In his column today, Michael Gerson writes about a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life event at which the sociologist Robert Putnam spoke. Putnam has written, with David Campbell, a book that will be released next year, American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives. The findings are fascinating, including Putnam’s assertion that “religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens.” Putnam also spoke about what he calls “one shock and two aftershocks.”
In this case, the shock is the cultural revolution of the 1960s; the aftershocks are the rise of the religious right, which itself provoked a second tremor. The politicization of religion by the religious right alienated a large group of people, most especially young people. “They are not in church, but they might be if a church weren’t like the religious right,” according to Putnam. “There are almost certain to be religious entrepreneurs to fill that niche with a moderate evangelical religion, without political overtones.”
And so we return once again to one of the most important, tricky, and long-standing debates in American public life: the role of religious faith in American politics. Trying to ascertain the proper relationship of Christian faith to political power is an inherently ambiguous undertaking; Christians are, after all, citizens of two cities. We have obligations to both—and we have fairly strict limitations placed on one.
Politics has a claim on our attention because political acts can have profound human consequences. But we are dealing with a sharp two-edged sword. The social philosopher Jacques Ellul has written, “Politics is the Church’s worst problem. It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the Prince of this World.”
Among the most dangerous is the temptation—for both the left and the right—to use the church as a de facto political interest group; or to use faith on behalf of partisan interests. For those of us who are Christian, our faith ought to inform and animate our lives, including our public lives, our moral beliefs and intuitions, and even our politics, at least politics as understood by our founders (in Federalist #51 Madison wrote that justice is the end of government) and Aristotle (“it is the cardinal issue of goodness or badness in the life of the polis which always engages the attention of any state that concerns itself to secure a system of good laws well obeyed,” he wrote in Politics). At its best, religious faith, including Christianity has been an engine of social justice and a voice of conscience.
At the same time, Christianity should stand independent of and above all political ideologies and human arrangements. The danger, now as always, is complete withdrawal from politics on the one hand and too close of an association with politics on the other. As individuals Christians have every right to be involved in politics and have added greatly to it. But the institutional church should be very, very wary of diving into these waters. They are terribly difficult ones to navigate, and have caused a good deal of wreckage along the way.
The corrective, in my judgment, is not complete retreat from the affairs of the world. It is, rather, selective political engagement characterized by distinctively Christian attitudes. That means (among other things) that Christians ought to be voices of decency, civility, and moral sanity; that we recognize our own (and not just other people’s) human imperfections; that we strive for justice, righteousness, and mercy; that we speak out and act against evil; that we regard political power with suspicion and acknowledge its limits; that we be less partisan and more prophetic; that we remember that the biblical model for “loving thy neighbor” is a servant model, nonpolitical and personal; that we maintain a detachment from, and hold loosely, the things of the world; and that our interest in the temporal should never overshadow our longing for the eternal.
This is quite a tall order and, for those of us who reside in this world, it may be an impossible standard to meet. I have certainly fallen short of it, and on more than one occasion. Still, it is an aspiration worth aiming for. “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next,” C. S. Lewis wrote. “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one.”
It is usually wise to let Professor Lewis have the last word, so I shall.