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.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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20 Responses

  1. So a politics that constitutes a “critique of power” would cry out for laws (power) that would be “founded on generosity”?

    So force is okay, as long as your version of generosity is being imposed. I thought this was supposed to be a secular argument.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Any critique of power that results in political action (laws, policies, etc.) must involve power. There’s no contradiction here, as critique doesn’t mean destruction.

      The answer to your second question is “not necessarily.” My version of generosity could be idiotic. My plan for imposing laws based on generosity may be imprudent or wrongheaded or ruinous.

  2. I try to avoid comments that don’t move the conversation forward. However, I can’t read the above post without giving some kind of kudos to its author. It’s well worth sharing with any religiously observant citizen who nonetheless highly values a secularist society, and lays out more eloquently than I could the inherent tension between wanting one’s theology to inform one’s political actions without undermining that desire for a decidedly secular political realm.

    Very, very nicely done.

  3. Tod Kelly says:

    Great post, Kyle. I think that I might feel slightly less comfortable than you with the idea of a a Christian political movement of any kind, in as much as I’m having a hard time picturing what that would look like – or how it avoids becoming the other kind.

    I can see a Jewish, Muslim or Atheist political movement being (under the right circumstances) very positive, but I think this is because each is a minority – and each is a minority that has a history with being discriminated against and/or is currently demagogued by the political system. So I see a fairly legitimate reason for these groups to want to consolidate political power that is not theological.

    Christians, I must confess, I’m having a harder time thinking of any circumstance where I feel comfortable. And maybe that’s what I’m bringing into the discussion more than anything else; it might well be that i’m reading this at the same time the GOP primary is going on. But there is something about the followers of a faith that controls all the branches of government deciding that they just don’t have enough power as is that makes me nervous.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      “But there is something about the followers of a faith that controls all the branches of government deciding that they just don’t have enough power as is that makes me nervous.”

      Oh, definitely. If it’s any consolation, though, I imagine that what passes for Christian politics today would be among the first to assemble against and try to crush the “politics of the kingdom” I’m describing.

    • DensityDuck says:

      “Christians, I must confess, I’m having a harder time thinking of any circumstance where I feel comfortable.”

      Count the number of Christians you know, personally, who are overt about their faith and their practice of it.

      Count the number of Jews, Muslisms, and Atheists(*) you know, personally, who are overt about their faith and their practice of it.

      Compare those two numbers, and you’ll understand why you see Christians as such a greater threat than Jews, Muslims, or Atheists.

      (*) For purposes of this discussion, treat “I don’t know or care because it doesn’t mean anything to me” as “no answer”, not “Atheist”, because a person who doesn’t care is unlikely to start any political activity based on religion–or suppression thereof.

    • Kim says:

      Shtetls are shtetls whether they’re stealing your taxmoney or not. But, trust me, when they get political… you ain’t likin’ it one bit.

  4. DensityDuck says:

    I agree with Caputo when he writes that the death of Jesus is the ultimate symbol that the world is ours. God won’t step in anymore, to save or to punish, even when we kill his son.

  5. Ron Millam says:

    IMO, the term “Christian democratic political movement” is oxymoronic. Christianity is about as far from “democratic” as you can get. Psychologically, it’s one of the worst authoritarian concepts ever devised by humans.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Authoritarianism is clearly part of Christianity’s history and tradition, but it’s not the only part. Besides, Christianity is pretty broad concept that refers to a plurality of faith communities and traditions, some of them very democratic.

  6. Brandon says:

    I’m inclined to think that your argument here is untenable, although I tend to be suspicious of explicitly religious political movements myself. Part of this is because I think the concepts of a ‘religious sphere’ or ‘public sphere’ are obvious fictions. But part of it is because I think it’s obviously the case that people should vote on the basis of their actual reasons, whatever they are, and that even if we thought they shouldn’t, we couldn’t stop them from doing so under any rational system of enforcement. When people vote we don’t demand that they give reasons, and whether someone has the power to do something does not depend on the quality of their arguments; in any large-scale society today, discussion and debate is merely an ambience for actual exercises of political power, not itself such an exercise. The only time when it makes any sense to demand that people only give public reasons is when everything is accomplished entirely through negotiation. And that is rare.

    I think the demand also marginalizes debate and discussion by guaranteeing that in some cases the debate and discussion will have nothing to do with actual reasons. If someone supports a policy because of A, but cannot put forward A as their reason, so instead puts B forward, this essentially makes debate and discussion futile: no matter how brilliant your arguments against B will be, they won’t affect the support for the policy. Debate and discussion become even more a game of mere appearances, a way of going through the motions. Real rational debate requires that people be quite up front about what their actual reasons are. And if their reasons are what some people think irrational, well, we’re all better off knowing that.

    My own suspicions about Christian political movements arise from the fact that I think religious political movements usually end badly. The effectiveness of religion depends crucially on showing sincerity and the effectiveness of politics depends crucially on managing appearances; combining the two almost always means, just as a matter of psychology, that within a generation, at most, one ends up purely nominal — either the religion become a lying justification or the politics becomes ineffective.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I wouldn’t go so far as to demand that the force of law require voters to give their reasons and allow only non-religious reasons for a vote. Such would be wrong, on top of (or below?) being impossible to execute.

      I don’t care as much about the reasons people have for voting on measures or laws or candidates already out there; my main concern here is that people have non-religious reasons when pushing for some change in laws or public policy. From where I stand, there’s a relevant difference between a voter opposing or supporting something put before her on religious grounds and a lobbyist or politician attempting to use the force of law to coerce behavior in accordance with a religious norm or teaching for which there is no separate non-religious argument.

      • Brandon says:

        I think similar problems arise; this would put a sharp separation in some cases between voter’s reasons and acceptable policy reasons. I think the result would inevitably be the same kind of dishonesty: politicians will do what pleases voters, even if those are motivated by purely religious reasons, and create fake non-religious reasons for policies. Since policies don’t in practice stand or fall by the success of their reasons, they wouldn’t even need to do much to defend the made-up non-religious reasons; they hardly need to do much to defend their reasons, fake or not, in other cases, as it is.

  7. BlaiseP says:

    Germany created a Christian Democratic Union which hasn’t been particularly troublesome.

  8. Al says:

    This argument seems unacceptable to me when taken to its logical conclusions.

    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.

    The problem is what happens when religious values and extra-religious reasoning conflict. It seems hard to believe that most religious people in our society who think seriously about politics do not experience such conflict. What your demand amounts to is apparently resolving it on the side of the non-religious reasoning whenever it arises, since if one chose religion then one’s position would be shorn of its non-religious element. Or more simply, this argument amounts to an absolute ban on religious reasoning in politics.

    I take the view that both religious and secular reasoning should inform one’s positions, with an understanding that our society should remain basically pluralistic. With conflict one must decide what most weighs on one’s conscience. But that does leave room for instances of supporting a position simply for religion.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      If there’s a logical conflict between religious values/beliefs and extra-religious reasoning, then I’d say either one or the other needs reconsideration and revision: i.e., at least one of them is wrong.

      There are cases in which, under my position, religious reasoning can triumph. For example, I oppose the recent HHS mandate requiring religious institutions to cover contraceptives in their insurance plans. In my opinion, the religious reasoning of these institutions is sufficient grounds for not coercing them to materially cooperate in actions they deem immoral.