Tuesday, February 6, 2007

A Secular Faith



By Darryl Hart

Darryl Hart has written an unusual book. It is unusual primarily because he argues for a secular viewpoint regarding governance, yet from a conservative protestant perspective. Typically, most advocates of governing from a secular basis have themselves come from a non-religious, or even an anti-religious perspective. Hart’s twist is that he is a religious conservative, and argues his thesis for a secular politics from his theological orthodoxy, not from any underlying liberalism.

In writing his book, Hart is concerned to protect the orthodoxy of basic Christian teaching and practice from the corrupting influence brought about by politicizing the faith, whether from the left or the right. In the Preface, as well as in the Introduction, Hart presents his argument that Christianity is essentially an apolitical faith, and that any attempts to use it for political ends “fundamentally distort the Christian religion because it is essentially an otherworldly faith.” (p.16). Thus Hart offers up what he calls a “Christian secularist” alternative to “values evangelicals” on the one hand and “legal secularists” on the other.

In chapter 1, “City on a Hill,” Hart recounts the famous sermon of John Winthrop aboard the Arbella called “A Model of Christian Charity” and shows how influential that sermon has been to America’s self conception since then. Yet, more importantly, Hart points out that Winthrop’s understanding of the Puritan experiment in America was “an effort to perpetuate Christendom” (p.38); a concept that Hart clearly is glad to see as a past tense reality.

In chapter 2, “Whose Freedom, Which Liberty?” Hart describes in great detail the work of John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. I had always understood Witherspoon to be one of the most orthodox Christians among the founders of the nation, yet I had not realized how politicized, and thus distorted, Christian teaching had already become, even with him. He basically argued that ““the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our society,” depended on political autonomy” and that “true religion, that is, Protestant Christianity, flourished only where civil magistrates protected civil liberties” (p.51).

Witherspoon also argued that not only did ‘true religion’ only flourish under civil liberties, but that ‘true religion’ itself was responsible for those very liberties. Hart goes on to describe how this unproved assumption permeated American Christian thinking from Witherspoon, and his “Christian republicanism,” through to the Social Gospel era, even to the modern “Christian Right” and their conservative allies. Later on in the same chapter, Hart points out that the Westminster Assembly, which produced the famous Confession of the same name, met during deeply politically charged times. Yet in the parts of that confession that would seemingly have the most political importance, in those parts that spoke of Christian liberty, “the Westminster divines paid no attention to politics.” (p.62). And as he says on the next page, “this freedom had nothing to do with politics because it was as much the privilege of the “martyr at the stake, the slave in his chains, the prisoner in his dungeon, as well as the king upon the throne.”” (p.63). Basically, for Hart, a Christian is free because of Christ, not because of any civil liberties he may or may not enjoy. Amen to that!

In the next chapter, “For Goodness’ Sake,” Hart illustrates the moralism that many, if not most, of the founders infused into public schooling and how they used Christian language to legitimate that political purpose. Yet it was a Christian language that was gutted of any particular doctrinal content, leaving only the ethical behavior, so that better citizens might be produced. Yet biblical and historical Christianity has always held that true Christian faith must have the doctrinal underpinning in order to make any sense of the ethical behavior. As Hart says,

What is remarkable is that more Protestants did not see the problem, and that present-day Protestants who advocate religion in public schools do not understand the way in which their religion is abused when used only for its ethical norms while neglecting the centrality of its redemptive message. One plausible explanation for the disparity is that the believers who desire a common morality for public institutions like schools are actually better republicans than they are Christians. (p.93)

In “Under God” Hart has two main points. The first one is that America is no more “under God” than any other nation, in the sense that God is “over” every nation, whether they acknowledge Him or not. Our saying so or not changes that reality not one whit. He then goes on to describe the development of the redefined “kingdom of God” theology that shaped America’s “Christian” identity between the Civil War and World War I. A theology that, in Hart’s estimation, was “fundamentally flawed.” (p.116). Essentially, the state’s purpose is justice and the church’s purpose is mercy. And “[t]o confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church).” (p.122). And both Christian liberals and conservatives have “to answer the question of whether in fact God or liberal democracy is Lord.” (p.122).

Hart follows up with “The People’s Faith,” which describes the democratic impulse in America’s religious life, best described by its anti-creedalism and its anti-clericalism. This also left American Protestantism deeply anti-Catholic and led to the chronic “Americanist” controversies. But primarily, Hart is concerned to point out how a “democratized” Christianity presented itself as the necessary ingredient for a successful democracy. This interplay is described and challenged by Hart, as well as by such luminaries as J.Gresham Machen and Stanley Hauerwas. In other words, just because American Christianity got “democratized” doesn’t mean that democracy “needs” Christianity.

In “Impersonal Politics,” John F. Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism, and Al Smith’s before him, was seen as being too influential for many American Protestants. Since the constitution made clear that no religious test could be required for serving in any public office, these candidates had to prove that they were not “too” Catholic. Oh, how times have changed! Now, every candidate for elected office, especially the presidency, has to prove how their faith has impacted their policy decision-making, or else they are seen as suspect. More interestingly, Hart brings out how American Christians have given themselves over to a view of the self that is not necessarily biblical, but may in fact be more informed by modern therapeutic concepts and political ideologies.

Hart advocates a Christian life that is better understood as a “hyphenated” existence, segmented by parallel commitments that don’t necessarily always overlap. Hart also brings up the apparently contradictory advice given in the two scriptures of Luke 16:13 and Matthew 22:21, where believers are alternately told to not serve two masters and to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. His answer to this dilemma is strikingly similar to what John Piper says in his recent book, “What Jesus Demands From The World.” Basically, “by serving Caesar, Christians may better serve Christ.” (p.174).

In “The Tie That Divides” Hart gives a broad overview of the work of the Protestant ecumenical movement in the twentieth century through the Federal, then National Council of Churches, which sought to further “christianize” America through social action and influence. All the while radically watering down the doctrinal content of the Christian message in order to make the appeal as broad as possible. He also shows the similarity of the National Association of Evangelicals to the earlier ecumenism, in that they also sought to set aside divisive theological issues among “conservative” Protestants so as to better influence and impact the greater culture. Hart more than adequately points out the fundamental difficulty of giving up theological distinctives in order to “redeem” the culture.

In “The Dilemma of Compassionate Conservatism” Hart enters into the current period of values politics. Here, Hart argues his most contentious view, that the pursuit of “Christian politics” is a fool’s errand. He recounts the developments over the last thirty or so years of the re-entry of the fundamentalist and evangelical fold back into politics, after having self-segregated themselves to pursue the saving of souls to the exclusion of the culture wars. Hart’s description of the difficulties inherent in president Bush’s Faith Based Initiative is well put when he says,

the issue of federal funding for religious charitable organizations begged a fundamental question in pursuit of the legal one. Instead of asking whether the constitution permitted such entanglement of religion and politics, Bush, DiLulio, and others weighing in should have been asking whether the teachings of Bush’s favorite philosopher were compatible with the essential logic of the faith-based initiative. (pp.212-213)

Later in the same chapter, Hart describes the efforts of evangelical progressives such as Jim Wallis and Ron Sider to reintegrate “evangelical” beliefs into public policy as early as the seventies. How that re-engagement first showed itself in the Christian Right of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. And then the ultimate irony of how “[n]ot until George W. Bush’s election in 2000 and his faith-based initiative did the largest and oldest institutional guardian of the evangelical movement adopt a social agenda comparable to the 1973 Chicago Declaration of the evangelical left.” (p.225).

Further along in this same chapter Hart becomes clearer in his own affinities regarding Christian involvement in public affairs when he mentions the impact of Calvin College and Seminary and their influence from Abraham Kuyper, who ultimately believed that “all of life is religious” (p.229). Hart’s critique of this perspective becomes obvious when he says, “The idea that the affairs of civil society or public policy are part of a cosmic contest between the forces of good and evil nurtures a zero-sum approach to government that leaves little room for compromise and raises questions about what to do with nonbelievers and idolatry.” and even more troubling, that “the most God-honoring state would at least be one that tolerates only the true faith, with theocracy being a distinct possibility.” (p.229).

Next, Hart offers a view that is better understood as Lutheran than Reformed when he argues for a “two kingdom” approach to the church’s interaction with civil society. He also parts company with many of his Presbyterian brethren when he argues for a much more discontinuous view regarding the church and Israel in the Old and New Testaments. Hart’s no dispensationalist, but he clearly repudiates, without even having to directly say so, the theonomist and reconstructionist view, which sees almost total continuity between the covenants and the church and Israel.

The traditional Lutheran two kingdom theology sees the church being responsible for spiritual needs and the state being responsible for the physical, temporal realm. The other distinctive that is seen much more clearly in Lutheran thought, is that they emphasize the theology of the cross, which takes more seriously the value of redemptive suffering, over the theology of glory typically seen in Reformed circles, which tends towards identifying the church with Israel “entering and inheriting the land” during this age. This mindset naturally leads to a “dominionist” attitude that sees the use of statecraft and its’ leverage as being a necessary component of “bringing in” the kingdom of God.

Finally, in “A Secular Faith,” the final chapter, Hart offers up his defense of the “Christian secularist” approach to the church’s appropriate interaction with the larger culture. He argues that not only did the reformation secularize the West, leading ultimately to the disestablishment of the church in the French and American revolutions, but that Christianity (and even earlier, Judaism) were/are inherently secularizing religions. Since Judaism posits a transcendent God that cannot be manipulated magically by its adherents, and Christianity cleaves even further the sacred/secular divide through the teachings of Christ and the apostles, contra the monistic political/religious construct of Islam, and Protestant Christianity has deepened that secular impulse, we, as American Protestant Christians, should welcome living hyphenated lives that can be “in, but not of” the world around us. As Hart says at the end, dare to be a Daniel! Since “This Daniel, the assimilated and devout prophet, may be the best model for American Christians wanting to know how to participate meaningfully in public life.” (p.256).

Darryl Hart has written an unusual book. But it’s also an important book for anyone concerned to be faithful to Christ and his call to our lives as Christians. Whether you agree with everything Hart says or not is less important than acknowledging the importance of how our interaction with American politics has impacted our witness as Christians, whether individually or as a church. If Hart is largely right, then we need to reconsider where we spend our energy. Are we going to run around, seeing who we can get elected into various offices in order to bring about certain legislation that we see as being more “Christian” or “evangelical,” or are we going to get to the work that Christ and his designated heirs commanded us to do?

And if there is a concern that Hart is advocating a type of Christian quietism that reverts back to the self-segregation that typified an earlier American fundamentalism, he points out that “with a properly high estimate of the created order, human nature, and the relative importance of civil society for maintaining order and restraining evil (at least), Christians may fruitfully participate in public life not as a site of redemption but as an essential part of their humanity.” (p.257). In other words, “secular politics is thoroughly compatible with orthodox Christianity.” (p.257). As a thoroughly political person who is also trying to be faithful to my Christian calling, this is music to my ears!