American discourse has reached levels of angst unusual even for us. Conservatives and liberals alike speak in dramatic, even apocalyptic, terms. And the Christian community is no exception. While a little righteous indignation and prophetic witness is certainly called for, we sometimes risk finding ourselves guilty of the sin of despair. While the nations are in uproar and the peoples devise their vanities, Christians should steward their conduct in the public square as witness to the fact that our hope is not of this world. The Victory was secured long ago, and no government can affect the outcome in either direction.
However, there is another type of politics that demands our greatest attention. In his Politics, Aristotle defines the art of politics as the art of making men good. This type of politics, what Aristotle called the most important of human affairs, is about training young people in the virtuous life, forming men and women of character, and of seeking true human fulfillment within community. Most of us, diverging somewhat from Aristotle (who believed that statesmen should use legislation to inculcate virtue in the people), would agree that government is ill-equipped to do the work of creating citizens of virtue. For the Christian especially, the real work of politics takes place not on Capitol Hill, but at the little parish at the end of your street.
Of course government does have a role to play, but its role is janitorial in nature. Under the American scheme, government should facilitate the environment within which civil associations such as the Church do the real work of politics. Government has the responsibility of securing the right of men—which itself pre-exists government—to pursue happiness. It is not in the purview of government to pursue and grant happiness on the people’s behalf.
But we sometimes forget this, to our detriment. Thomas Jefferson’s “great wall,” ostensibly conceived for the protection of religion, is increasingly used to confine religious life to ever smaller spheres. Tragically, it seems many Christians have accepted these terms and accommodated their habits of living to them. We believers tend to invest an unsettling portion of our time and energy into dire discussions about American politics. Yet, by comparison, we spend hardly any time at all talking about our families, communities, and churches. If the content of our conversations is any indicator, where might an outside observer think we place our hopes?
The American founders thought that religion and religious liberty were special. But this “special” view of religion and religious liberty goes beyond mere political pragmatism and the aspirations of liberalism. While it is true that the suppression of religion leads to violence and that the freedom to practice one’s religion is the ultimate expression of personal autonomy, these are far from the most important reasons for religious liberty. If they were, then this guarantee would be lumped in with all other civil rights. Yet it is distinct. Religious liberty must take precedence even above these loadstars of contemporary political debate.
However, Christians must also understand that the importance of religious liberty is not reducible to society’s functional need for a transcendent moral standard, and the promise of eternal justice. Machiavelli’s despotic civil religion would be sufficient to supply such a standard. No, religion is special because religion is where the real work of politics, in the Aristotelian sense, is done.
Some would see this paradigm changed. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke advocates religious freedom, but religious freedom on the terms of the governing authority. Religious practice is “tolerated” by the state up to the point that it interferes with the state’s agenda. Instead of a wall of separation, Lock places an enclosure around religion that confines it to a limited, government-defined sphere. The implication is, again, that the Church’s purposes must take a back seat to the interests of the government, or worse, be appropriated by them—as if the work of the government were the more important, more consequential, matter.
The Church must always resist being co-opted by governments. But it must also resist the more subversive and sinister threat of appropriating itself. And this is itself a two-theater war. On one side there is the danger of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a term coined by Christian Smith to describe faith in a buddy-buddy god of affirmation and comfort. A church ceases to be the Church when it buys into our culture’s admonition to “be yourself” and “follow your heart.” As David Brooks notes in his New York Times article, The Moral Bucket List, “this is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self.” The Church instead calls us to return to our true selves as image bearers of Christ by becoming more than we currently are, by conforming our life and loves according to Life and Love Himself.
On the other front is the threat of an American Zionism that fails to learn from the mistakes of the Pharisees: Christ did not come to conquer Rome. In his damning indictment of the conservative movement, Catholic southern physician and writer Walker Percy calls out the conservative movement for using the Lord’s name to promote vain political agendas.
Walker Percy was a self-described diagnostician of our age. Noting the confusion and malaise that characterizes our culture, Percy would warn us that statecraft alone cannot bring purpose or blessedness to human life. The world will not be saved by a party or a platform. Political agendas are capricious and unfulfilling gods.
And yet we too often find ourselves in their service. In his novel Love in the Ruins, Percy argues that the right and the left are mirror images of one another: both have utopian ambitions for human society, and both seek to use the government to realize those ambitions. The right looks to restore a halcyon age that probably never was, while the left looks to establish an idealized future. We need a Church that can stand in contrast to the logical positivism of our age, to the notion that history is tending towards ever greater progress and that we can and will create the perfect society. This is Babel. Rather, we Christians must point to our own paradoxical belief that we stand between what Tolkien called the “long defeat” and the reality that the Victor is already on His throne. We know that there will be no paradise on earth until Christ brings it, but we also know that His coming is inevitable. We betray a lack of faith when we get worked up about shifting political powers. We also risk confusing government with our savior. Chesterton points out the danger of this proposition:
It is only by believing in God that we can ever criticize the Government. Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God. The fact is written all across human history; but it is written more plainly across that recent history of Russia; which was created by Lenin. There the Government is the God, and all the more the God, because it proclaims aloud in accents of thunder, like every other God worth worshipping, the one essential commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods but Me.”
There is only one head of the body, and, praise God, we have nothing to do with His election. The Church does not serve a worldly kingdom. We need a church that remembers this because we need a Church that is able to cry out against a government and a culture that violates the divine order. Christians cannot offer a radical alternative to a fallen world if the Good News of the Gospel is replaced with the agenda of cable networks. We cannot offer the New Jerusalem if we have accommodated ourselves to Babylon. And, in an age of rampant depression and cultural malaise, our world is as much in need of a radical alternative as ever. Our hearts are restless. We know that we are made for more.