Photo by Ken McAllister
Faithfully Present in a Fractured World
How are Christians to think and act in a world reeling from financial crisis and fraught with religiously polarized electorates? How should Christians respond to the emergence of a long-dormant xenophobia in Europe, or an Arab Spring in the Middle East ushering in a potentially harsh winter of oppression for Christian minorities? These questions were debated at the conference Faith and Politics in a Fractured World on October 5 and 6, 2012.
The conference was hosted by the Marketplace Institute at Regent College, the Regent Bookstore, and the Center for Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue. The event featured Ross Douthat of The New York Times, Hans Boersma of Regent College, Peter Leithart of New St. Andrews College, and James K.A. Smith of Calvin College. Each talk was followed by a panel discussion. Mark Mayhew of the Marketplace Institute was emcee, and Regent faculty member Iwan Russell-Jones joined each of the panel discussions.
In his opening prayer, Hans Boersma set the tone for the event by acknowledging that "our citizenship papers lie in a heavenly place." Quoting Augustine, Boersma emphasized that heaven is our ultimate home, while at the same time we have our place and responsibility here on earth as the people of God.
Participation in the political structures and nations in which we find ourselves is therefore important for us as believers. Yet how Christians choose to become involved in western public life—polarized and pluralistic as it is— is the topic of much discussion and debate. While politics can uphold Christian virtues of freedom and justice, it will always remain imperfect when compared to God’s kingdom. Ideals quickly succumb to ideologies and Christians must rethink how they approach public discourse—not from places of lofty critique, but of humble public service. If the real work of politics is more like normal vocations, as Ross Douthat suggested towards the end of the conference, then believers are called to be faithfully present in public institutions more than ever.
Descent into Heresy
Before pondering what it means for Christians to be “faithfully present” in the public square, we must begin by considering how we arrived at the fractured state of our current political landscape in the first place.
Ross Douthat opened the conference on Friday evening with a crash course on the weakening of Christian influence on western life. Douthat focused specifically on the last fifty years, which have seen a decline of Christian institutions, though not of religiosity. Douthat’s presentation followed closely the thesis of his recent book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, in which he attributes this distancing of society from common Christian values to four influencing trends: increasing political polarization, the sexual revolution, economic changes, and globalization.
The US has never been more politically polarized than it is now, Douthat suggested, and ideological polarization is an “all-or-nothing” type of thinking. The religious right have closely identified with the Republican party, and sharp divisions have developed along both political and religious boundaries.
In the 1960s, the birth control pill emerged to effectively sever sex from procreation, making it markedly possible to be safely promiscuous outside of marriage. The emergence of no-fault divorce and the increasing entrance of women into the workplace also contributed to the separation of Christian ethics from modern moral sense, said Douthat. Because of these new possibilities, a new culture opened up.
During that same era, North American economic prosperity grew at exponential rates. But where riches increase, religion declines in the same proportion, stated Douthat. There may be no escaping the New Testament’s renunciation of excesses, yet consumerism found increasing footholds as religious adherence was slipping. Entering the ministry always involved financial sacrifice, but the scale of sacrifice steepened in the 1960s and 1970s, as great riches could be obtained by pursuing advanced degrees, such as law or medicine.
The spread of television, continued Douthat, promoted American products abroad but also brought back images of foreign cultures and religions. In an increasingly globalized world, white Christianity became just one option among many. As Christianity became associated with tainted projects of western intervention, people also became wary of exclusive claims of truth.
The great irony is that America’s current political and cultural decline is the result of being both too religious, and not religious enough. Douthat emphasized that the world is still fascinated with Jesus; it just wants to refashion him in a way that mirrors more closely our own lifestyle. In so doing, these refashioned narratives tell the partial truth, but not the whole truth. As examples of such heresy, he cited Joel Osteen and the prosperity gospel, as well as Elizabeth Gilbert and the “spiritual but not religious” mentality.
And so while religious institutions have weakened, adherents have responded by pouring their surfeit religious energy into partisan politics. As a result, religion’s relationship with politics has been warped, and certain causes have been elevated to messianic and apocalyptic proportions.
Christians, argued Douthat, need to resist the pull of partisanship and not fall prey to the culture of political celebrity. Douthat described the risks for Christians to assume staunch adherence to one ideology or another. The Libertarian view, he said, can lead to the worship of the individual, whereas a social democracy stance can lead to deification of the state. Christians engaged in politics should be demonstrating a higher allegiance than party policy; they should be advocating principle over party. But how do we avoid becoming so entranced with our political ideals that we can’t see the forest for the trees—in other words, that we fail to recognize what is distinct about the Christian faith?
“Look at the beam in your own ideology,” offered Douthat, saying that no ideology is ideal, presenting itself without flaw. Most importantly, he insisted, culture ultimately trumps politics. “A mistake is to imagine politics can do more than it can actually do,” he continued, pointing to history. “Saints and artists have resurrected the faith more than any policy makers. Only sanctity can change the world.” This is good news for a place like Regent, arguably home to many saints and artists in training.
Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall
But rising above party policy is easier said than done. The fractured and pluralistic world in which we live pulls us in many directions, and it’s easy for us to get sidelined or to resign ourselves to our many divisions instead of aiming at unity.
In his conference address titled "Politics and Faith: Who Will Put Humpty Dumpty Together Again?" Hans Boersma suggested that politics and faith collide for two reasons: people of faith refuse to acknowledge that their faith is private; and faith commitments themselves are fractured, particularly in light of societal inequalities. In addition, we live in a society that isn't value-free.
Boersma pointed to Henri de Lubac, a twentieth-century Catholic thinker who argued that through the fall, we have become fragmented as human beings ("Humpty Dumpty had a great fall"). Though "all the king’s horses and all the king’s men / Couldn’t put Humpty together again," Boersma pointed out that de Lubac saw Christ as the one who re-united Humpty Dumpty: "For de Lubac, if you want to know what it means to be human, you look to Christ." According to Boersma, it is the church’s job to give shape to this unity that we have in Christ. He also challenged the audience to focus less on multiculturalism than on our common life together: "Christian commitments lead to a more wholesome social life together than anything else that has been on offer in the past or that is on offer in other cultures around the world today."
Taking issue with Boersma’s opposition to multiculturalism, Iwan Russell-Jones countered, "We need to be affirming the right of another human being to exist," and he pointed to the many ways in which Christians in the past have failed to welcome strangers in their midst. In his response, Boersma acknowledged, "Unity is not the same as uniformity, and does not preclude diversity." Still, he appealed to an essay by Mark Noll, "Have Christians Done More Harm Than Good?" and insisted that, overall, the Christian witness in the past has been a positive one. Attempting mediation, Douthat interjected, "The church as an institution can afford more diversity than the nation state."
Boersma and Russell-Jones’s combative debate on unity versus multiplicity nevertheless modelled a brotherly unity in Christ. Their willingness to disagree, within the framework of a common agreement on creedal issues, serves as a model for Christians to demonstrate respectful debate across the political spectrum. This common bond frees Christians to engage in constructive debate with each other without resorting to slander and insults. If we are honest, we can admit that the fractured nature of our political landscape includes a fractured Christianity, and regrettably, not all Christians have demonstrated the ability to debate in such civility.
The Political Power of Martyrdom
Whereas Ross Douthat pointed to culture as being the ultimate force that changes a society, Peter Leithart argued that martyrdom is the hinge of political history.
In his talk “The Politics of Martyrdom,” Leithart traced the church’s beginnings, when Christians moved from persecution to freedom to power. It was the Christians' willingness to be martyrs that posed a major political challenge to Rome, and which succeeded in gaining legal acceptance for the Christian church. The inexplicable force of a faith that led individuals to renounce even family, social ties, and life itself for Christ was no match for the worldly power of Roman emperors.
In the panel discussion that followed, Iwan Russell-Jones reminded us that right now, people are being tortured for Christ. By contrast, in North America and Europe, Christians see themselves as victims—and there is a danger that his demeans true martyrdom.
Leithart acknowledged that Western Christians don't face true martyrdom at this moment, but he added that the pressures we do face are gentler and therefore more seductive, and no less dangerous.
These subtle pressures are precisely what James K.A. Smith warned us against, asking if we Christians have become so comfortable in the world that we’ve lost sight of heaven.
In his talk titled "Holy Ambivalence: Secular Liturgies, Divine Politics?" Smith proposed that in evangelicalism especially, there is an over-identification with the political, particularly with partisan politics. This affects the witness of the church. There is a liturgical power to political practices, warned Smith, and we should not underestimate how these practices form us subconsciously. The same, continued Smith, could be said of sporting events and consumer rituals.
The church, according to Smith, should be cultivating a holy ambivalence, not complacence. The world of politics cannot simply be embraced, he insisted. The church should be forming disciples in such a way that when they’re sent into challenging situations, we can be confident they will act in a Christian way.
Blurring the Lines
And acting in a Christian way may mean rejecting polarized thinking, and bringing some grey into black-and-white debates. "You want your Christian politics to blur the lines a little bit," said Ross Douthat in an interview after the conference.
Being faithfully present in the public realm, for Douthat, needn't mean a narrow focus on abortion or same-sex marriage reforms. Christians tend to be drawn to places in politics where lines are starkest, where issues are black or white, but as Douthat emphasized, it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing affair.
Into this political situation, Douthat said, Christians could enter the public sphere and apply principles of justice and fairness, being "faithfully present" in very practical ways. He said the sweet spot would be a place where the application of Christian principles has a lot to offer. When asked who he thinks does a good job of blurring the lines of faith and politics, Douthat named Tom Coburn. Coburn is a Republican Senator, medical doctor, and Southern Baptist deacon, best known for tackling debt and deficit issues. His website says he's helped curb 2.5 billion dollars of government spending and tackled "Washington's spending addiction."
It’s a point that Hans Boersma agrees with as well. “We need both unity and multiplicity in paradoxical tension.” This might well mean that representatives are needed across the political spectrum—we should have Christians faithfully present in each party. Yet the reality is a seeming duality and a constant dose of binary choices: conservative/liberal, pro-life/pro-choice, anti-pipeline/pro-pipeline.
The Real Work of Politics
"The real work of politics is ordinary work, much like that of the baker, the doctor, or the lawyer," concluded Douthat. Much of the work done in Ottawa and Washington is simply deciding how to best manage and reform programs. So being a Christian in politics can effectively mean being a good steward of a program, like healthcare policy, suggested Douthat.
Yet more often than not, debates about public policy are left abandoned by Christians to people on the secular left or those on the Libertarian right. The tragedy is that no one is left in the middle, faithfully steering programs and dispensing public coffers. Or, alternatively, we have people in office who profess to be Christian but who don’t have the skills to do their job well. “We need to elect people who are competent—just being religious is not enough,” insisted Douthat.
“We reduce the political to the federal level and underestimate the importance of civic and provincial engagement,” added James K.A. Smith.
Art Trumps Caesar
"You may not be interested in the state, but the state is always interested in you," said Douthat. Meaning that when the church withdraws from public life, the state will carry right on without it, making changes that may come back and impact the way we worship, congregate, or otherwise function. The faithful presence of Christians in public life, to direct and steward, cannot be underestimated. Nor can the work of Christian artists—if culture trumps politics, as Douthat suggested, our hope for changing the world lies just as much in our creative people, as in our politicians.