Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Nation with the Soul of a Mainline Church

[Note: this piece was originally a review essay of a book that was published during the height of the Monica Lewinsky affair in the late 1990s. The book itself is an interesting cultural artifact; but I'm not blogging this simply to remind people of Clinton v. Lewinsky. Rather, I think the book and my essay raises important questions about the relationship between Christians and their churches on the one hand and politics and the state on the other. I couldn't help but be reminded of it as I've been sitting here reading D. G. Hart's A Secular Faith.]

For well over a year now, the American people have endured a soap opera involving their President. The sordid details are too well known to require review. The partisanship, particularly during the impeachment debate in the U.S. House of Representatives, was particularly intense. Both Democrats and Republicans dealt in rhetoric designed ultimately to persuade their core constituents–African-Americans, feminists, and the Religious Right. Each side condemned Mr. Clinton’s behavior. But Democrats tend to counsel “mercy” and “forgiveness” for “private sins” and Republicans tend to focus on the “rule of law” and demand justice for “public sins.” The rancor stirred by the impeachment debate signals the fiercest battle yet in the so-called “culture war.”

In the midst of this partisan debate, a cadre of academic theologians, hailing from mainline religious institutions, issued a “Declaration concerning Religion, Ethics, and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency.” The statement, issued on November 13, 1998, declared in forceful terms that Mr. Clinton and his defenders were manipulating religion and “debasing moral language” by attempting to hide behind professed repentance and the private nature of sexual sin, confession, and restoration. These theologians and religion scholars declared that “politics and morality cannot be separated” and that “certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system.” Chief among the public virtues thought necessary to the survival of the American political system are “truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power.” That Mr. Clinton failed to exhibit these virtues was obvious. Rather than issuing a specific call for impeachment or resignation, these scholars desired “society as a whole to take account of the ethical commitments necessary for a civil society and to seek the integrity of both public and private morality.” In order to further this national debate on ethics and civil society, these scholars established a web site and wrote essays for Judgment Day at the White House, a book published one short month after the declaration was issued.

In many ways, Judgment Day at the White House makes for fascinating reading. In it one finds theologians who represent mainline churches without doctrinal centers castigating a politician without a moral center. As a result, the criticisms are implicitly lodged against the entire 20th-century mainline Protestant project that divorced ethics from doctrine. These scholars are in the awkward position of critiquing one of their own and of criticizing the end results of their own project. After all, Mr. Clinton’s membership at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a church affiliated with the liberal Co-operative Baptist Fellowship, places him in the heart of the mainline. Further, Mr. Clinton and his theological accusers share a wide area of agreement in social policies. Thus, these scholars are forced by their own esteem for “ethics” to criticize a national leader who has none due, in part, to the theological tradition of these scholars’ own denominations. Who taught Mr. Clinton to divorce doctrine from life, thus making all ethics relative? Mainline liberal Protestantism did. Who is now holding Mr. Clinton accountable? In the words of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s president, Al Mohler, Clinton’s own “spiritual enablers” are.

Another aspect that makes Judgment Day such fascinating is that these mainline theologians cannot get beyond their belief that the American nation and its form of government has the soul of a mainline church. How else can one explain the tortured investigations of public forgiveness and repentance one finds in this book? How else to account for disappointment in Mr. Clinton’s failure to display “virtue”? How else to understand the theologians’ repeated insistence on the importance of “trust” and on leaders’ “integrity” and “trustworthiness”? These writers seem to believe that Mr. Clinton’s “private” sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky and his “public” actions of apparent perjury and obstruction of justice demand repentance, confession, and forgiveness in order to restore integrity and trust in the office of the President. None, save Stanley Hauerwas, question whether or not activities such as repentance, confession, forgiveness and restoration can even occur outside the context of the church. None question whether true virtue is possible for the nominal Christian.

By failing to question these basic assumptions, the contributors to Judgment Day unwittingly perpetuate the American civil religion. The idea of American civil religion is well rooted in the American psyche. Commonly, the term “civil religion” represents “that religious dimension through which [every people] interprets its historical experience in the light of transcendent reality.” In a more local sense, American civil religion is the understanding of the historical experience of the United States in the light of some divine purpose. This sense of divine telos sanctifies the origin of America as well as its consummation. And within an understanding of divine purpose, which reaches both to origin and consummation of the nation-state, lies the individuation of that purpose, so that each American finds a divine purpose in the choices he or she makes. Further, the political leaders of America are seen as divine agents who must uphold strict moral standards. These leaders stand in the pantheon of other political heroes who have taken on religious significance, such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln.

Though the authors of Judgment Day do not reproduce long-standing beliefs in America as a “redeemer nation,” by failing to distinguish adequately between the “spheres” of church and state, they demand from the head of the American state “religious” responses to political (and legal?) crimes. In demanding “religious” responses, these theologians and religion scholars assume two things. First, they assume that Mr. Clinton is able to repent and confess. Second, they assume that the average American will be able to recognize adequate repentance and confession and will be able to forgive and trust wholeheartedly.

Because they assume these two things, the mainline authors of Judgment Day are surprised and dismayed at Mr. Clinton’s failure to repent. They bemoan the President’s inadequate confessions, which often are coupled with harsh attacks on his partisan opponents. Mr. Clinton’s accusers are also dismayed by American failure to recognize the President’s inadequate repentance. If the opinion polls are to be believed, the American public approves of Mr. Clinton’s leadership while distrusting him personally. This is decried, by one contributor to Judgment Day, as “amoral Machivellianism that ill befits us as a people and that undermines a political system in which law embodies what is best, most capacious, and most hopeful about us as a people.”

Why is it so surprising to these theologians and religion scholars that Americans expect their leaders to be somewhat Machiavellian? After all, every day women and men go to work in the new capitalism where the only thing that matters is the bottom line. Trustworthiness, the ability to repent and confess, compassion, truthfulness--these virtues do not matter in the new capitalism. Rather, creativity, flexibility, the ability to “turn the deal,” efficiency--these are the values of the new capitalism. By practicing these values each day in the work place, Americans are not trained to trust their leaders or their co-workers. As creativity demands “re-engineering,” as flexibility and efficiency demand “downsizing,” so the American worker learns distrust on the job. And by spending each working day in the atmosphere of distrust, evaluating individuals not on character but in economic terms, the American worker learns a certain admiration for the CEO who may be a “jerk,” but who is a “successful” leader, as measured by the bottom line. By expecting leaders like “the Prince,” Americans learn to distrust their leaders, whether in the corporate world or in the political world.

Why is distrust such a problem for these mainline theologians? Because distrust implies the very lack of community that neo-conservatives and liberals hope to reverse. Neo-conservatives and liberals play on the importance of community and covenants in order to provide groundwork for a united society working for the “public good.” Max Stackhouse expresses his discomfort with Mr. Clinton’s scandal for the precise reason that it provides an example at the highest level of “covenant breaking.” This example is not merely a picture of the American condition; for Stackhouse, Mr. Clinton’s behavior provides an example and excuse for other Americans to engage in covenant-breaking behavior, which in turn will lead to the unraveling of the American social fabric. By Mr. Clinton’s failure to provide the necessary repentance, America will be demythologized and schism will be the result.

However, from an older Christian perspective, any hope for a society built upon a general adherence to the “public good” and to a vague notion of Christian principle ultimately is a pipe dream. For at the root of Christianity is the doctrine of original sin. As a result of the fall, distrust among men and women in the world is to be expected. After their disobedience, as a mark of distrust, Adam and Eve clothed themselves with skins because they realized they were guilty. Likewise, as a result of the fall, humankind seeks to satisfy their own ambitions and desires while covering it up. We are, in a word, selfish. Thus, the only real basis of national unity is where individuals’ self-interests intersect. Generally, self-interests intersect in the economic realm; as long as the economy is bullish, society can cohere somewhat peacefully, though not necessarily virtuously. With self-interest as the reigning virtue in the world and the economy running full steam ahead, it is no wonder that Mr. Clinton has confessed to very little and that the American public appears to support him. After all, people understand that the most important thing we all must do is to protect our own self-interest.

The problem of self-interest also pervades the social organism. Societal sin cannot be atoned for by changing social structures as liberal Protestants believed. Nor can revivalism reign in societal sin as evangelicals hope. Sin that pervades the very structures of society, the very creation itself, will not be dealt with until the redemption of all things at the end of the age. The idea of a “Christian America” that will endure, formed by the social gospel or revivalism is a myth; the United States is in fact only a nation that will someday crumble. A new society will arise to take its place.

What should a Christian response to this “crisis” in the Clinton presidency look like? It will not necessarily equate to the positions of the Religious Right, with their repeated calls for Mr. Clinton to resign or for the Senate to remove the impeached President from office. In fact, the whole affair calls for a reconsideration of the relationship between church and state from a different perspective than either evangelical or mainline Protestantism.

First, the notion of America as a “Christian” nation should be dropped. Protestants as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell have put great stock in the supposition that Christian moral values are necessary for democracy to function. Even the framers of the “Declaration” believe that morality is necessary for democracy, with “morality” serving as a code word for “Christian” moral values. Hailing back to some distant golden age, many Protestants long for a time when America will reverse the tide of secularization and return the government to a “moral” basis, rooted in Protestant social mores. This longing for the re-establishment of the American civil religion is seen by some as the only hope for the continuation of national prosperity and unity.

Second, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal sends an important warning against expecting Christian virtues from political leaders. A far more realistic position to take vis-à-vis politicians is to expect them to be scoundrels and then be pleasantly surprised when they are not. The reason stems from Christian teaching about human nature. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.” Even as rabid a skeptic as H. L. Mencken had little trouble with such Calvinistic sentiments. “Public officials, under democracy,” he wrote, “were predominantly frauds, and hence did not deserve to be taken seriously.” Churches would do well to adopt this doctrine, not because someone as sharp-eyed as Mencken held it, but because it is the clear teaching of their own best traditions. In turn, when politicians act with a measure of virtue, we should be pleasantly surprised and chalk it up to common grace or self-interest. Whatever the reaction, a healthy dose of Mencken’s understanding of politics might help churches recover their theological bearings. For the moment the politician’s “leg goes over the political fence, he must learn all of the tricks of the regular mountebanks.”

Third, this episode teaches that there is a difference between the rule of American law and the rule of divine law. Of course, there are similarities between American constitutional law and biblical law. The end of all law is the same, justice. Both constitutional law and the Scriptural law hold out a standard for all human beings in their respective spheres. This legal standard provides human beings with a guide on how to live; when violated, the law prescribes punishment in order to restore justice. This, of course, is rudimentary thinking concerning the role law plays in any type of society. Why then do human beings have law? Is it true, as Jean Bethke Elshtain writes, “the law, ideally, embodies what is best, most capacious, and most hopeful about us as a people”? In Dr. Elshtain’s way of thinking, because Americans have laws against murder, we really cherish life, because Americans have laws against rape, we really cherish marriage and monogamous sexual relations, and so on.

From another angle, however, Elshtain’s statement is poppycock, apparently ignorant of both the nature of constitutional law and biblical law. As for biblical law, Christians learn that the moral law first given to Adam in Eden and summarized in the Ten Commandments demands obedience; upon failure, justice is issued by way of eternal punishment. God gave humankind his moral law, not because it embodies what is best about human beings, but because it reveals his own holy character.

As for the laws that make up the American Constitution, the framers did not produce a constitution that summarizes what is best about men and women. Rather, they recognized that human beings need protection from one another. As Madison writes in Federalist No. 51, speaking of the need for separation of powers and the role of government in general, “It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Because men are ambitious, Madison claims, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” This lust for power, this ambition, this pride of life – these things do not signal what is best and most hopeful about humankind; rather, the founders recognized profoundly that human beings are deeply flawed. If left to exercise unchecked power, human beings naturally would prove tyrannous, would eliminate or restrict civil and religious liberties, and would subject a large portion of the population to the whims of the government. Thus, the U.S. Constitution was framed by those who understood that we need protection from ourselves.

Nonetheless, a vast difference exists between the constitutional law of the United States and the moral law of the Scriptures. When one violates the constitutional law of the United States, it is a crime; when one violates the constitutional law of the Scriptures, it is a sin. Thus, the state can only pardon crimes; the church only can forgive sins. By confusing the role of the church and the state, the entire discussion of Mr. Clinton’s troubles becomes muddled and, in fact, has led to the farce of Mr. Clinton’s repeated apologies and attempts at “repentance.” The state cannot judge adequate repentance; the world cannot judge adequate confession. Only the church has the ability, by the means of Word and Spirit, to judge what is adequate confession and repentance and to respond with forgiveness as Jesus taught.

Why then does Mr. Clinton feel the need for repeated attempts at confession? It seems fairly clear that Mr. Clinton’s pollsters told him that the American public, which does not understand true repentance nor has the power to forgive, wanted him to be more abject, more remorseful, more “sorry.” Mr. Clinton provided the American public with the requisite show of remorse because that is what the public claimed they wanted. Of course, then, Mr. Clinton was politically motivated. Of course, Mr. Clinton’s confessions were propaganda. Why, then, does the “Declaration” berate Mr. Clinton’s attempts at repentance as “politically motivated and incomplete”? What else can Mr. Clinton’s repeated public attempts be but politically motivated? In what other manner does one become a world leader except by being absolutely sensitive to the political implications of his actions? Mr. Clinton, by issuing repeated apologies, was not being a bad Christian; he was being a good politician.

The problem is not with Mr. Clinton’s apologies. The problem is that the authors of the “Declaration” expect a government leader, one who is bound by the U.S. Constitution and who may have committed crimes against the state, to publicly confess and repent of sins committed against God. By confusing these two realms of law, the authors of Judgment Day signal their continued adherence to a civil religion where the president of United States of America is accountable not only to the laws and to the people, but is accountable also to God. We do not deny that ultimately Mr. Clinton is accountable to God for violating the Ten Commandments, in the same fashion we all are. We simply deny that as the leader of the United States, he is accountable to God. Mr. Clinton is not King David; for that matter, he is not even Thomas Jefferson, who it now appears had more than a few dalliances of his own with ladies in his employ. Mr. Clinton is simply a mediocre president of the United States at the end of the twentieth century.

In the end, the church's responsibility is to preach the gospel, not preserve the moral fiber of America. By giving up the entanglements of civil religion, the churches can practice a different kind of politics, one of real peace, forgiveness, and mercy. This “Christian” politics will also free the churches to regard government officials as the Israelites viewed the Babylonian or Persian lords when in exile, as “God’s servants” who bear legitimate authority, whether corrupt or not.

Or like the early church, for that matter. All the apostle Paul prayed for from his government was a social order that made it possible to preach the gospel. Interestingly enough, the politician in Paul’s day was worse than Mr. Clinton. The scoundrel in Paul’s day was a Roman emperor, named Nero, who had a penchant for burning down his own empire’s capital while playing the violin. America only has a president who will be gone in two more years, who committed adultery and lied about it, and who plays a mean saxophone. Americans really don’t have it so bad.

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