I have to give credit to Jamie Smith for rattling the neo-Calvinist cage with a review of James Skillen’s recent book on Christians and politics. I agree with Jamie when he wonders out loud, can you believe we have another book about Christianity in the public square? Jamie’s liturgical side might also welcome a book on the sacraments, but he and I would likely diverge when he would want (I suppose) to talk about the sacraments in broad as opposed to my narrow (and vinegary) terms. Even so, I was glad to see Jamie mix it up with neo-Calvinists who need to get out more:
. . . what follows from all of this [Skillen’s book] feels either truistic or simply a theological rationale for a particular form of American constitutionalism—as if a “biblical” understanding of justice naturally entails the American project. “The question for Christians,” Skillen summarizes, “is this: How should we engage politically, guided by the vision of Christ’s kingdom that has not yet been revealed in its fullness?” That’s a pretty big, vague question. The answer seems at once predictable, tired, and hollow: “In the political arena, therefore, we should work for the kind of political communities in which those who fill offices of government act as public servants to uphold public justice for the common good, willingly accepting their equality with all citizens under the law.” Fair enough: but is anybody really going to disagree with that? If not, then we’re on the terrain of truism. The Good of Politics tends to do this: offer theological rationales for things you had already assumed were a good idea.
Jonathan Chaplin was someone whom Smith woke from his principled-pluralism slumbers:
Smith quotes Skillen’s summary of the political pay-off from such a vision of justice as that “we should work for the kind of political communities in which those who fill offices of government act as public servants to uphold public justice for the common good, willingly accepting their equality with all citizens under the law.” Yet he casually dismisses this vision as “predictable, tired, and hollow.” In doing so, however, he reveals less about the limits of Skillen’s accounts and more about his own failure to grasp just how globally distinctive this conception of politics really is, what an enormous achievement it has proven to be historically, and how radical and transformative it would be if American Christians actually took it seriously in their political thinking and acting. It is lazily dismissive to suggest that what Skillen’s vision amounts to is a “pretty standard liberal democratic game”—little more than “liberal proceduralism.”
I myself am fairly comfortable with a procedural republic — unfortunately, we are now a procedural empire (and we all know what empires yield — the not so good tyrant). But it seems to me that Smith has a point. If we want something a little more high octane at the Christian political theology pump, basically rolling out Christian arguments for liberal democracy isn’t going to rev the engine of anyone who walks on the antithesis wild side.
What is curious about both Chaplin and Smith’s pieces is that 2 kingdom theology isn’t even a serious option (as one way of making peace with a procedural republic or divine-right monarch or demented emperor). The working assumption of neo-Calvinists is that the spirituality of the church is not even worthy of attention. According to Smith:
On Skillen’s account, all of our political errors stem from “believing that Christ’s kingdom is spiritual, or not of this world, or only ecclesiastical, or only future.” In other words, the demons to be exorcised are dualism and clericalism: an anti-creational, a-cultural piety that cares only about heaven and/or a misguided desire to have the church rule the state. He sees this growing out of misguided beliefs. Specifically: “It is the combination of the belief that government was given because of sin and the belief that life on earth exists in negative tension with heaven that has lead to the development of almost every approach Christians have taken to government and politics.” Every approach except—you guessed it—Skillen’s (who, it should be noted, conveniently avoids the fact that John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper also saw government as a postlapsarian institution, necessary only because of the Fall).
If you identify dualism and clericalism as the threats, then your solution is going to be engagement and sphere sovereignty. In other words, if you think the problem is that Christians either don’t care about politics or want the church to run the state, then your “introduction” is going to emphasize the good of politics (and creaturely, cultural life more generally) in a way that is distinctly anti-clerical, persistently downplaying the church. And Skillen delivers, once again exhibiting the problem with the Kuyperian fixations on sphere-boundary policing. Bent on what he calls “de-ecclesiasticization,” the significance of the sacramental body of Christ is once again effectively marginalized. This standard Kuyperian trope de-politicizes the church (hence his rejection of Hauerwas’s emphasis on the church as polis) in a way that is not only wrong-headed but also mis-directed. This emphasis might be correct if there were hordes of people around looking to “establish” a particular religion or denomination as the official state religion. But is that really our problem now? Hardly.
Well, if you’re worried about the kind of generic prayer before townhall meetings that sounds Laodecian, you may actually be worried about the establishment of religion-and-I-don’t-care-what-kind-it-is.
But who says that dualism and clericalism are the threats that need to be subdued? I understand that Kuyper did. But did Jesus? Did Augustine? Was Kuyper the third Adam? Which is not to say that dualism and clericalism are the best ways of describing either the spirituality of the church or an Augustinian political theology (which says basically that because of the fall all of this talk of human flourishing is pagan). But have Skillen, Chaplin, or Smith considered the upside of dualism and clericalism? Which is to ask, have they not ever noticed that history is littered with instances that suggest Christian engagement or transformationalism is the real danger. (Sphere sovereignty seems to me a keeper, but one that actually constrains neo-Calvinists since they keep blurring the lines and taking every square inch captive.)
Just consider the religious voices that supported World War I. Here I will repeat quotations from a previous post:
The Bishop of London in 1915 said:
kill Germans — do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends. . . . As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr.
The Bishop of Carlisle added:
But in this war there move and work spirits deeper, stronger, more revolutionary than any or all of these — spirits of good and evil, powers of heaven and principalities of hell, invisible spirits of goodness and wickedness of which men are the instruments and the world the visible prize. . . . This present war is essentially a spiritual war; a war waged on earth but sustained on either side by invisible powers.
Not to be outdone, Protestant clergy from Harry Emerson Fosdick to Billy Sunday signed a statement that urged the U.S. in 1916 to enter the war. Here is how their faith-based argument went:
The just God, who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death, their dread of suffering and loss, their concern for comfort and ease above the holy claims of righteousness and justice, and freedom and mercy and truth. Much as we mourn the bloodshed [of war], we lament even more than supineness of spirit, that indifference to spiritual values which would let mere physical safety take precedence of loyalty to truth and duty. The memory of all the saints and martyrs cries out against such backsliding of mankind. Sad is our lot if we have forgotten how to die for a holy cause.
. . . the question of all questions for our immediate consideration is this: shall the ancient Christian inheritance of loyalty to great and divine ideals be replaced by considerations of mere expediency?
Or how about the religious rationale that informed the Cold War, at least if William Inboden’s book, Religion and American Foreign Policy, is reliable. He describes the “Truman Doctrine” this way:
In a 1951 address at Washington’s famed New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Truman preached a virtual sermon on America’s role in the world. He elaborated on the vexing relationship between the divine will, armed strength, American goodness, and communist evil. “We are under divine orders — not only to refrain from doing evil, but also to do good and to make this world a better place in which to live. . . . At the present time our nation is engaged in a great effort to maintain justice and peace in the world. An essential feature of this effort is our program to build up the defenses of our country. There has never been a greater cause. . . . We are defending the religious principles upon which our Nation and our whole way of life are founded. . . . The international Communist movement is based on a fierce and terrible fanaticism. It denies the existence of God and, wherever it can, it stamps out the worship of God . . . Our faith shows us the way to create a society where man can find his greatest happiness under God. Surely we can follow that faith with the same devotion and determination that Communists give to their godless creed.” The Cold War, in other words, had erupted not merely between two nations with contrary economic and political systems, but between two different religions. . . . Two ideologies and two systems asserted their rival claims to reality, neither one willing — or even able, if they would be true to themselves — to shrink from their confessions of truth. (114)
When you start entering the public square with religion, it becomes hard not to divide the world in antithetical ways. Truman was no Calvinist but weren’t neo-Calvinists, ever since 1789, habitually dividing the political world between the forces of good and those of — in the Church Lady’s voice — Say-TEN!
Do we really want a Christian political theology if it is going to keep baptizing the particular interests of nation-states as if those interests are those of Christ and his kingdom? Neo-Calvinists seem so intent on fixing today’s problems that they don’t seem to be capable of being sobered by the historical record of fixers who also rejected clericalism and dualism all the while collapsing the kingdom of God into the U.S.A., Germany, the UK — you name the pretty good nation.
But without 2k as an interlocutor, Smith may driven to look for sterner Christian engagement:
I wonder if. . . we don’t actually need a more robust embrace of “ideology” in this respect—a more forthright and unapologetic Christian politics that, in the name of the common Good and the good of politics, reconsiders Christendom for the missional project it was. That is the sort of question that reading Oliver O’Donovan and Peter Leithart has left me with. But it is a question that a reader of Skillen’s book could never understand.
Will Smith take the theonomic plunge and confirm what 2kers have always suspected about neo-Calvinism — it’s just one step from theonomy but marching lock step with the Federal Visionaries who pine for Christendom and Christian emperors.