Today I commence a series of posts on the intersection of those two things no one is supposed to discuss in polite society: religion and politics. Specifically, I take up the question of how to be a Christian in public, what the Christian’s Book has to say about the matter.
This is hardly a unique undertaking in our time. There has been no shortage of articles and books, popular and scholarly, on the subject of public theology, by whole bunch of people from all over the political and theological spectrum, the past decade. The prominence of the “religious right” in American politics in the eighties and nineties provoked a lot of thought, and writing, on the public implications of theology. And then, when one kind of theology drastically altered the New York City skyline and crashed into the Pentagon, the volume of writing on the subject increased by several orders of magnitude over again. So I’m well aware that I’m talking into an already noisy area of the public square.
Nor is this series a unique undertaking historically. The great writers of the tradition in which I stand — the Christian tradition — include many who have made constructive contributions on this very subject. So why should I — not a great thinker, not an “expert,” but a simple lawyer living in a small town in a relatively rural part of the world — think I could possibly say something about this subject that hasn’t already been said better by someone else?
The answer is simple: I don’t. On this matter I’m an amateur — a student, not an expert. But so are most people. That means I can compare notes with my fellow amateurs in a way that experts cannot; I am hopeful that, as a result, some lights will go on.
Moreover, I plan to address the subject in a way I’ve not really seen done before: simply by selecting some pertinent biblical passages and then writing a series of essays on them. Every other treatment of public theology that I’ve seen has either presupposed, constructed, attacked or defended some overarching theory of how to be public theologians. While I am not without my own sympathies and presuppositions (which will become manifest enough over the course of the series), my hope is that keeping my comments firmly and plainly anchored in the common Book of the Church universal, readers will be able to appreciate afresh the riches of the Bible for public discourse, and interact with these posts a way that one can’t interact with a scholarly monograph.
We have indeed a profound need for a basic understanding of the public implications of biblical texts, which has not infrequently been exposed of late. To take one example from a recent Republican presidential debate: Byron York’s question to Michele Bachmann about submitting to her husband. Bachmann, not so deftly, skirted the issue, stating that she respected her husband, as he did her. Much could be (and already has been) said about the propriety of York’s question and Bachmann’s answer, but for now I’ll register a simple hurrah to the question and a “meh” to Bachmann’s dodge and note one of the early responses to the whole dustup: Stephen Prothero’s list of five biblical passages on which he’d like to hear commentary from Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry. I found Prothero’s post noteworthy, not because it’s unique but precisely because it follows a trend: Any time a publicly evangelical politician publicly dodges a question about a biblical text, these kinds of posts start popping up like mushrooms. To the extent that those of us who call ourselves Christians cannot respond intelligently to the questions posed by the people who write posts like Prothero’s, we confess that we have not carefully read or bothered to understand our common Book. And we give the impression to the watching world that we really are just another set of partisan hacks, content to “pound” our Book while shouting across the cultural divide, and less than eager to read, learn, mark and inwardly digest what it has to say about matters of political concern.