this context, the disestablishment of religion protected the free exercise of individual conscience; it didn't carefully reconsider the Constantinian tradition's response to the church-state dilemma.
Despite the Constitution's insistence that the state would sponsor no one faith, the careful delineation of governmental powers in the Constitution was itself a reaffirmation of the Constantinian approach. Although the exact delineation between the domains of church and state remained contentious throughout European history, the assumption of separate and distinct spiritual and political functions and powers was always maintained. Similarly, the Constitution of the new United States of America implicitly expected clerics and the church to care for the spiritual needs of Americans. The new government effectively crowd-sourced the spiritual sphere with the conviction that the public benefits of religion could be obtained without state sponsorship or regulation. In return, the new system of government with its disestablishment clause effectively excluded any ecclesial influence in the political process, leaving the civic and political sphere to the secular federal government.
America's Founding Fathers certainly intended to construct a solution to the church-state problem that was more stable than the Constantinian response, whose establishment precedent had bloodied Europe. More than 200 years later, it is unclear if they succeeded. Certainly, the Civil War highlighted the broken compromises in the original document, but the North-South divide extended beyond states' rights to matters of theology and biblical interpretation. Despite the hopes of the Founding Fathers, the divine blessing invoked by both North and South during the conflict tinged politics with the cross, invoking the divinely-blessed wars of Europe.
After Appomattox, the bully pulpit still held a privileged place in the nation's houses of worship. Although federal sponsorship of a particular sect would have been publicly unacceptable, religious discourse was an accepted part of the public square; government and church leaders alike continued to justify national projects in religious terms. In effect, the Founding Fathers' gamble that religion could be crowd-sourced had paid off. With the notable exception of the Anabaptist tradition, America's churches generally celebrated and supported America's new-found power, endorsing Washington's imperial projects with enthusiasm or at least acquiescence.
The success of the disestablishment clause pointed to continued public acceptance of the Constantinian distinction between the spheres of politics and faith. But how disestablished could religion be in a democracy? If Britain's sovereign led church and state at once, didn't the American people embody the same contradiction, guiding the nation's religious devotion while simultaneously choosing her political leadership? Perhaps the American experiment represented an Enlightenment-flavored, individualistic twist on the old Constantinian alliance between church and state.
This unique pairing of popular political sovereignty and ongoing religious devotion offers Americans an extraordinary opportunity to collectively rethink the role of the church in the public square. As arbiters of both faith and politics in the United States, Americans can re-evaluate the validity of a separate-yet-complementary approach to church and state, collectively answering Jesus' question about Caesar for themselves. But why have they not done so?
During the twentieth century, Americans were generally satisfied with both the enshrined right of freedom of worship and the continued ascendancy of the American state. This may explain why Americans showed little interest in re-examining the rules of engagement for faith and politics.
Of course, accepting the separate responsibilities of religion and politics did not imply satisfaction with the conduct of either sphere. Evangelicals remained concerned about Washington's lack of faith, effectively arguing that the government should display a measure of faith commensurate with the religious devotion of the American people. During the election of 1960, John F. Kennedy's Catholic beliefs awakened old cultural memories of the excesses of the established churches of Europe, forcing Kennedy to woo evangelicals with an acceptably-individualistic account of his own faith.
In 1980, residual evangelical outrage at the apparent triumph of secularism, symbolized by Roe v. Wade, overflowed into an aggressive and collective attempt to retake Washington for Christ. The splintered nature of American evangelicalism, however, prevented any attempt to enshrine one of the participating denominations as the state's official faith. Evangelicals agreed that "Christian values" deserved a more prominent position in public discourse, but the movement was ultimately a collection of disparate denominations driven into politics by common fears. The absolutist language of faith on the common agenda masked ongoing interdenominational wrangling over the focus and prioritization of various policy goals. Despite shared concerns, American believers were far too attached to their respective denominations to collectively re-evaluate the secular nature of the American state.
In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll charges that American evangelicalism has neglected the intellectual dimensions of the Christian faith and that the evangelical movement now lacks the mental equipment to engage in the public square with credibility. Noll argues that an easy intellectual compromise with Baconian science allowed the church to ignore academic developments during the 19th century and paved the way for evangelical shock and outrage at the scientific and philosophical innovations of the late 19th and 20th centuries. This dissatisfaction with an emerging secularism did not always prompt thoughtful dialog or self-examination. Evangelical public discourse since the inception of the Moral Majority has been marked more by claims to divine inspiration for particular policy goals.
Although younger leaders are moderating the tone of the evangelical agenda and even adopting new and "trendier" policy issues, the movement's continued assumption-that policy goals are as immutable as creeds-remains intact. Although AIDS may have supplanted abortion as a political issue among younger evangelicals, evangelicals still largely define their political engagement in terms of a discrete set of non-negotiable policy planks. Though there are signs that the previously monolithic evangelical voting bloc is splintering into different policy priorities, evangelicals continue to engage politically as if Christ's position in the public square is somehow dependant on the adoption of a particular policy. This assumption leads the movement to focus disproportionate attention on national politics, conflating legislative or electoral success with exclusive gains for God's Kingdom.
Of course, the simplicity of evangelicals' engagement model does not imply political naïveté. Many evangelical leaders have demonstrated remarkable political savvy as they advance their interests within a complex political system. Perhaps because of the alluring possibilities of measuring Kingdom expansion through bills passed and elections won, evangelicals remain unwilling to question the Constantinian terms of their engagement in the public square. Having tasted political power, most evangelicals are not attracted to the complexities of a decentralized, polyphonal approach to church-state relations. This approach might be modeled on the witness of Middle Eastern and Asian Christian communities as well as America's Anabaptist traditions.
Although such an approach would cost evangelicals the concrete satisfaction of a particular policy agenda, a reconsideration of the virtues of political powerlessness could prompt a revitalized response to Christ's question about Caesar. It would certainly be challenging to adapt the praxis-oriented modes of globally eastern Christianity to a democratic context (without dismissing civic responsibilities and involvement). New theologies of politics would need to accommodate American popular sovereignty, which accords evangelicals a measure of power rarely held by globally eastern Christian communities.
Nevertheless, the strongly individualistic character of American culture would easily lend itself to a self-consciously polyphonal evangelical approach to the public square. Instead of proudly proclaiming their monolithic voting power, evangelicals could celebrate the insights and influence found in the diversity of Christian perspectives throughout America. They could foster a renewed appreciation for locality and rediscover the power of the practice of faith. Instead of being bound together by common national policy goals, Christians could find deeper community in thriving local churches that serve in specific contexts and promote civic engagement locally first. Of course, a renewed appreciation for the value of Christian praxis need not preclude thoughtful Christian engagement at the national or international levels. But evangelicals in positions of power should approach the possibilities of political influence with a sense of humility, remembering that "The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the LORD" (Proverbs 21:31 NIV).
Whether evangelicals engage Washington or in their hometowns, the decentralized nature of this movement gives it powerful potential while limiting its ability to be measured or mandated. The movement can eschew the comfortable Constantinian collaboration of national faith and national politics with its emphasis on formal boundaries. Instead, evangelicals can explore the potential for creating an American Christian tapestry focused on developing vibrant local communities that are attractive exemplars of the coming Kingdom-reaching both politicians and the powerless. As they reject a bondage to boundary-drawing associated with the formal theologies of Europe, evangelicals might discover that the Kingdom of God is truly not of this world.
The Making of the President, 1960 - Theodore H. White
John Adams - David McCullough
The Civil War as a Theological Crisis - Mark A. Noll
The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America - David Domke and Kevin Coe
The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World? - Ron Sider