Western societies are at something of a paradoxical moment in which it feels as though our politics is captive to cynicism and naiveté in equal parts. Everyone else has a “hidden agenda.” Everyone else believes everything they hear. Everyone else is politically unclean. Everyone else should wake up to the fact that all these erratic and malicious interest groups are out to get us, or at least want to edit the messages on our disposable coffee cups. Everyone else is haunted by political demons. It is a politics of dark suspicion.
But right alongside that cynicism—its complement, really—is naiveté. Naive political opinions abound, obviously, but can be gathered into a couple of prevalent tendencies: to oversimplify and to dismiss. Oversimplification is a symptom of society’s obsession with ease and efficiency. The case before the Supreme Court is exactly as NPR’s Nina Totenberg described in her thirty second synopsis. Foreign policy really comes down to this pithy tweet from my favorite opinionist. Religious liberty is a zero sum contest for which there are only winners and losers. A border wall will settle immigration concerns once and for all. Or, to name the dismissive tendency: nihilistic resignation. Here the political fatalism spurned by hopelessness can take the form of a punk-rebellion against all things political, an inarticulate anarchism, or simple self-protective detachment. If polls are to be believed, this resignation accounts for roughly half of Americans.
The worst outcome, one the church itself often succumbs to, is to be so overwhelmed by cynicism and naiveté that the truth itself is resented or disregarded, no longer desirable in itself. This isn’t to suggest citizens are without desires, but that in this bewildering political moment truth isn’t one of desire’s objects. People have powerful feelings about their politics, Christians included, and because they are so powerful it is all the more essential that these feelings correspond to knowledge about politics and its realities. Ignorant, disordered desire ruins the soul and ruins society. The church, however, is a people who claim to know and desire the Living God and who, through that love, are united in the truth. To desire God is to desire the truth, to love the truth, renouncing cynicism and naivety.
I’d like to suggest that the best Christian sources for this knowledge are the Bible and the tradition of Christian political theology that has brought the witness of scripture to bear on the church’s political experience. Accessibility admittedly varies; some passages and theologians are easier to understand than others. But that just adds intrigue to the pursuit! My purpose here is to offer a few reasons for why Christian political theology is important for Christians today. Before I explain how Christian political theology might serve to expand the church’s imagination and clarify its witness, let me give you a bit of background.
Historically speaking, the church and its theologians had no great difficulty recognizing the spectacularly variegated applications of Christian theology. Adjectival designations were unnecessary. Theology had an inordinate number of possible applications and simply didn’t require specific sub-disciplines; no moral theology, no biblical theology, no historical theology, no political theology, and no systematic theology. Just theology. Only as you approach the modern period does theology begin to carve up into discreet sub-specialties. In fact, the first appearance of “political theology” appears to be Carl Schmitt’s book by that name (Politische Theologie) originally published in 1922.
Over the 20th and early 21st centuries there have been a variety of ways to do political theology, three of which are particularly dominant.
The first is broadly European, but with complex iterations. In this form political theology is an idiom of critical theory. Without going into unnecessary detail, critical theory is a philosophical approach to culture, particularly the arts, that seeks to identify, interrogate, and question the social, historical, and ideological forces that produce and restrain culture. It is occupied, as it were, with the theological substance of culture.
The second strand is Latin American liberation theology. The focus here is on the material conditions of oppression and the requisite need for deliverance. Liberation theology stresses solidarity and praxis, uniting in struggle with the God who emancipates and vindicates. It is for these and similar reasons a deeply subversive form of political theology.
A third strand is what I refer to as generally Augustinian. Here scripture and theological tradition are foregrounded, and orientation to the world is more realist. It begins with who God is and what God has said. The good news in Jesus Christ is deliverance from sin and reconciliation to the God who redeems and renews.
Christian political theology assumes as a matter of course that there is something political about theology and something theological about politics. Theology is intrinsically political. It is impossible to make sense of Israel’s history, of basic soteriology, of Christ’s ascension, or just about any doctrine without drawing on political concepts. Whole books of the Bible become vacuous without them. Following in the older, Augustinian tradition, politics is likewise theological. Latent in politics are powers, laws, symbols, rites, and still other theological concepts. Political theology seeks to theologize politics in the right way without politicizing theology in the wrong way. For a superb example see book two, chapter twenty or book nineteen of Augustine’s City of God, or indeed the entire tome!
Christian political theology helps us understand our time and place, and as a result expands imagination and clarifies our witness. When I teach political theology students are astonished at the richness and diversity of the Christian tradition, especially its premodern expressions. Engaging these older theologies enables them to see their own confused and disordered contexts in a fresh light, opening new lines of sight on fresh questions.
By actually reading primary sources students are able to assess the merits of modern political priorities and ask of their coherence with the wider tradition. The Christian story is enlarged. Political emergencies suddenly seem less urgent. Sometimes we need to be reminded of imaginings we’ve forgotten, and sometimes we need new imaginings altogether. Political theology furnishes theological truths that deepen and frame our understanding of the world as it is given. If you’d like to see this done well, see Willie Jennings’ book, The Christian Imagination and Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations.
Take voting, for example. For a variety of reasons the church historically has not considered voting among its most pivotal civic tasks. This is partly attributable to the prevailing non-democratic political forms inherited, but it is also attributable to the scriptural witness. Jesus, Paul, and Peter all speak in their own way of political authority as coming from God. This testimony has raised complex theological questions about political representation and legitimacy, but also simple ethical questions like what Christians suppose themselves to be doing when they vote.
It is regrettable that voting has in practice come to totalize political action so thoroughly that many find it difficult to name a distinctly political activity that isn’t voting. In this our land of the never-ending-campaign, voting (followed closely by protest) is given supreme political priority. The church has largely followed the cultural sentiment, and in doing so forgotten that its greatest political power is not exercised by ballot but by prayer. It is through prayer and practices flowing from it that the church exists as a pilgrim people. In fact, it is through prayer that it identifies and pursues democratic purposes, if they are to be found at all. In nothing can allegiance to Christ be compromised.
Political theology can also help clarify our witness by commending forms of citizenship that defy cultural circumscription. If we claim to be open to fresh in-breakings of the Holy Spirit, then we must be open to correction, open to the possibility we do not have only “correct takes,” and open even to a need for repentance. Christian citizenship in this temporal life is heavenly and earthly, and thus we must learn how best to embody the faith in our pilgrimage.
The New Testament routinely counsels us to lead quiet and peaceable lives, to love neighbors and act justly, to be prepared to die for the sake of the Gospel. This vision of “publicity” is culturally disfavored. But it is precisely the sort of citizenship Jesus calls his followers to: not a citizenship of bombast, antagonism, co-option, or competition, but of lowliness, friendship, diligence, honesty, peace, and righteousness. This humbler citizenship accepts that rejection, not recognition will be the reward of those who follow Jesus. For good examples on prophetic witness see David Walker’s Appeal to Colored People and Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship.
A distinctly theological conception of citizenship transcends any urgent, over-realized politics, and so rejects the cynicism and naiveté of our moment. Christian political theology begins from the fact of Christ’s regency and proceeds in steps to understand what this means for his people wherever they are found. Understanding what it means to be a political people under the cross clarifies the church’s witness. The church is a people whose allegiance to the Triune God should never be made ambiguous by its other commitments or aspirations. Its first allegiance questions and prioritizes all others. In fact, it is precisely through this absolute allegiance to God that the church receives its identity and purpose.
The implications of this allegiance are deep and wide-ranging, yet the Church’s witness will be clear not because it has devoted its energies to particular political personalities, to consolidating influence, or to “winning,” but because it is faithful and obedient to the revelation of God in Christ. So put not your trust in princes, reminds the psalmist, in whom there is no help, for happy is he that has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God. (Ps. 146:3-5)