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Divine Intervention

What religion means to politics, and vice versa.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By FRANCIS J. BECKWITH
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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.

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