Monday, February 29, 2016

The Pulpit and the Voting Booth

Amy E. Black (editor), Five Views on the Church and Politics

Like it or not, political Christianity is a looming force in American and International politics today. Progressives like Niebuhr and King, and conservatives like Falwell and Huckabee, have drawn inspiration from deeply seated religious beliefs. But many Bible-believing Christians probably don't realize their church traditions have historical political positions. Even fewer probably realize how solemnly take their commitment to larger society.

Wheaton College poli-sci professor Amy E. Black compiles opinions from scholars representing five Christian traditions: Anabaptist, Lutheran, Black Church, Reformed (Calvinist), and Catholic. All five contributors are themselves professors, representing departments of Philosophy, Political Science, and Theology, from schools both religious and secular. All specialise in the highly controversial intersection between private spirituality and public ethics in the political realm. These are serious authors on serious topics.

These authors write for dedicated readers, in somber, exhaustively documented prose. Though not so opaque that only university scholars could read them, these authors do expect literate Christian audiences ready to think deeply and question well: pastors, congregations, activists, and the intellectually ambitious. It has distinct foundational principles (Christian validity, for instance, isn't up for debate), but the ramifications of those foundations get tested from multiple scholarly and spiritual angles.

Each chapter runs approximately forty pages, including the authors' respective arguments, followed by brief responses from the other four authors. This direct debate format gives readers the opportunity to evaluate the different traditions, from insider and outsider perspectives. Because too many Christians are unfamiliar with their own churches' social issues positions, much less any others, this wealth of information let's engaged believers test their beliefs against diverse and conflicting views.

The various opinions about the church's relationship to politics reflect the traditions' historical relationships with power. The Anabaptist and Black Church traditions arose in legal persecution, and distrust power-- though Anabaptists remain committedly apolitical, while the Black Church has a dedicated activist history. Lutheran and Reformed churches originated from political turmoil, and made strategic alliances with kings. And the Catholic chapter bespeaks a strong Counter-Reformation character.

Critical readers will find plenty to agree with, and plenty to dispute, in every chapter. As a long-term Lutheran, I found Robert Benne's "Lutheran" chapter particularly frustrating, because he doesn't acknowledge his own blinders. Writing from a Missouri Synod angle, his positions are, to non-aligned eyes, downright reactionary. He mocks the ELCA position as governed by partisan alliances, but seems unaware how often he recites Reaganite politics as religious interpretation.

But we could level similar charges against almost every chapter. Of the five traditions represented, only one, the Catholic tradition, is organizationally unified. The others represent umbrella categories, and as such must treat in broad generalization. Though dense and scholarly, this book isn't, probably cannot be, truly exhaustive. Individual authors don't offer lists of recommended further reading, but you could make shopping lists of their pretty thorough source notes.

It's particularly noteworthy how no authors much quote their religious traditions' founders. The Anabaptist author, Thomas W. Heilke, shows greatest influence from John Howard Yoder, for instance, and the Calvinist author, James KA Smith, substantially cites Abraham Kuyper. (Lutheran author Robert Bennett, has no preponderant source.) The Catholic and Black Church authors, lacking single founders, show more inclusive influence, though unsurprisingly, Thomas Aquinas looms large in Catholic politics.

I could wish one source played more into the authors' reasoning: none much cites Scripture. I understand that Christians of good will and solemn faith have, throughout history, sometimes twisted Scripture to serve ungodly ends, so highlighting an interpretive lens maybe matters more right here. But if Scripture doesn't form the foundation of Christians' distinct political views, we're no different than the countless noisy voices cluttering modern political debate.

For the most part, the authors seldom take sides in real debates. This book focuses on political thought and justification, not outcomes. Not only are churches forbidden by law to make electoral endorsements, but most mainline churches dislike giving adherents marching orders, at least post-Reformation. (This book pointedly isn't for passive people or Jim Jones-style cults.) Some issues, particularly care for the poor, do recur. Dogma, however, does not.

Late in this book, J. Brian Benestad writes: "What the law could and should achieve in a liberal society will always be a subject for debate, in which Catholics have the right and duty to participate." Substitute "Christians" for "Catholics," and you have our thesis. Disparate viewpoints contribute details: from within or without? Through activism or example? As politicians or the people? The debate is as worthy as any single answer.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Kevin. I grew up with those Missouri Synod folks and they're a far cry from the ELCA folks that I worked with for several years. (Although they all wanted to save me.)