Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics

by Robert Benne

Eerdmans, 128 pp., $14

Although virtually all Americans would agree that the idea of the separation of church and state is a good thing, what exactly it means is a hotly contested question.

For some, it means that the government and religious bodies are autonomous entities that ought not to exert power over each other in the areas over which each has appropriate authority. Others extend the idea of separation to include not only institutional limits but also a severance between the government’s lawmaking powers and religiously informed policy proposals. So, for example, a law that prohibits embryo-destruction research would violate the separation of church and state, since such a law is informed by a sanctity-of-life ethic derived from a particular theological tradition. Thus, the only legitimate policy on this matter that the state may enact is one whose advocates are not motivated by their religious beliefs.

Notice that the latter understanding of separationism is not concerned with the actual content of the religious citizen’s policy proposal, whether or not he or she has offered a cogent argument that is rationally defensible. Rather, this form of separationism amounts to a metaphysical exclusionary rule that a priori bars as illegitimate a cluster of policy proposals without regard for the quality of the cases offered for any of them. Their secular contraries are not subjected to this philosophical apartheid, even though they offer answers to the same questions and rely on beliefs no less contested than their so-called religious counterparts.

Consider, again, embryo-destruction research. One side claims that the embryonic human being is a full-fledged member of the human community, identical to its postnatal self, and thus possesses the same moral worth and intrinsic dignity throughout its existence. The other side denies this, arguing that embryonic human beings lack some characteristic or property that would make them moral persons and thus subject to the usual prohibitions against homicide. Although the religious citizen is motivated by what his theological tradition teaches, that tradition is itself a consequence of an extended argument over time, no different in character from its secular counterpart. For the secularist’s position is shaped by certain inherited beliefs acquired during his academic and cultural formation that are central to his intellectual tradition. These beliefs in metaphysics (nominalism), epistemology (scientism), and religion (subjectivism) are, like the believer’s beliefs, the result of an extended argument over time.

In Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics, Robert Benne provides a clear and compelling brief for just this sort of religious citizen (and the ecclesial community to which this citizen belongs). And he does so with great care and insight. Director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College, Benne focuses on American politics and Christian participation in it. Although he does mention a few non-Christian groups, his purpose is to offer Christians and their detractors a way of thinking about religion and politics that addresses some of the concerns that many believers and unbelievers have expressed over the past three decades since the ascendancy of the Religious Right.

After the short introduction, in chapters two and three Benne distinguishes two sorts of positions on the relationship between religion and politics—separationism and fusionism—both of which he argues Christians ought to reject. As for the first, there are at least two varieties. One sort—championed by writers as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Damon Linker—views the participation of religious citizens in the formation of policy as deleterious to democratic liberalism, if the policies these citizens propose have their genesis in their religious beliefs. Benne convincingly rebuts this claim by showing that to actualize this separationist prescription would, in effect, limit religious liberty in ways inconsistent with the promise of the American Founding. (This is why John Rawls’s “political liberalism”—the liberation theology of the secular class—is a project subversive to liberal democracy, since it privileges what it claims it does not privilege, understandings of reason, liberty, self-governance, and philosophical anthropology that are intrinsically hostile to the principles of the American Founding. And it does so on the basis of rather flimsy arguments.)

In fact, contends Benne, the separation of church and state, so famously penned by President Jefferson in his Letter to the Danbury Baptists, was a call for separating the state from the institutional church and not sequestering religion from politics. Contemporary separationists, moreover, are notoriously selective when they lament the mixing of religion and politics. For they rarely if ever decry the political activism of liberal Christians in mainline denominations who almost always walk lockstep with the left wing of the Democratic party.

The other sort of separationist is usually a devout Christian who believes that his church’s (or its members’) involvement in politics will corrupt its character and thus undermine or make more difficult its duty to save and nurture souls. Benne sees this as a legitimate concern, and one that he returns to several times. Nevertheless, he argues that because Christianity teaches that God is sovereign over all creation, including political and social institutions, and because the Gospel requires us to love our neighbors and to will their good, we cannot capriciously exclude the political realm without undermining our belief that Christianity is a knowledge tradition that properly informs us about the good, the true, and the beautiful in every facet of human existence.

Fusionists, according to Benne, see such a direct connection between their political beliefs and partisan affiliations and the teachings of their faith that they often think, either intentionally or unintentionally, that there is a straight line from the latter to the former. Globally, some Christians fuse ethnic solidarity and patriotism with their theological traditions in unhealthy ways, fomenting the sorts of violence we have seen in places like Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Domestically, fusionism is more issue-oriented. So, for example, Paul Tillich wrote, “Socialism is the only possible economic system from the Christian point of view.” And today some left-leaning Christians support same-sex marriage and abortion rights on precisely the same grounds.

On the political right, groups like the Christian Coalition issue policy pronouncements that range from opposing abortion (which is much more defensible as the Christian point of view) to supporting the war in Iraq (which is much more tenuous as the Christian position). Moreover, when one equates the platform of either of the two major political parties with one’s theological beliefs, this leaves one with virtually no room for making distinctions between positions that seem to be close to obvious entailments of one’s Christian beliefs (e.g., male-female marriage, pro-life on abortion) and positions over which Christians of goodwill may disagree (e.g., whether a particular war is just, the size and scope of the welfare state, school-sponsored prayer in public schools).

Benne proposes an alternative to separationism and fusionism: critical engagement. In making his case he offers a theoretical justification and suggests some practical applications as well. Concerning the former, he takes the central claims of Christianity—about the nature of God, creation, salvation, and man—and, from them, derives several politically relevant principles. He then explains how those principles may be applied given the historical, political, national, and social situations in which an ecclesial community and its members may find themselves. So, for example, a Christian who has good reason to believe that the unborn from conception is a moral person, and is thus her neighbor, may have a difficult time placing that belief in our laws if she lives in a society in which most of its citizens cannot “see” the unborn’s personhood. In that case, the Christian may opt for more modest attempts at shaping policy that provide a means to teach her compatriots about the sanctity of human life. So, she and her church may support a partial-birth abortion ban, since it requires that their compatriots confront this gruesome procedure and what it does to a being that seems obviously to be one of us.

In terms of practical application, Benne suggests several ways by which Christian churches may, indirectly or directly, as well as intentionally and unintentionally, involve themselves in politics and public affairs. And although this is a small book, it is packed with real insight. Benne wisely navigates between several extremes while always mindful that, though the Christian is a citizen of two kingdoms, it is in only one of them that he can find the eternal source of all that could possibly be good and true in the other.

Francis J. Beckwith, professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor, is the author, most recently, of Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft.

Next Page