A back-and-forth has been taking place between Conor Williams of The League of Ordinary Gentleman and David Sessions of Patrol magazine over the question of whether Christianity can be apolitical. As the exchange was launched in part to avoid re-treading convenient but sloppy terms like “liberal” and “conservative” Christianity, Williams attempts to substitute the terms “ideological religion” and “dispositional religion,” attitudinal fault lines he sees as more helpful than political ones. Williams thinks the “ideological” stance towards religion (which can be taken by those on either the political right or left) “[r]educes a faith tradition to an encyclopedia of moral information—to find out how to govern, we need only dig up the (purportedly obvious) right positions and bring them to our public arguments. Problem(s) solved, neat and clean!”
But Sessions sees the problem in this. Of course a religious believer, surveying the world around them, is going to take the dictates of their faith seriously and apply them to the contemporary scene. Genuinely “ideological” religion exists, yes, but it is putting religion at the feet of a political agenda. In other words, using religion as a tool for a political end. Consulting Scripture, ecclesiastical rulings, and learned commentary to formulate a coherent response to contemporary matters is an utterly different sort of undertaking.
Sessions also detects a familiar refrain in Williams’ case–the convenient promise of a “mythical land beyond the culture wars,” into which we could cross if only we put aside some of our grumpiness, and takes that notion apart:
Christian liberals will never “reinvigorate their side’s treatment of religion” by running after the illusion of theologically vacant, apolitical faith; for most people, there is nothing energizing or motivational about that kind of faith. American Christians are at an impasse that mirrors our larger cultural impasse, one that can only be argued out and finally (or gradually) won in the church and in U.S. politics. The deepest, most controversial issues can’t be suppressed and avoided and negotiated away. What is best for both sides is not a kum-bah-yah common-ground fest, but a better conflict.
Though Sessions is by no means on board with the First Things-ian take on the issue (a fact he would likely readily admit), this does seem to be one point upon which we can agree: our debate involves substantive differences, and the doctrinal content of belief systems can never be fully ‘purified’ of real-world ramifications (up to and including political ones).
Read more of the exchange here.