Render Unto Caesar

Matt 22:21

The political season began in earnest yesterday.  It seems to me that politics represent “an attractive menace” for Christians. What can be more important than determining the values and policies that govern everyone’s everyday lives? Christians must be interested and involved. On the other hand, of course, lie the temptations to exercise control over others, to mistake temporal concerns for eternal, to compromise the core of Christian identity, and a host of others.  I addressed these concerns in a series of lectures entitled “Baptist Polity, Biblical Theology, and Responsible Citizenship” delivered as the Solon B. Cousins Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond March 29-30, 2016.  Below is an excerpt outlining what I believe to be the principle temptations.  The full text of the lectures is available under the “Sermons and Lectures” tab on this website.

First, of course, Christians must always remember that our primary citizenship is in, and our sole allegiance is to, the Kingdom of God; and we must behave accordingly.  Allegiance to the nation-state is idolatry and reflects a pseudo-soteriology.  It is idolatry because it involves a penultimate entity calling for ultimate devotion.  It is pseudo-soteriology because it confuses the state with the source of all blessing.

Second, indeed, because the church, as the foyer, as it were, to the Kingdom of God, pursues ultimate matters it finds itself inherently in potential conflict with the state.  As the early Baptists recognized, the Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” cannot be reconciled with the demands the state often makes on its citizens – to make war, to finance discrimination with taxes, or to promote national arrogance, are but a few examples.  Similarly, the notion of the church universal, with no physical boundaries, transcends, or should transcend, national interests.  When it does not, ridiculous situations arise in which combatants on opposite sides of a battle line both can claim to be on the side of the one God.

Third, as a corollary to the first two parameters, it is important to remember that politics is “an instrument of proximate goals, rather than ultimate commitments,” to quote Robin Lovin (Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism [Cambridge: Cambridge, 1995], 160). Until the full realization of the Kingdom of God, government must continue to demonstrate the maxim that politics is the art of the possible.  Until God fully cleanses the world of sin, in the best case, even decent people will sometimes seek first their own self-interests, demand their rights, and concede to others only what they must to avoid excessive conflict.  In other cases, when one party has sufficient power, or thinks so, that party will indeed often seek conflict, will seek to win.  Healthy politics and good government will balance competing interests in order to lessen conflict; they do not have the capacity to change human hearts in order to usher in the Kingdom of God – a lesson classical liberal theology learned painfully in the last century.

Fourth, the reference to classical liberal theology suggests a caution concerning the allure of Enlightenment ideals and against confusing them with Christian values.  Under scrutiny, many of these Enlightenment notions prove to embody what Augustine referred to as the libido dominandi, the desire to control, not the Christian ideal of selfless love or the doctrine of the imago dei.  Modern liberal democracy, for example, pits interest against interest.  The designers of our own democracy, in fact, built it around a system of checks and balances so that centers of power would be able to curtail one another.  In its contemporary incarnation, arguably, our democracy is closer to an oligarchy.  In any case, it exercises coercive control, not redemptive love. Capitalism depends on the greed of all involved in the free market to achieve competitive balance.  Both capitalism and socialism conceive of humanity in terms of competition, either between individuals or economic classes, instead of mutuality. The idea of human rights assumes that vulnerable individuals must be protected from others who would overlook their dignity.  It does not point primarily to the worth and nobility of human beings, but to the necessity of defending the weak against the strong.  Paradoxically, then, the Human Rights movement points to the same human greed, libido dominandi, and competition that democracies and free markets rely upon in order to function.

Fifth, Baptists cannot honestly lament the fact that the pluralism and secularity of the modern globalized world have only complicated the negotiations and compromises that take place in the political realm.  Instead, we must admit our role in helping to create these phenomena.  We had good reasons for doing so, even if we did not foresee all the secondary consequences.  Baptists have always insisted that the church consists solely of baptized believers; we have always insisted on the individual’s right to make that decision freely and on one’s own; and we have always insisted that the state has no role to play whatsoever in the matter.  Pluralism, including secularism, is more than the inevitable by-product of true religious freedom; it is the substance of it.  To quote early Virginia Baptist John Leland:

The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians (John Leland, “A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland:  Including Some Events in His Life [L.F. Greene, ed.;  New York:  G. W. Wood, 1845], 118).

While the freedom of Muslim, Buddhist, and atheist citizens in our society may complicate Christian efforts to influence the common weal, Baptists, at least, should celebrate that freedom and their presence as evidence of our historical resistance against the libido dominandi.

Sixth, one of the unwanted secondary outcomes of the Baptist insistence on the religious freedom of individuals has been the reinforcement of modernity’s valorization of hyper-individualism.  In the realm of belief, this hyper-individualism manifests itself in a religion that is “spiritualized, privatized, and inwardized” (Jason A. Mahn, “Reforming Formation:  The Practices of Protestantism in a Secular Age,” Currents in Theology and Mission 40 [2013], 307), in believers that withdraw from community, and in an other-worldly faith that borders on Gnosticism.

Of course, the last assertion brings us around full circle. Ironically, one of the dangers inherent in recognizing the temptations politics and government represent for Christians is to reach the decision to disdain involvement in governing civil society altogether.  Next week’s entry will offer reasons for Christians to engage wholeheartedly, while minding the dangers, nonetheless.