From Theology to Politics
Over at Vox Nova, my other home in the blogosphere, Mark Gordon raises the idea of a Christian democratic political movement as a potential home for Christians disaffected with the Republican and Democratic parties. As someone who quite rightly passes for a secularist, I get a little antsy and start pacing around the room nervously at the proposal of faith-inspired political movements.
I’m not opposed to faith in the public square, but, like Andrew Sullivan, I deplore any and all attempts to use the power of the state to coerce behavior in accordance solely with religious norms or teachings. For example, I oppose torture in part on religious grounds—the notion of the human person as imago dei informs my understanding of human dignity—but my reasoning for opposition extends beyond the religious sphere. I have a rational basis for valuing human dignity and opposing torture, and, in my ever-so-highly-esteemed opinion, I need this basis in hand when seeking the abolition of torture through civil laws. Empty-handed, I risk endangering religious liberty and the freedom of those of no religious faith.
Granted, a rational grounding for a law or policy may be just as controversial as a religious basis—conceivably even more so—but there’s an important difference with relevance to our democratic process. The premises of a rational, non-religiously informed argument can be challenged and put to the test of rational thought and debate; the premises of rational arguments that begin with claims of revelation can at best be asserted, but not challenged by the methods of reason, unless of course the religious premises also have non-religious meaning. There’s not much to say to “God said so!” other than “Oh no he didn’t!”
I’m therefore not absolutely against the idea of a Christian political movement, or for that matter a political movement intimately associated with Islam, Judaism, or any other religion, provided any such political movement has rational grounding and critical arguments for anything and everything it might do or want to see done through public institutions. I’d be cool with an atheist political movement too, in case you’re wondering.
What would such a Christian political movement look like? Hard to say, given that the figure of Jesus Christ didn’t found an earthly kingdom, but rather a kingdom not of this world. With this in mind, John D. Caputo has some thoughts. In his book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, Caputo suggests that “a politics of the kingdom would be marked by madness of forgiveness, generosity, mercy, and hospitality.” He continues:
The crucified body of Jesus proposes not that we keep theology out of politics but that we think theology otherwise, by way of another paradigm, another theology, requiring us to think of God otherwise, as a power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlies sovereignty. The call that issues from the crucified body of Jesus solicits our response, for it we who have mountains to move by our faith and we who have enemies to move by our love. It is we who have to make the weakness of God stronger than the power of the world.
A politics of the kingdom, then, would serve principally as a critique of power by giving voice to all those oppressed, forgotten, or neglected by the ascension of the mighty, the wealthy, and the sovereign. Where the powerful demand retribution, it would counsel forgiveness. Where the wealthy insist that the law protect them so they are free to give charitably without pain, it would cry out for laws founded on generosity that give preference to the poor. Where the sovereign fear anyone not like them, it would run the risk of hospitality, welcoming all those in need, even if embracing the other means one cannot remain the same as one has been, even if it means letting go of power and losing sovereignty. A politics of the kingdom would, in sum, be a politics of the beatitudes. Paradoxically, however, a politics of the kingdom would not result in a “Christian nation,” a nation in which a Christian regime held and fought to maintain power over others. Were that to occur, it would mean that the kingdom had been left behind.