A QUESTION THAT WON'T GO AWAY
A chauffeur drove a new author from one venue to another. The author was a professor of physics who had written an acclaimed book on Einstein's theory of relativity. The chauffeur listened numerous times to the professor lecture on the book's content. Finally, one day during a moment of carefree conversation between the two gentlemen, the chauffeur challenged, "Sir, I have heard your lecture so many times, I could present it as well as you do." The professor was pleasantly amused and responded, "Well, I am scheduled to lecture tonight. Why don't you try it?" The scam was on. The chauffeur dressed as the professor, and the professor as the chauffeur. The pretentious chauffeur was introduced to the audience and began speaking with authority from the podium. The professor passively sat in cognito in the audience. The lecture was delivered flawlessly, and everyone was left mesmerized and breathless. The moderator, quick as a flash, enthusiastically called for questions. A graduate student in physics, about to finish his Ph.D. at MIT, stood up and asked a complex question concerning "the physical presuppositions of relativity physics and their influence upon the underlying equations supporting the theory." The chauffeur's face became red as a beet. "I am shocked," he exclaimed, "that any student of physics would not immediately recognize the answer to this question. In fact, I think anyone who has heard this lecture would be able easily to intuit the answer. To prove what I'm saying, allow me to defer to my chauffeur."
I, unfortunately, have no chauffeur. I have been asked a vitally important question concerning my book, America Unraveling, and it is incumbent upon me to respond. The work defends the idea of a vibrant American "public faith." Here is the question, (as punctuated by supporting observations): "Public pieties, when closely identified with the Christian Church, have always been at best a mixed blessing to both the state and the Church. Christianity under the direction of Constantine is a stark example. The harsh theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is yet another. I need not remind you that politics and religion tend to bring out the worst in each other. Remember Kierkegaard's challenge of reintroducing Christianity into Christendom? Why should we not all be well advised to regard 'public faith' as a manifestation of a generic, nondescriptive, and thoroughly anemic brand of Protestantism, and to disregard its importance to American culture?"
First, American Christianity poses no threat to the state and is close to being politically impotent today. The circumstances which Kierkegaard addressed in nineteenth century Denmark could not be farther removed from our own cultural reality. The same may be said of Constantine's Rome and of the Puritan Commonwealth. To point to any of them for the purpose of shedding light upon post-modern America is a flight into fantasy.
Second, politics and religion do not necessarily evoke the worst in each other. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. brought religious convictions to bear upon political problems in a constructive and creative manner. Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address is unimaginable without its rich treasury of biblical themes. The Civil Rights Movement, which King led, would have been devoid of power and inspiration without its biblical emphasis. An underlying religious spirit also pervaded the Declaration of Independence, which the Second Continental Congress wholeheartedly adopted.
Third, when biblical faith is separated from our politics, do not think for a moment that this nation's public life is transformed into a zone of religious neutrality. Other faiths rise to prominence and begin to shape our culture. The secularism that we have witnessed in American public life in recent years is hardly value-neutral. It has banished biblical ideas from the town's square, while abortion, pornography, euthanasia, and the proliferation of illicit drugs enjoy free reign. Separation of church and state in America has become a kind of code for a countercultural insurgence bent upon the destruction of traditional American culture.
Fourth, it is true that the close alignment of religion and politics does not always produce a healthy result. Many human beings have been killed in religious wars. But what are we to conclude from this fact? That the elimination of the religious impulse will curtail war? Emile Durkheim thought of religion as basic to human society; so how does one eliminate religion without decimating society? Paul Tillich maintained that religion boils down to "ultimate concern." Without such concern, one is less than human. Discounting the religious aspect of our identity, it is therefore arguable, amounts to the disparagement of our society and our humanity. How will that promote peace and other virtues? The goal is to forge a healthy alliance between religion and politics, by learning about both and conjoining them in a mutually constructive synthesis.
For all these reasons, I believe that Christians should strive to promote America as a political state that actively embraces traditional Christian culture. Why should Christians promote a political community pervaded by a faith in which they do not believe? It makes no sense. America has, for centuries, been defined by, and triumphed with, this culture. Why should any of its citizens wish now to re-invent the meaning of the country and the spirit of its culture? No American, whether Christian or not, should turn his or her back on the country's public faith. If and when we lose it, we lose a big part of ourselves and seriously compromise our culture.
August 5, 2009