May 28, 2004
God and Caesar

Although I defended Mark Kleiman in his dispute with Allen Brill, I think Allen is basically correct in his complaint that the secular left spends an inordinate amount of time bashing religion in general and Christianity in particular. In fact, since the issue seems to have upset him so much that he departed from his own blog, I wrote him an email the other day that he said would make a good start for a blog post. So here goes.

I think that for many avid politicos on both the left and the right, politics is their religion. Not in the sense that it explains the creation of the world or our fate after death, of course. But it provides a framework for understanding society, defining good and evil, and pledging one's primary allegiances. I've heard stories from political activists that sound a lot like religious conversion stories; when they found their cause, they also found their community and their purpose in life.

When I see interactions between political leftists and leftist Christians, I see the Christians implicitly or explicitly being suspected of divided loyalty. Often the secularists seem to see liberal Christians mainly as credible voices to bash fundamentalists with, and keep pestering them to do more of it. I've even seen some commenters accuse Allen of not doing it enough, which, given that that's been pretty much the running theme of his whole freaking blog, indicates that Christians can never do it enough. Because politics is a jealous god. The lefties suspect that Christians have an attachment to something other than a political movement or party, and that they are coming from a fundamentally different worldview. And, of course, they're absolutely right.

This became extremely clear to me after that abortion march recently, when many progressive Christians expressed their opposition to abortion and how alienated they felt from a left that's become increasingly hardline about it. (See Hugo, Jennifer, Jonathan and Jim Wallis, for instance.) The gulf is huge here because many secular liberals (and indeed, secular conservatives) I know simply don't understand how you could see an abortion as evil, much less illegal. Feminists, in particular, have placed absolute bodily sovereignty at the center of their understanding of liberation. So words like Paul's statement that your body was "given to you by God, and ... is not your own" sound almost monstrous.

Such disagreements don't necessarily stop political coalitions from being made. But having common goals on some points doesn't prevent friction or tension, even outright hostility. Jesus said from the beginning that following him and preaching his word would bring hostility and even persecution from others, and he didn't say only from conservatives either. Because any time you challenge people's gods, they are going to feel deeply threatened. This is as true of unofficial gods like politics as it is of formal gods like Allah. I've never officially belonged to any religion, but I've had to struggle with my attachments to things I hold sacred, and I can get pretty damned hostile and mean about it too (as Telford well knows, alas).

How do Christians deal with this? I think of Stephen in Acts 7:

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.

Notice what Stephen did not do:
1) Complain he wasn't being treated with proper respect.
2) Tell his accusers what intolerant bigots they were.
3) Fear that his death meant a loss for the cause. In fact, to me the really beautiful thing about this story is that Stephen's last vision is of victory: he sees Christ enthroned in heaven, assuring him that even this evil is only temporary.

I think this points to the basic difference between the Christian god and the political god. Politics is basically manichean. There are the children of darkness and the children of light, and their conflict is driven by a desire to win and a fear of losing. Political movements, unlike the church, have no assurance from God that even the gates of hell will not prevail over them. So that "desperate drive for survival" that Fr. Jake rightly said Christians have to let go of, is very real for political movements. Even if individuals are willing to sacrifice themselves, the movements are ultimately subject to the same Machiavellian calculations of self-interest.

That's not to say that all politics is bad, and Christians shouldn't involve themselves in it. I'm not advocating the viewpoint held by some that religion is a personal matter with no place in the public sphere. Although I don't like to hear clergy opining too much about tactics, I think they should weigh in on the big issues of the day. But there is a profound difference between angling for supremacy here on earth and trusting that by being faithful to God, you can share in the victory he has already won. The way I read the Acts story is that Stephen prayed for his attackers not because he believed in pacifism per se, but because he believed in a God who made violence unnecessary.

This brings me to another question: can you preach the morals and ethics of Christ without preaching Christ? I'll get to that in my next post.

Posted by Camassia at May 28, 2004 10:58 AM | TrackBack

Absolutely great post! You state a fundamental and extremely problematic contradiction very clearly. Although I've been a "leftist" throughout my political life, going back to the infamous 'sixties, I finally cancelled my longtime subscription to The Nation a couple of years ago, because I could no longer take being force fed the palpable, and mindless, antagonism toward religion expressed by its reporters. I have finally come to question whether Christians, or any persons for whom spirituality takes precedence in the conduct their lives, should become involved in politics. The logical extension of these musings is to wonder whether our "sacred" doctrine of separation of church and state is ultimately a good thing? Are we thinking as men think, rather than as God thinks?

Posted by: Rob on May 29, 2004 05:01 AM

Your perspective is especially interesting in this post. Typically, one hears complaints from religious believers that politicians are, in essence, insufficiently Manichean; that they are too willing to make a deal with evil people if that's what it takes to get their bill out of committee, etc. I find it very thought-provoking that you have turned this notion around. This is a post that will inspire further rumination on my part.

Posted by: Tom T. on May 31, 2004 09:28 PM
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