The Use and Misuse of Faith in Politics

On Tuesday I wrote this on my Facebook wall:  “I want all my Facebook friends to know that as a committed Christian I deplore the political hijacking of my faith by ignorant, intolerant, racist and misogynistic extremists.”

As of this morning I have received 34 “likes” and about a dozen approving comments.  But I was uneasy about it.  Those of you who know me know that though I rant pretty easily about this and that I do my best to avoid self-righteousness.  And part of what I deplore these days is the tone of political discourse, and I worried that my frank cry of the heart was yet another ideology-driven screed.

I am no happier when liberal Christians become “the left wing of the Democratic party at prayer” than I do when evangelicals become “the right wing of the Republican Party at prayer.”

I was also pleased to see that some of my “likes” came from conservative evangelical friends.  And many of them came from young adults in my children’s generation.  That is heartening.

My sister-in-law Annette, a faithful Roman Catholic, wrote this comment:

I gather that you love the sinners but hate the sins of willful ignorance, intolerance, racism and misogyny. But do we really love these sinners? And what do we do, as faithful, for or with these sins? We are sinners, too, by other measures. I’m feeling confused. It’s Lent and I’m breaking this down for my daughter with an intellectual disability and some things don’t add up when I look at the fundamentals.

She got right to my uneasiness, because I know myself to be a sinner as well, and not only by other measures, but even by the very sins I deplore in “the extremists.”

“Love the sinner, but hate the sin” is the proper Christian admonition, but here Annette is savvy, too, as she knows how hard this is to do with any consistency.

To keep such self-awareness from becoming a counsel of despair I find comfort in the Reformation insight simul justus et peccator, that we are at the same time sinners and justified by God. “Redeemed sinners” is the way I like to think of it.

And something I had to learn in three decades of pastoral ministry is that there are some people who are just plain unlovable, so you have to turn them over to God who does love them.

But where I come down in the end is that just because we know we are sinners too, and perhaps share in some of the same sins, we are not exempt from speaking out about the things we deplore.

And I would assert that intolerence, racism and misogyny should be deplored by all people of good will, religious or otherwise, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat.  And the use of these sins to raise fears for political gain is a double sin.

The Curious Protestantism of Rick Santorum

The other night I watched the Republican Primary debate from Arizona and was struck by the incongruity of two Roman Catholics and a Mormon fighting to be the standard bearer for what has become the party of American conservative evangelicalism.  Even a cursory knowledge of American history will remind you that one of the (nasty) features of American Protestantism right up to the late 20th century was a virulent anti-Catholocism.  And in the 19th century Mormons were run and burned out of town in Illinois (and elsewhere) by Protestant mobs. Well, if that particular form of bigotry has changed all for the good.

But the more I listen to Rick Santorum, the more Protestant he sounds, and perhaps this is his appeal to conservative Protestants.  So I was pleased to find in today’s on-line New Yorker a knowledgeable exegesis of Rick Santorum’s remarks the other day about President Obama’s “theology.”

The article, called “Senator Santorum’s Planet,” is by James Wood.  He writes, “If Rick Santorum is so staunch a Catholic, why does he often sound such a Protestant, not to say puritanical, note?” You can tell Wood has some pew-sitting in his past (he admits as much), and he clearly understands the subtle nuances of biblical and theological talk.  He says,

“I know the theological weight of that word, “steward.” When I was a boy, my mother, in the grip of her Scottish evangelical Protestantism, used to chide me for my untidy bedroom, adding that, as a Christian, it was an example of “poor stewardship.” Everything is the Lord’s, and our brief role on earth is merely to husband it in a right way, a way that gives the Lord His due.”

Wood sees in Santorum an apocalyptical ascetism more obviously associated with Protestantism than Roman Catholicism and I think that is just right.  Santorum may be a conservative Catholic, but his theology has heavy overtones that come not out othe native soil of his own faith, but from a particular brand of American evangelicalism.  This is at the heart of his objection to the President’s “theology,” which he identifies with an extreme form of environmentalism that the President’s critics on the left must find confounding.

Wood concludes:

When Santorum says that we must be good stewards of the earth, there is religious zealotry behind the sweet words. He is proposing, in effect, that the earth is dispensable but that our souls are not; that we will all outlive the earth, whether in heaven or hell. The point is not that he is elevating man above the earth; it is that he is separating man and earth. If President Obama really does elevate earth over man (accepting Santorum’s absurd premise for a moment), then at least he believes in keeping man and earth together. Santorum’s brand of elevation involves severing man from man’s earthly existence, which is why it is coherent only within a theological eschatology (a theology of the last days). And he may well believe that man cannot actually destroy the earth through such violence as global warming, for the perfectly orthodox theological reason that the earth will come to an end (or be renewed) only when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. In other words, global warming can’t exist because it is not in God’s providential plan: the Lord will decide when the earth expires. This is Santorum’s “theology,” phony or otherwise.

The great irony in all this is that  among the viable contenders in the coming election the only actual Protestant in the race is President Obama.

Should the church ever hitch its wagon to one political party?

My post on Monday, “Pastors aren’t Prophets: Some Unsolicited Advice for Newly-Minted Ministers,” got some good discussion going, both on my site, and particularly on Jason Goroncy’s always lively blog site “Per Crucem Ad Lucem.”  I also received quite a lot of e-mails about it.

But there were concerns.  One concern about my post was that I was arguing on behalf of a Constantinian church in a post-Constantianian age. That may be partly right.  I am not one of those people who think the Constantinian church was an unmitigated evil (stand in Chartres Cathedral sometime and think about it), but I do concede that it is now gone in many places, and fading fast in most others.  So we do need new models, and the emerging church, while interesting, isn’t it.

When I left seminary (in 1975) I served one congregation (I had two) that was the only religious institution of any kind in this little town of 400 souls.  It was, by necessity, a chapel to its community, and it felt a real mission to that community’s well-being and to every member in it of any persuasion or none.  When I went to the hospital I asked at the desk for the town census and not the church’s to make my visits, and was expected to.

I think that there is a lot of truth to the slogan “let the church be the church” and not to have the church running around doing errands for the society.  But Christians do live in societies, and in addition to being signs of the kingdom of God, albeit imperfect ones,  our congregations have responsibilities to them.   I don’t think it is our Lord’s intention that we let them fall apart around our ears.

At the same time I think the idea of a Christian nation, popular here in America in some quarters, is a really bad idea.  In fact, it scares me to death, because I am not sure that their definition of “Christian” would include me or most of the church people I know. And I have lived in Europe for long enough to know that state churches are a millstone around the neck of the Gospel.

Most small town and village congregations I know have an authentic Christian ministry within their communities, and I want to affirm that.  I have been as critical of “Culture Protestantism” as anyone, but ecclesiology, like most of life, is complicated.  The hill-town churches haven’t got the memo yet that the  Constantianian era is over, and most of them are not reading Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank.

Another second critical concern about my post was that I was saying that the church should not be prophetic, which would shock those who have known me for any length of time.  What I was warning about is the romantic idea of the pastor as the solo, heroic prophet. I was worrying that new ministers might think this is their primary role, and as I think I made clear, I don’t believe it is.  But that doesn’t mean that pastors have no prophetic role at all, or that the congregation doesn’t have one as well.

The prophetic role is part of Jesus Christ’s vocation, and by extension, the congregation’s.  The pastor’s role is to equip the saints for their ministry, which includes the prophetic one.  And any faithful preacher who is breaking open the Word of God from Scripture each Sunday is inevitably inviting many questions that have profound political implications.

But you must realize that the context out of which I am writing is a politically polarized America where both parties tend to claim that God is on their side. And so, most conservative Christians are Republicans, and most mainline Christians are Democrats.

I think this is bad for the church.  My ideal congregation contains steadfast ideological foes who disagree on hot-button issues, but, because they are baptized and must walk to the table together to share the bread and cup, have to deal with each’s other’s humanity as well as their own on a regular basis.  And maybe deal as well with their own spiritual blindness and sin.

But that isn’t happening very much, at least not here.  More likely we gather up the like-minded who then congratulate ourselves for not being like those other benighted Christians.   And the continuing trend of denominations to find ideological niches as their primary identity is a scandal.  Our primary identity is found in Jesus Christ, and only there.

I notice that more and more websites of congregations in my own denomination have dropped the first sentence of our preamble, “Jesus Christ is the sole head of the church,” for  the more  user-friendly “Everybody is welcome here.”  I like the fact that everybody is welcome in our churches,  and can think of no other way to be the church.  But that is a fruit and not a root.  The root is that “Jesus Christ is the sole head of the church,” which is why everybody is welcome here.

A church that defines its identity by fruits and not by roots is cutting itself off at the source and will eventually wither and die. Or else survive as a kind of social club.  So I worry that our marketing strategies just might kill us as a church.

I got ruminating about this, and went back and found a paper I wrote in 1989 on the Ecclesiology of P.T. Forsyth, who has shaped me profoundly.  His church was almost completely aligned with one party, and he warned them about it.

I found the following nugget, which if nothing else, confirms my opinion that, as the French say, “the more things change the more they stay the same,” although they say it in French so it sounds better.

Take careful notice of the last sentence at the end of the page. I wrote:

“What is the relationship between a church whose source and goal is redemption and the society in which it finds itself?” Forsyth refuses to identify the church with any particular form of society. The church outlasted feudalism and Forsyth expects it to outlast democracy.  “Christianity is not bound up with any particular scheme, dream, or programme of social order.  Its essence is redemption as forgiveness or eternal life, and the Kingdom of God as flowing from these.  And the eternal life can be led under almost any form of government.”  (Forsyth, Socialism, the Church, and the Poor,  p. 6)

 Forsyth is not in favor of the church identifying itself as church with a particular political party or ideology, although individual Christians can and should be involved in political life.  But when Christianity gets involved with ideologies it is not as a passive recipient or an uncritical cheerleader, but as that which has its own charter and goal, its own life and energy given by God in the act of redemption in the cross of Jesus Christ.  Forsyth writes,

‘Discuss Socialism by all means on its economic side.  Let Christian people descend from their impatient idealism, and harness their resentful pity to discuss the economics of the position more and more.  But do not forget that Christianity has the right of moral criticism on every scheme of economics or fraternity, because it represents the greatest moral, fraternal, and international force that has entered history as yet.  Fraternity means the unity of the race, and the race is one only in God, and in His Christ.  The Church is not committed to any theories or classes of Society which do not rest on that.  And it is not to be sneered at if it refuses to place itself wholly on one side or the other of a mere economic, social, or political question and stake its Lord’s fortunes there.  It is bad for a Church, and it might be fatal, to be only on one side in a civil war . Forsyth, “Socialism, the Church, and the Poor,” p. 33.

 ( Excerpt from Richard L. Floyd.  The Cross and the Church: The Soteriology and Ecclesiology of P. T. Forsyth. Andover Newton Review, Volume 3, Number 1,1992.)

(Photo:  A Bridge to Cross, Windham, Maine)