Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics
by Robert Benne
Eerdmans, 120 pages, $14
For some Americans, as for the Founding Fathers, the separation of church and state means that the government and religious bodies ought not to exert power over the other’s areas of legitimate authority. To others it means that religiously informed policy proposals may not become the laws of the secular government. So, on this meaning, a law that prohibits embryo-destructive research would violate the separation of church and state, since (it is assumed) such a law reflects a sanctity-of-life ethic derived exclusively from a theological tradition.
Notice that the latter understanding is concerned not with the actual content of the religious citizen’s policy proposal or with whether or not he has offered a cogent, rationally defensible argument. This metaphysical exclusionary rule bars these proposals without regard for the quality of the cases offered for them. Their secular contraries are not subjected to this philosophical apartheid, even though they offer answers to the same questions and rely on beliefs no less contested than their so-called religious counterparts.
Consider embryo-destruction research. One side claims that the embryonic human being is a full-fledged member of the human community who is identical to his postnatal self and thus possesses the same moral worth and intrinsic dignity throughout its existence. The other side denies this, arguing that embryonic human beings lack some characteristic or property that would make them moral persons and therefore subject to the usual prohibitions against homicide.
Although the religious citizen is motivated by what his theological tradition teaches, that tradition is itself a consequence of an extended argument over time, no different in character than its secular counterpart. For the secularist’s position is shaped by certain inherited beliefs acquired during his academic and cultural formation that are central to his intellectual tradition. These beliefs in metaphysics (nominalism), epistemology (scientism), and religion (subjectivism) are, like the believer’s beliefs, the result of an extended argument over time.
In Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics, the Lutheran scholar Robert Benne provides a clear and compelling brief for the religious citizen and the ecclesial community to which he belongs. Director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College, he offers Christians and their detractors a way of thinking about religion and politics that addresses some of the concerns that both believers and unbelievers have expressed over the past three decades since the ascendancy of the “Religious Right.”
Benne distinguishes two positions on the relationship between religion and politics—separationism and fusionism—and argues Christians ought to reject both. As for the first, there are at least two varieties, one secular and one religious.
One sort—championed by writers as diverse as Richard Dawkins, Andrew Sullivan, and Damon Linker—views the participation of religious citizens in the formation of policy as deleterious to democratic liberalism, if the policies these citizens propose have their genesis in their religious beliefs. Benne shows that to actualize this prescription would limit religious liberty in ways inconsistent with the promise of the American founding. For the Founders understood church–state separation as separating the state from the institutional church and not sequestering religion from politics. Moreover, contemporary separationists are notoriously selective when they lament the mixing of religion and politics, for they rarely if ever decry the political activism of liberal Christians in mainline denominations who almost always agree with the left wing of the Democratic Party.
The other sort of separationist is usually a devout Christian who believes that the Church’s involvement in politics will corrupt its character and thus undermine or make more difficult its duty to save and nourish souls. Baptists in the tradition of the late J. M. Dawson (1879–1973) have been strong proponents of this view. This separationist often cites historical cases in which Christian churches have compromised their witness in order to curry favor from the ¬government.
Benne sees this as a legitimate concern. Nevertheless, he argues, because Christianity teaches that God is sovereign over all creation, including political and social institutions, and because the gospel requires us to love our neighbors and to will their good, we must engage the political realm. Christianity is a knowledge tradition that properly informs us about the good, the true, and the beautiful in every facet of human existence.
While separationists offer a theory of how religion and politics ought to interact, fusionists practice their faith with little theoretical reflection. For that reason, Benne’s account of fusionism is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Fusionists connect their political beliefs and/or cultural affiliations and the teachings of their faith. They fail to distinguish positions that seem to be close to obvious entailments of Christian belief (e.g., male–female marriage, pro-life on abortion) and positions over which Christians of goodwill may disagree (e.g., whether a particular war is just, the existence and scope of the welfare state, school-sponsored prayer in public schools, or whether America or another nation is guided by direct providence).
Some Christians fuse ethnic solidarity and patriotism with their theological traditions, sometimes fomenting the sorts of violence we have seen in places like Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Domestically, some left-leaning Christians, though properly concerned about the plight of the poor, insist that some form of socialism is the only just economic system. Some right-leaning Christians issue “Christian” policy pronouncements that range from opposing abortion to supporting the war in Iraq. It is one thing to claim scriptural support for the unborn’s personhood; it is quite another to suggest that the Bible has a definitive position on global warming or food stamps.
Benne proposes an alternative to separationism and fusionism: critical engagement. He derives from the central claims of Christianity about the nature of God, creation, salvation, and man several politically relevant principles and explains how those principles may be applied given the historical, political, national, and social situations in which an ecclesial community may find itself.
So, for example, a Christian, based on the central claims of his faith, has good reason to believe that the unborn from conception is a moral person and thus his neighbor. Nevertheless, he may have a difficult time placing that belief in our laws if he lives in a society in which most of its citizens cannot “see” the unborn’s personhood. In that case, the Christian, relying on the principle of prudence, may opt for more modest attempts at shaping policy that provide a means to teach his compatriots about the sanctity of human life (as well as to protect as many innocent persons as possible). So, he and his church may support a partial-birth-abortion ban, since it requires that their compatriots confront this gruesome procedure and what it does to a being that seems obviously to be one of us.
Although this is a small book, it is packed with real insight. Benne wisely navigates between two extremes while remaining always mindful that, though the Christian is a citizen of two kingdoms, it is only in one of them that he can find the eternal source of all that could possibly be good and true in the other.
Francis J. Beckwith is professor of philosophy at Baylor University and a resident scholar at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.