Andrew Sullivan, who has been providing his analysis on the comparison between what he calls Radical Islamist movements (the roots of international terrorism) and Christianist trends in the United States, points us towards Phillip Yancey’s comments in Christianity Today:
Hearing firsthand about Islamic culture increased my understanding, but it also made me nervous about my own society. The very things we resist in Islam, some Christians find tempting. We, too, seek political power and a legal code that reflects revealed morality. We, too, share a concern about raising our children in a climate of moral decadence. We, too, tend to see others (including Muslims) as a stereotyped community, rather than as individuals. Will we turn toward our own version of the harsh fundamentalism sweeping Islam today?
Its an interesting delimma. I, too, am concerned with the sweeping vision of the Christian Right here in America, but my own faith views, as well as my work in ethics, lead me to also have strong public arguments regarding morals and civil policy. I, also, in some way, seek “a legal code that reflects revealed morality,” though I always assume that I need to make that argument on “universal” grounds, that is, on reason and shared experience, not on revelation (e.g. scripture) alone. I’m not sure, really, how Christians of my Reformed Tradition can argue otherwise. (Calvin’s view about the intersection of reason and revelation, though, will be tabled for now.) Christ, as well as the Hebrew Prophets and the early chruch, had a concern for public structures and how they treated the disenfranchised. We have an obligation to see that agenda advanced in public discourse.
But what is required for faithful people to engage government and the public realm and yet resist theocratic impulses?
Sunday I preached the first of a four-part sermon series that our lead pastor and I are doing on Church and State. This first sermon was on Romans 13, and I talked about Paul himself challenging Roman government unto his death (meaning that Romans 13 cannot be about blind obedience to totalitarian power), and about Calvin, whose thoughts about the church and state laid some of the foundation for our American form of government–checks and balances, in particular, the importance of an educated citizenry. Calvin also cherished the inviolate right of the individual conscience, which leads to important protections for free thought, free exercise of religion, and, in general, protections for diverse points of view among the minority. (He also cherished the rule of law, and the provision of order that the state and the church provides, each for their own realms, of course).
American Democracy, while riddled with flaws, is a blessing. The structures it provides makes possible, I think, both robust attempts to shape the public sphere and to protect the rights of minorities. But we need to protect that structure, particularly from attempts to weaken those protections.
I quoted Reinhold Niebuhr’s insightful comment: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible. Man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.”
In the current climate of religious extremism, I think that this thought is particularly germane for our time. Now, more than ever, we need to secure the aspects of our democratic system that provide both for the governing by the majority and robust protections of minority points of view and practices. Religious voices, whether from the left or from the right, can’t be expected to turn inward. They shouldn’t. But they must always be humble, must cherish the rights to a free conscience, and make their arguments in publically accessible ways.
For a great summary of Presbyterian views regarding our involvment in politics, I’d commend Rev. Cynthia Campbell’s article. Its pretty good!