Here’s a question that has been nagging me: has Christianity being playing a role in the erosion of liberal democratic values that we’ve been witnessing across many western democracies?
In the last few months I’ve been prepping for a short studies series at my church on “Christianity in the Public Square”. I took the opportunity to brush up on “political theology”.
Political theology is the (relatively) new discipline of theology that treats the (relatively) old question of the relationship of the church and the public sphere – i.e. the state, civil society, and broadly the entire socio-political realm. It’s very popular in today’s academy.
I somehow knew that I wasn’t much going to like what I started to uncover in this literature.
Sure enough, I’ve discovered that there is plenty of fodder here for anti-democratic and anti-liberal thinking – and not simply in obscure or radical corners. Right in the mainstream there are voices that are uncomfortable with some of the central pillars of modernity: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion (and freedom FROM religion, very important), freedom of expression – even freedom of political choice, freedom of self-determination, and human rights. There are counter-voices offering robust support for democratic and liberal values, but they often seem to be out-shouted by their opposition.
So is Christianity playing more of a role in our current neo-conservative political backlash than we might like to admit? If so, what can we do about it?
Over the next little while I’m going to start walking through some of this literature by posting reviews of prominent works and figures. I’m going to work two angles in particular:
1) What are the theological roots of some of the anti-liberal attitudes? As always, my key critique is not simply about this or that political position: it’s about the “deep theology” that underlies the surface dynamics. What are the fundamental assumptions that lead Christian thinkers to certain positions? Is there a viable neo-Lutheran alternative?
2) How can we retain the good stuff of the pre-modern Christian tradition without the bad? A wave of neo-conservativism and neo-traditionalism has swept over most denominations – Lutherans included – in the last few decades. As long as it’s been focused on things like ancient liturgy, patristic scriptural exegesis, virtue ethics, iconography, monastic spirituality, etc., it’s been pretty harmless. But what happens when we start to dabble in the political side of the ancient synthesis? What happens when its political implications or logic begin to get worked out? Has this been feeding into the illiberal political trends we’ve been witnessing? How can we can retain the good side of the pre-modern stuff without the bad? This is a very interesting question for me academically, since my area of expertise is exactly pre-modern systems of Christian polity and law.
Ultimately my goal is practical. I feel all of us need to start to respond to the current political and cultural malaise. There is maybe not much I can do about the broader socio-political situation. But by gum – theology and church history is something I do know. At least in this area, I feel I need to start to #Resist!
First up: John Yoder, The Politics of Jesus.