Saving Religion from the American Right
D. G. Hart, like Balmer, has profound questions about the relationship between American politics and Christian faithfulness. In addition, Hart comes at the question from the perspective of an American religious historian who has thought deeply about these issues in a separate, yet related, venue: the relationship between Christian faith and academic scholarship. For example, in his The University Gets Religion, he promoted the value of an irrelevant faith, a faith that restricts itself chastely to Word and sacrament and to the church’s spiritual mission, one content with private spheres and unwilling to intrude itself in public spheres, such as the academy. Christian scholars should “stop trying to secure a religion-friendly university while paying deference to the academic standards of the modern university,” Hart claimed. Rather, Christian academics should to glad to “have to live in an apparently schizophrenic manner, separating what they do in the classroom or publish from what they do at home or as part of a community of faith.” For in this way, religious faith would be restricted to its proper sphere—a private, spiritual sphere focused on eternal matters and rewards—where it can be maintained in its full, exclusive, sectarian glory.
Hart utilized a similar tack on the relationship between Christian faith and American politics in A Secular Faith [note: references will be in the text]. Against those who would agitate for the public utility of faith for thinking through public issues, Hart bluntly claimed that “faith and public policy have little to do with each other” (70). In part, this is because, in his view, Christianity (or at least a Christianity that is worth anything) is necessarily sectarian, exclusive, and intolerant. It makes claims about the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation that cut out large swathes of the American population; it suggests that some Americans will experience God’s wrath for not believing in Jesus. To believe that an exclusivistic religion, such as Christianity, can serve as the basis of national unity or a resource for public policy ultimately misunderstands the true nature of Christianity (9). As a result, Christianity is “virtually useless for resolving America’s political disputes” (11).
Hart claims that not only does Christianity have little to say to American politics, but even more, attempts to relate Christianity to American politics actually vitiates and transforms it into a moralistic, activitistic deism, a common denominator faith that has little to do with historic Christianity. Hart ably charted American Christians’ preoccupation with their own “redeemer nation” status, a belief that drew both on Whig interpretations of history that saw America as the potential catalyst for the millennium and on forces within mainstream American Protestantism that sought to maintain hegemony through a dumbed-down, ecumenical faith. This preoccupation led many to embrace an “American Creed” that was supported by a “Protestantism without God” (45). And yet, this American vision of God and progress did spurn amazing technological growth, unprecedented economic expansion, and undeniable military prowess along with a nation committed to civil liberty for all.
This vision of God produced American civilization; it also created movements to maintain that civilization. Hart suggested that the rise of the Social Gospel at the turn of the twentieth century was an attempt to bring all of American life—a life that was diversifying rapidly in the face of immigration, urbanization, and industrialization—under the influence of Christianity. Social Gospel theologians, such as Walter Rauschenbusch and E. C. Smyth, grasped hold of two important theological grips to extend the reach of Christianity: the Kingdom of God and the Lordship of Christ. While the latter allowed theologians to embrace “an expansive view of Christianity and the Bible that saw its application to all aspects of life as necessary to genuine devotion,” the former provided the conceptual framework for that application (110). God’s will “became the norm for affairs of the United States,” in such a way that not to work for social justice was to disobey what God the King was doing in the world (115). But to work for justice in the corporate categories of the Social Gospel was to forsake the Bible’s emphasis upon the need for a personal appropriation of faith in Jesus and so made Christianity less than what the Bible declared it to be.
Hart’s solution is to return to an understanding of a separation between the church and state. This separation is ultimately rooted in older Lutheran and Calvinist divisions: law and Gospel; kingdoms of sword and word; spiritual and civic righteousness; spiritual and civil liberty; the church as organization and as individuals (35-7, 60-6, 232-4, 244-6). However, the ultimate division that informs a separation between the church and state is a renewed appreciation for and appropriation of the divide between secular and sacred (41). Hart suggests that the word secular actually suggests provisional or impermanent; as a result, Christianity in this current time between the advents of Jesus is “always haunted by a sense of being temporary” (242).
Not only is the church provisional (i.e. “secular”) during this period, but so is the state. Because Protestantism understood this, it was the catalyst for the “demythologizing” of the world and the secularization of the West. Protestants generally sought to move the state into its own sovereign sphere, outside the control of the church—because both spheres, church and state, were temporary orders. Even more, the state could exercise its sovereignty without the assistance of Christian piety, because it was a temporary grant of power to order the affairs of a given country for a time before the coming, final form of the Kingdom of God. By view the state and the church as temporary, “secular” orders for this time between times, Christians do not need to prostitute their faith in order to Christianize the state or culture more generally. To do so is ultimately to “trivialize” Christianity itself (252).
Hart’s argument is powerful, especially for a generation that grew up in Reagan’s America, during the heyday of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. Tired of the often angry and unbiblical rhetoric of the Religious Right, it would be a welcome relief to buy Hart’s argument lock, stock, and barrel that Christians can simply engage or not engage the public realm as they choose without bringing their beliefs to bear on it. It would be a relief, but sadly, it is impossible. And it is impossible for the very reason that Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs and practices that can be engaged and disengaged depending on what day the calendar says; rather, the Christian faith conveys an identity—beliefs, practices, and stories—that changes the way we engage all of our lives all of the time.
And it is at this very point that Hart struggles. While he wants to argue that church and state ought to remain separate (with which I agree), he transforms that argument into a claim that faith and politics ought to remain separate. And that is the impossibility of his argument. For example, in describing the “otherworldly” nature of faith, Hart described himself “as a Protestant who firmly believes in the importance of worldly vocations as yielding genuinely spiritual rewards, and who just as firmly believes in the fundamental goodness of creation, I suggest that otherworldliness need not be as politically passive and culturally withdrawn as critics allege” (12). But these two beliefs often motivate political action: to believe that worldly vocations are God’s means for exercising our calling in our world may lead to certain policy statements on “welfare-to-work” programs; to believe in the fundamental goodness of creation may lead to environmental policy that protects rivers, lakes, and streams. To suggest that somehow these “otherworldly” beliefs should not translate into action, or to suggest that “Christian-inspired policy, arguments or candidates” are “inappropriate” on “Christian grounds” (253), is to go against the nature of personal identity itself. Beliefs cannot be separated from practices nor can they help but have public import.
Again, at one point Hart asks the question whether “the Bible [could] be used outside a religious setting for a public purpose,” a question which translates into “whether Christian morality could be separated from Christian doctrine, church polity, or worship” (84). While agreeing with him that developing Christians who live ethically is very much tied to Christian beliefs and practices (and so, to Christian identity), I would also point out that Christian morality cannot be separated from decisions made in the public sphere. And this is simply because Christian ethics cannot be divorced or separated from Christian identity. As a Christian, I cannot separate my beliefs about human life and sexuality, the nature of creation and its care, or God’s concern for the weak and powerless from how I vote, what causes I support, or what policy I help to write.
This greatest evidence that faith and politics cannot be separated is that Hart’s entire book, purporting to demonstrate that Christianity is an apolitical faith, argues this very political claim from the standpoint of the Christian faith. Repeatedly, Hart makes recourse to the Christian theological tradition as well as to the Bible itself to make his claims. Examples of this abound: in a discussion of the phrase “city on a hill,” he delves into an examination of Luther and Calvin’s comments on the Sermon on the Mount to support his claim that this metaphor relates to “churchly rather than political or nationalistic categories” (35-7); sorting through the nature of Christian liberty led him to draw upon Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell and the Westminster divines (60-6); the question of Christian morality led to a discussion of the “third use of the law” and the Heidelberg Catechism (90-1); dealing with Social Gospel understandings of the kingdom of God produced an overview of southern Presbyterian Stuart Robinson’s discussion of the spiritual nature of Christ’s rule (116-9); distinguishing between a personal and public faith meant an exposition of Matthew 6 (176-7); and answering the Kuyperian claims about Christ’s Lordship meant a turn to theological points on the relationship between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church as well as the role of the diaconate (230-2).
The most obvious example that Hart’s argument for a secular faith was a profoundly religious one and hence, an example of the public utility of the Christian faith and its tradition, can be found in the conclusion of the book. There he uses the Old Testament prophet Daniel to argue that “Christians…may also be called to live lives in which they negotiate competing sets of loyalties and responsibilities” (256; see 253-7). While not disputing for the moment the conclusion he draws, this is still a claim drawn from the Bible itself that impacts a Christian’s public stance. And it strikes me that this is profound irony of A Secular Faith: that a book making claims for not using Christianity as the basis for cultural or political approaches does so powerfully by utilizing the Christian faith and its tradition in just that way