Another Fourth of July has come and gone, and many American Christians have thanked God for placing them within the borders of the United States. The love of nation and the love of God have had a history of becoming intertwined; it has always been a challenge of the faithful to finely differentiate allegiances to church and nation, while simultaneously finding points of alignment where the good for both can be pursued.
The declaration and pursuit of a common good can prove difficult in our present political environment, particularly for political and theological conservatives. President Barack Obama did much to advocate for and establish a liberal voice informed by the commitments of faith in his 2006 “Call to Renewal” address, but in recent years conservatives have been much more comfortable bringing their religious convictions to the public square and citing faith based arguments as foundational for policy initiatives and political agendas. The result: when Christian commitments are invoked, those on the left cry foul, claiming that conservatives are seeking to establish a theocracy. A similar outcome results when theological conservatives issue a call to pray for the nation.
When those on the left accuse theological conservatives of attempting to establish a theocracy, I wonder if they have ever read any conservative theology. Or, for that matter, whether they have noticed that it is often those on the conservative end, like the Baptists, who haven’t forgotten their heritage as a persecuted minority and who cherish the Danbury Letter written by Jefferson, that strongly argue for the protection of religious freedom and minority viewpoints within our democracy.
What liberals find distasteful, I believe, is not necessarily the politics of conservatives, but the right conservatives have to express their opinions and viewpoints within the context of a vibrant public discourse, and to persuade others to think, act, believe, vote, and organize as they do. Conservatives are often type-cast as mindless fools, winning over the majority through scare tactics and a futile longing for the past, while liberals cast themselves as intellectual superiors who have access to some type of spiritual or cultural knowledge unfathomable to the rest of us.1 Conservative aren’t just wrong, they are unenlightened regressives.
But the problem is this: conservatives are not wrong on all that they believe, nor are they unintelligent or moronic, backwards and ignorant. So too liberals are not wrong concerning all that they believe, nor are they godless, demonic secularists who wish to destroy this country and abolish religion.
The task, then, for Christians who are both liberal and conservative is to establish a space within the public square where the merits and weaknesses of our varying positions can be measured and engaged with dignity and respect. Love of nation is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as we maintain a unique identity under the cross; ancient Christians may give us some wisdom in this regard.2 As the Letter to Diognetus puts it, “Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.” The love and service of God is our higher calling. And it is the unique politics that is “church”, with our overarching commitment to “Jesus is Lord”, that should guide and direct our theological and political discussions so that they are conducted in a spirit of love and grace.
Along the way, it is the task of both liberals and conservatives to persuade as many people as possible to join them in light of what they believe to be true, and to argue for those positions with passion and clarity, while avoiding the temptation to demonize and marginalize their opponents. When individuals are persuaded and join a cause, that is an outcome of democracy, not theocracy. It is the workings of a strong public discourse that allows for divergent viewpoints to be voiced, and for the people to discern, to think, and to become convinced that a particular vision for the good is the best vision for the nation, and to vote accordingly.
The church has a role to play in a strong public discourse, one of service, not rule.3 And neither liberals nor conservatives should forget it.
- 1. Diana Butler Bass skewers political and theological conservatives in her latest book, Christianity After Religion. [↩]
- 2. The Letter to Diognetus, 5:1-10, reads: “For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require.” See also this piece at Mere-O. [↩]
- 3. Mark 10:41-45. [↩]