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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Word above sword - prophets, Nazis & depoliticizing faith

Aligning faith with politics can lead to disaster. For example: aligning faith with Republicans led to compromise with the outcome of the most recent funding of an organization caught selling babies' body parts. Regardless of which side one is on, or parsing words, it can only result in failure. Here's what Os Guinness says in The Case for Civility.
As the heirs of the Jewish tradition, Christians have a distinctive view of power, expressed in the maxim “Word above sword.” Whereas Israel’s neighboring nations viewed their warrior-king as their chief political officer, the Jews held that God was their warrior-king; and in an early and distinctive expression of the separation of “church and state,” they held that God had several political officers apart from the king, such as the priest and the prophet. (According to the Hebrew record, God did not originally even intend Israel to have a king.)
Thus the prophet—who was the messenger of God, with no power base but the word of God—was more important to the people of God than the king, whose power base was the sword. Indeed, while the Hebrew prophets took on many causes, their main thrust was directed against the royal nationalism that distorted Jewish life, just as presidential nationalism distorts American life today.
Unquestionably, Jesus of Nazareth understood himself as standing in the same prophetic tradition, relying decisively on the Word and repudiating the party of the Zealots and all who rely primarily on the sword. (“Those who take to the sword shall die by the sword.”) It was therefore a disastrous detour when the Christian church allowed the Emperor Constantine to reach for the mantle of her moral authority to cover the state. (“What I will,” his son Constantius announced, “should be the law of the church,” a sentiment later echoed by Louis XIV: “L’Eglise, c’est moi.”) Or when the Renaissance popes reached for the sword of the princely states to enhance the power of the church. Or when the Protestant church in Germany submitted weakly to the Nazi Party in the 1930s and allowed itself to be used as a support. (Hitler: “We can make this clerical gang go the way we want, quite easily.”
But whatever the different motives, the Christian church in Europe has yet to escape from the long, dark shadow of this seventeen-hundred-year dangerous liaison of church and state.
In America, the brilliant separation of church and state freed the churches from the deadly clutches of this embrace.
If the churches were to have influence, it had to be first and foremost through a reliance on the Word rather than the sword or the ballot box, and it was better to come through laypeople rather than pastors or priests, and to be indirect and “bottom up” rather than direct and “top down.”
Thus when Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831, he found it striking that religion was “the first of the political institutions”—even though pastors “keep aloof from politics” and though “faith takes no direct part in the government of society.”15 In other words, the influence of the church was all the stronger for being indirect and that of the pastors all the stronger for their being at one remove from political engagement. Politics in all its gritty realism is the proper calling of lay people, not the prime business of the pulpit. Christians should be engaged in politics, but never equated without remainder with any party or ideology.
Put differently, there are two equal but opposite errors into which Christians have fallen in the modern world. One error is to “privatize” faith, interpreting and applying it to the personal and spiritual realm only. That way faith loses its integrity and becomes “privately engaging and publicly irrelevant.” The other error, represented by the Religious Left in the 1960s and the Religious Right since the late 1970s, is to “politicize” faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence, the church becomes “the regime at prayer,” Christians become the “useful idiots” or “biddable foot soldiers” for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form: Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests. In short, out of anxiety about a vanishing culture or in a foolish exchange for an illusory promise of power, Christians are cheated into bartering away their identity, motives, language, passions, and votes.
Kevin Phillips delivers his scathing attack on “radicalized religion” in a chapter titled “Too Many Preachers.” But the problem is not too many preachers; proportionately, there are no more than before. The problem is too many preachers in the wrong place with the wrong text and the wrong tone. Preachers should be in the pulpit preaching the Word, including its relevance to politics and to the whole of life, but leaving their laypeople to be in the public square and to apply their faith to politics.
Faith’s loss of independence through politicization is more damaging than it might appear, for the cultural captivity of the Christian Right represents a double loss of independence. Rather obviously, Christians lose their independence when they engage in politics in a way that allows their faith to become subservient to politics and its priorities and procedures. But less obvious and equally important, Christians have already lost their independence when they attempt to find political solutions for problems that are essentially cultural and prepolitical—in other words, when they ask politics to do what politics cannot do.
When there has been a profound sea change in culture, as the United States has experienced since the 1960s, it is both foolish and futile to think that it can be reversed and restored by politics alone. That approach will always fail, and can only fail. Politics is downstream from the deep and important changes in American culture, and what lies upstream is mostly beyond the reach of political action. Thus overreaching political activism is bound not only to fail, but to leave the cultural changes more deeply entrenched than ever and those fighting them weaker than ever.
James Davison Hunter nails the point sharply: “Cultural conservatives bet on politics as the means to respond to the changes in the world, but that politics can only be a losing strategy. What political solution is there to the absence of decency? To the spread of vulgarity? To the lack of civility and the want of compassion? The answer, of course, is none—there are no political solutions to these concerns, and the headlong pursuit of them by conservatives will lead, inevitably, to failure.” Christians from both sides of the political spectrum, Left as well as Right, have made the same mistake of politicizing faith; and signs are that a weakening of the Religious Right will lead to a rejuvenation of the Religious Left, which would be no better.
And it must be remembered that the present alliance between Christian conservatives and the GOP was in part a defensive reaction to the decision of the Democratic Party in 1972 to shift from its traditional alliances and espouse the cause of secularism. But whichever side it comes from, politicized preaching is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church—and disastrous first and foremost for Christian reasons rather than constitutional reasons.
The Christian Right should be under no illusions. Its recent politicization of faith is an expression of folly, not wisdom, and a sign of its weakness, not strength. As Father Richard John Neuhaus tirelessly reminds Christians engaging with public life, “The first thing to say about politics is that politics is not the first thing.”

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