Christian Political Witness: Thinking of Ourselves as a Minority

Evangelical Protestants have done very little thinking about what it means faithfully to engage in a democratic process when you are a religious minority. Indeed, Evangelicals are not used to thinking about themselves as a minority at all. To be sure, many have become comfortable claiming victim status when the opportunity presented itself. There is no shortage of voices proclaiming the decline of America and the imminent specter of religious persecution.

But all of that is quite different from the more level-headed, thoughtful reflection on what it means to be a faithful minority – a loyal opposition, so to speak – that has been second-nature for Jews and various Anabaptist groups for centuries. When it comes to public controversies over matters like abortion, marriage, and even immigration or care for the needy, we are still arguing over whether or not we should base our public appeals on Scripture, or whether we should come up with some other sort of argument.

You would think that the New Testament would be a fruitful basis for reflection on what it means to be a faithful Christian in a pluralistic and often immoral world. But again, for centuries Protestants have been so used to thinking about their public responsibilities in terms of Christendom (for which the scriptures of theocratic Israel have always seemed to be a much simpler analogy than the suffering, serving, and witnessing New Testament Church), that they have developed only the thinnest of traditions of reflection on the new covenant scriptures.

At the First Things blog John Turner writes,

After 2008, I thought obituaries of the Religious Right were very, very premature. Come on, Republican Party. If you want to win an election, you may as well try to ride that horse one more time. I know Romney performed better than McCain among evangelicals, but I still think it’s much easier for the Republican Party to win a presidential election with a candidate with fervent evangelical support (this requires the rather delicate trick of not scaring the daylights out of everyone else in the country).

But in the long run, I tend to agree with Albert Mohler that evangelicals had better get ready for a sojourn in the political wilderness. I remember (but could not find to link) a splendid editorial by the Christian Century’s David Heim (some uncertainty about the author) from quite a few years ago (presumably before the 2008 election) wryly encouraging evangelicals to enjoy their moment in the political and cultural limelight because it would prove fleeting. In a short time, they’d be with their erstwhile liberal Protestant bedfellows in the scrapheap of political history. Very prescient.

It’s time to stop focusing on the theoretical question of whether or not America should be a Christian nation, and time to face up to the fact that it is most obviously not one right now. We need to stop arguing over whether or not religious and moral pluralism is a good thing, and to start thinking hard about how we might be faithful in a nation where religious and moral pluralism is a fact. We need to imagine our political responsibilities not by identifying with those in control, but through solidarity with the vulnerable. And then, of course, we have to continue to stand for justice and mercy, in faithful witness to Christ.

Bitter complaints about decline and gloomy prognostications about future persecution do not satisfy this obligation. The changes in American culture and politics do not mean the world is in decline or that Christ’s kingdom has suffered some sort of defeat, as if premillennial eschatology is being confirmed. Only if we’ve made the mistake of identifying America or the West with the kingdom of God in the first place will we assume that our political fortunes in America have anything like this much significance (see the above figures). Our witness to Christ – even in politics – has to be marked by joyful confidence (theological optimism) grounded in the gospel, not by political despair (cultural pessimism) grounded in worldly assumptions about power. That might involve recognizing that despite our tremendous disappointments about certain matters of basic justice, our country remains the embodiment of some of the greatest achievements in political liberty, equality, and prosperity the world has ever known. I would rather live in this place and time than in any other.

A thoughtful Christian approach to democratic engagement in a pluralistic context has to include careful reflection on the relation between Christian morality and human flourishing, and on how we might bring the wisdom of the Christian tradition to bear in a way that is helpful for people who are suspicious of Christianity. It has to work out the implications of under-appreciated virtues like love, service, and self-sacrifice, using them to counter our own older assumptions about power, piety, and paternalism. And of course, like the New Testament church, the guiding light for our own transformed political witness must be not so much the Law of theocratic Israel but the example of the one who came to fulfill it. Romans 13 finds its place towards the end of Romans, in the midst of Paul’s discussion of our sanctification by the Spirit, not in the middle of Deuteronomy, towards the end of the old written code.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on March 25, 2013, in Culture War, Law and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Christian Political Witness: Thinking of Ourselves as a Minority.

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