Over the last few years, I have spent a large amount of time thinking about the interplay of public form of Christian expression, and modern liberal democracy in America. During that time, I have had ideas spanning the range of ideas from those in support of full Christian involvement in regular politics, to complete withdrawal from political engagement by people of faith. This idealogical drift has been the normal result of a seminary education; I have had the time and freedom to explore widely, to find what it is I really think and believe about a variety of topics. This interplay of Christianity and democracy is just the one most at the forefront of my own priorities.
Recently, I have drifted towards an ethic of radical difference; that is, I have been deeply influenced by the post-liberal ideals of people like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, among others, in believing that the church must be an alternative polis to that of the world. The church has a duty not to the structures of worldly power, but instead to the creation of a radical alternative to the commons ways of the world. The association of the faith with any one party, ideology, movement, or position is a dangerous and heretical perversion of the radical love and acceptance of God as exemplified in Christ.
For too long, I have seen up close the perversion of Christianity into some bastardized form more reminsicent of culturally conservative American politics than that of the Way of Christ. This always has and always will make me intensely skeptical of the interplay of Christianity with politics. This is a healthy skepticism, I believe, and I don’t see myself shedding my ethic of radical difference when it comes to the role of the church anytime soon.
On the other hand, I have a strong background and interest in American politics, and the workings of our nation and government. The hardest thing I find for myself time and again is my ability to hold some sense of pride and loyalty to our Constitutional form of government, without that shading over into some form of idolatry. I actively eschew both public and private shows of patriotism, including my daily decline to say the Pledge of Allegiance with my students. My faith is more important to me than any national identity, and I understand well that my family in Christ shows no partiality for national origin or ethnic background. Its for this reason that one of my absolute favorite parts of the Bible is Paul’s refrain that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The unity of Christ’s body is a first order priority for all Christians, and any other calls of allegiance from worldly structures and institutions must come a very, very distant second.
Nevertheless, I have always believed in the the importance and power of democracy as a form of governance. I have been very clear here, and in my academic work, that I understand the dangers and shortcomings of democracy, especially in its inability to impart moral and ethical guidance on its adherents, and of liberalism writ large. The classical liberal emphasis on individual actualization and freedom from any authority as the ultimate good is inherently at odds with some of the most basic tenants of Christianity. But I also recognize that our Constitution, and the form of government it prescribes, is an amazing creation, and one of the best statements of ideals formulated by humanity. Our inability as a people to live up to those ideals should not sully the good to be found in our governing document.
I also have a long held admiration for, and deep fascination with, our Founders and the ideas they advanced, formulated, and fought for, both on the battlefield and in the legislative chamber. While I reject any idea that they were somehow divinely guided or inspired in writing our Constitution, I do not deny their monumental achievement and the lasting impact they and their ideals had on our world. Yes, they were sinful, and shortsighted at times, and trafficked in some of the worst practices and ideas of their time as well. But they were also visionary, and they articulated a view of human dignity and possibility that they often failed to live up to, but which has been an inspiration to millions fighting for freedom and dignity around the world ever since. It is no coincidence that words of Jefferson, Madison, Henry, Washington and Franklin have been echoed freedom fighters everywhere from Vietnam to El Salvador.
I am writing all of this to say that I am still actively struggling with how to write as someone who is simultaneously a Christian who believes in radical difference, and also an American who believes in Constitutional values of governance. These past three years have been an especially formative time of struggle and thought, as I have observed the effect of Donald Trump on our world, our nation, and the values of freedom, democracy, and liberalism. They have radicalized me as a person of faith, pushing me away from Christian-backed political engagement. They have also crystallized for me how deeply I believe in the power of democracy, in the value of free speech, in the importance of the rule of law.
Going forward, I want to not only write about faith as a standalone interest. That has been where I have been over the last few years, and it has locked me into a frustrating time of writers block and timidity at the keyboard. I have shied away from public writing because I have been terribly unsure about how to write about my faith in light of the political, cultural and social issues and happenings that animate and engage me. I am trying now to shade back towards my previous commitment to comment on politics and current events in light of my faith, and as a result of it as well.
Am I going to get it right all the time, in terms of staying true at all times to my competing commitments and values? Not at all. There are times I will most assuredly shade into the overtly political, or times I shy away from commenting because I’m worried about subverting my faith. But I need to try. I want to write about how what I find most important and powerful about Christianity and theology; I also want to write about what’s happening politically, how I feel about it, and about my belief in the efficacy of our constitutional democracy, and my admiration for and fascination with the history of our national founding and those who participated in its construction.
One last word, which I believe to be perhaps the most important for me at this point: I have strong policy beliefs and positions, regarding everything from health care and inequality, to LGBTQ+ issues and (especially) our looming environmental crisis. I will write about these, and present my views rather unashamedly. What I won’t be doing, however, is endorsing or supporting, publicly, any one party or politician. While I have a background in Democratic Party politics (including formerly as a paid staffer for the party), I am not writing here as a Democrat. When my views align with any party, that is not an endorsement of that party. And the intense critical attitude I have towards our current administration is something I am committing to having no matter who the next president is (even if its my preferred candidate, who will remain unnamed here.) That said, I am someone who more often than not (but not always!) will be classified as “liberal” or “progressive” as it’s understood today, and as a result, I am more critical of conservative politics and positions, especially their moral and ethical underpinnings. But again, these criticisms, when I make them, do not constitute an endorsement of the opposing party or position. I’m sure I won’t always be read with the charity and good will I am hoping for in this case, but by writing it here, I am hoping to have something I point back to as a statement of values of sorts in the face of criticism.