The response to Andrew Sullivan’s cover story on the crisis of Christianity has surprised me, if only because his appeal seems to go no deeper than rehashing the sort of anti-creedal theological liberalism that mainline Protestant denominations have taken to.

The concerns that Andrew lays out are common enough.  Christianity, we are reminded, has become overly and reductionistically politicized.  Rather than embracing Jesus’ mindset of renouncing power, contemporary Christians have been seized by the temptations of coercion and so have eroded the distinctive Christian witness.

Yet while nearly everything in Sullivan’s essay skews toward a radically internally oriented, pietistic Christianity, he holds on to–or tries to, anyway–Christianity’s public dimension in a single paragraph: This doesn’t imply, as some claim, the privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere. There are times when great injustices—slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation—require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well. They embrace nonviolence as a moral example, and that paradox changes the world more than politics or violence ever can or will. When politics is necessary, as it is, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all.

Little in the paragraph is objectionable:  Sullivan’s distinction between “public witness” and “politics” (the latter of which I take he is defining narrowly, as the sphere of the government’s coercive authority) is one we can happily affirm.

And yet, for a piece released around Easter, Sullivan’s Christianity seems to have nearly forgotten the Resurrection.

In both his original piece and his reply to Trevin Wax, Sullivan contends that the cross is the “great symbol of the Christian faith” because it is a “total renunciation of worldly power.”

While the  qualification of “power” to “worldly” and “earthly power” is itself an interesting adjustment, the cross is the “great symbol of the Christian faith” precisely because the renunciation of power was revealed in the Resurrection as the manifestation of power.  The kingdom is “not of this world,” but it breaks into this world and radically reshapes “every square inch” of it, as folks are rather fond of saying, if not today then when Christ eventually returns.  Sullivan points to the crown of thorns and the mocking of his doubters as further evidence of Jesus’ renunciation of earthly power:  yet the irony of faith is that the crown of thorns is revealed as the crown of the King of Kings.  The one enthroned in heaven laughs, after all, because he understands that the joke is on those who scorned him.

Pointing at the cross and repeating “renunciation” may be an important step for a political theology, but it is not the only step.  There are other moments in redemptive history that need consideration.  And those make it difficult to buy Sullivan’s claims that the transcendent kingdom is an apolitical kingdom, even where “apolitical” is meant in the narrow sense of governmental coercion.  Romans 13 is a thorny passage, but one thing seems clear:  political authority is given by God and subordinated to him.  God may want things to run things liberally, on secular grounds because he cares about voluntary entry into the church–but I suspect even saying all that still wouldn’t be sufficient to escape charges of “Christianist” or “theocrat” or whatever the popular pejorative is these days.

Which is to say, the question has never been–nor can it ever be–whether Christianity can be fully and finally depoliticized, such that its concerns can be entirely aired in a court where Caesar is not present.  Instead, as Trevin argues, the challenge is discerning what the shape of Christianity’s political witness must be.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Jonathan

    The last sentence of the Sullivan quotation sounds to me a lot like Robert Audi’s position on the proper way for religiously motivated people to participate in the public square in modern liberal democracies. Nicholas Wolterstorff and others have critiqued this idea by astutely pointing out that the concept of “secular reasons” needs to be clarified, and that no concept that does the work that it’s supposed to do in the argument (identifying only those beliefs and values that do not depend on any particular worldview/value system that others in the society can reasonably refrain from accepting, and leaving us with enough beliefs and values held in common to mount the arguments needed to establish the justice of the policies in question) has been forthcoming.
    There’s a review of Audi’s most recent book on the topic over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews that brings some good criticisms to light.

  • Eric E

    The “secular reason” phrase sounds very similar to what Obama said a number of years ago.

    “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

    James K.A. Smith’s response similarly applies here.

  • Hi Matt: Isn’t Andrew Sullivan’s crisis mentality tiresome? First, we were told about the crisis in the conservative soul. Now, we are told about the crisis in the Christian soul. I suppose a crisis mentality sells books and magazines, but it is not suited to serious conversation. In the quotation you excerpted from Mr. Sullivan’s article, I immediately realized the error of his way: a failure to distinguish between Jesus’ social power, which James Davison Hunter marvelously develops in “To Change the World,” and political power. You did a nice job of pointing out Mr. Sullivan’s failure to distinguish between the renunciation of power in the Cross and the assertion of power in the Resurrection. Joel Miller, vice president of acquisitions at Thomas Nelson Publishers, wrote a piece called, “Andrew Sullivan, Wannabe Buddhist” (http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2012/04/04/andrew_sullivan_wannabe_buddhist.html). He talks about Mr. Sullivan’s “simplistic idea of power” and his downplaying of the Resurrection, too.

  • Given that the N.T. documents were written at a time when Christians had little or no access to political power, how is it that they intend to teach the renouncement of it by Christians? Trying to put them in our context may make it look that way, but I think the real issue is that Christians need to learn how to participate in a democratic form of government where, it can be argued, they have a responsibility to do so faithfully.

    One thing that needs to be made clear, I think, is that the separation of Church and State (as institutions) does not dictate the separation of religion and politics (as human endeavor). The first is essential to freedom, the second is a form of oppression.

  • Pingback: FRC Blog » The Social Conservative Review: April 12, 2012()

  • nedmorlef

    Look at the war on marijuana. How many times does God tell us that herbs are for food and medicine yet, the gov’t tells us no it’s not. It’s not to the point we will kill you and take everything you have if you participate in your own healing.
    The sad part is all of these gov’t types claim Christ as their leading factor in the way they work. The churches are quiet as the gov’t steals homes,takes children and kills puppies. The even sadder part is many,many Christians support these leaders.
    I fully understand that drugs can be bad. However, the bad drugs aren’t being targeted except by chance encounters. I only used drugs/drug war as the example because, it is the most glaring politicized excuse for murder of the taxpaying public. As well as led and supported by Christians.

    • troll

      lolllllllllllllll

  • I find it interesting how many people want to ignore the church and focus on Christ. That is as rational as telling me you want to be my friend but despise my wife.

    The way we should act, I think, is as servants. When we put others first, that is when the church grows and lives are changed. To serve takes a remarkable amount of power though, one must have confidence and selflessness to actually do something and put others first.