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February 26, 2007


Wayne Cox

Chuck - I lurk far too much without joining the conversation! But I'm stopped in my tracks this morning. Thanks for helping me (yet again) work through a difficult season of my life. You've identified one of the stumbling blocks for me in becoming a more politically engaged Christ-follower -- Constantinianism of the "left." Your 4 part "suggestion" seems to provide a clear way through this temptation (or mere accusation) and gives me hope of becoming one whose political activism emerges from faith.

David Beasley

third part is very important and I hope it might be carried deeper into understanding "governments (s)".
"We do not place our trust in the state for an alternative means of salvation, but we do expect the state to serve the purpose God intends." and ff. is really a direction Christians need to understand in order to clearly see that we are NOT on existential roller skates of equal proportion to our spiritual eqilibrium where one foot's skate is "spiritual" and the other "worldly/political". Your further commentary in # 3 is enlightening. What I can do for my government as a Christian is certainly very important in even the most minimal way... love tends to be infectious even if as small as a mustard seed, eh? Critique by loving Christian standards and we do as much as we can. Why else did Son of God come into the world if not to destroy the evil and rend the fabric of the temple with his power of love? Why else should we claim and attempt to master (even if ever so slowly as a snail running a 220 dash as in my case)that which will help God's obviously stated cause and standards.


Thanks, guys!
Wayne, I still owe you an answer to a very old email. I have at least saved it, even if I have not answered it yet!

Brad Anderson

Chuck, thanks for dealing with this issue in a candid way. As one who often suspects this of progressives to an extent, I appreciate your attention to it.

I am sympathetic to several of your points, and I agree they would go a long way toward alleviating such suspicion. My understanding, too, is no doubt in need of improvement, and you have modeled a humble approach to just that. If I could, I would also like to elaborate on, probe, and tease out a couple of other points.

1. The Constantinian Settlement was extremely problematic, not least because of the way the church so quickly embraced the empire. Granted, persecution turning to protection practically overnight can have that effect. But by the time of Eusebius, later in Constantine’s reign, Christian theology itself was being redefined by the “theology of empire” such that the empire was seen as the Kingdom of God on earth with Constantine as God’s vice-regent. According to this theology, it is through empire that the world will be brought to the worship of God. Unfortunately, there seems to have been at the time no resistance to this transformation of Christian theology within ecclesiastical circles. The monastics alone provided a source of resistance by “leaving” the empire to found alternative communities, and in some cases, individual spiritual pursuits.

This is relevant because in the modern era, the state has been viewed similarly, though it has (a la Cavanaugh) replaced Christian theology with its own alternative form. Moreover, and especially in the United States, it is democracy itself that is seen by many Christians as the force to bring the world into proper relation with itself and with God. Hence, crusading for democratization far to easily wins the blessing of the church. Domestically, and with much political philosophy, it is thought that an expansion of “rights” (in the liberal modern vein) will ensure proper dignity, security, and fulfillment to all. This is not that to which the church is called, in my opinion; it too easily lends toward idolatry, if it is not already such.

2. I just want to state plainly what must happen from an ecclesiological perspective. It is not just that the work must be “recentered” in the church and that language must be improved to explicitly acknowledge such (though these are not bad ideas in themselves), but that the focus must be first and foremost on the church AS exemplary community: the social, cultural, political, and economic community by which all other communities, nations, etc. are evaluated. If our ecclesiology is too weak to begin with, and/or if the church is too far from embodying its proper identity and vocation, then any other adjustments will look like window dressing and will continue to be interpreted as Constantinianism of the left.

Part of what continues to frustrate me – and this may be alleviated in large part by your own suggestions – is that Christian progressives continue to perceive the nation and/or state as their primary social identity instead of the church, and to perpetuate this notion within the church. On this note, we must get away from language that calls for a better or greater or stronger “America,” or that suggests we must get back to proper “American” values (which historically have never been the church’s values). This romantic notion of America and democracy that plays such a prominent role in public theology must be dispensed with.

3. On your third suggestion for improvement, you mention a two-fold question. I’ve addressed the first “fold” in my previous point (i.e., the church is to be exactly that society, and must be first and foremost before any other “society” can be expected to do the same). On your second “fold,” I wonder about your language here. Do you really expect that communities “emerge” from “public policies and institutions” (alongside other factors, you seem to allow), or do such policies and institutions emerge from a particular community’s understanding of its identity and purpose? One other sticking point between progressivism (of this type) and its critiques by the “Hauerwasian” school (for lack of a better term) or Radical Orthodoxy is that the latter do not have much hope that the “state” can be transformed in this fashion. They certainly allow for human government and the importance of such for human safety, etc., but they charge the modern state by its very nature is incapable of being “faithful” to God’s intentions in the way you envision, thus requiring an “undoing” before long-term change can be effective. How would you respond to that?

4. I do wonder to what extent this larger debate (not so much your personal participation) is prefaced on the old H.R. Neibuhr “Christ and Culture,” with "Christ transforming culture" seen as the only "responsible" course of action and the Hauerwasian/Radical Orthodoxy perspective being boxed in as “Christ against culture,” which really gives it short shrift.

Your many other points are excellent (I especially appreciate what you say about Scripture). I would love to dialogue with you more about this; I do have other concerns, as I’m sure you do, too. Though I am very critical at times, I do mean these points to foster discussion, not just critique. I look forward to continued conversation.

David Beasley

Great historical reading Brad. Do you know anything about America as "The New Jerusalem" (aka "ZION")that dates back to 16-17th c. up to present as the designated country to carry out the Kingdom of God on earth... used to various extent by various Protestant people?

Mystical Seeker

I particularly liked what you said about asking ourselves "what would a society that lives in accord with God’s intentions look like?", and "how does God intend public policies and institutions to serve the emergence of such a community?"

There's the rub, I think. I support pushing government policies towards supporting just goals, but I at the same time don't think they are the complete solution towards social justice. I posted recently the following remarks in a an entry in my blog:

"There is, in my view, a contrast between the polite, restrained values of the modern liberalism, and the radical values of social justice as espoused by the such diverse characters as the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Abbie Hoffman. Does that mean that I think one should then reject politics out of hand? No, I don't. I think one can take that view too far and conclude that politics don't matter, or that we can build justice by ignoring politics. I do not believe that. I am deeply interested in what happens in the political arena...

"To me, secular political processes may not always be the direct conduit for us as we seek the Kingdom of God. If we consider the corruption of the domination system to be the primary means through which we achieve the Kingdom of God, if we ally ourselves too strongly with it,I believe we are doomed to be corrupted by that very system. To me, we need to seek social justice first and foremost, and let the political chips fall where they may. That means standing outside of the system as voices of conscience who afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I am a cynic and a radical. I believe that we can only achieve the Kingdom of God if we seriously look at building a a new social order based on the principles of justice, where human needs instead of corporate profits are what define what we do as a society. The current domination system of our time cannot lead the way to the Kingdom of God, in my view. Only the people at the grassroots, listening to God's call (whether they believe in God or not), can do that."

To me, in other words, radical problems need radical solutions. I think that we can only build a just society from the ground up, by building new models of society that lie outside of free markets, corporate profits, and systems of hierarchy. But then, I am a radical. :)


It's interesting to note that while Orthodox Christianity has often been linked to the state, ( resulting in tremendous conflicts- the iconoclastic controversy being a major one where the laity struggled against a hierarchy collaborating with the iconoclast emperors) it has, in its Liturgy, a constant reminder about the relative worth of government, quoting the Psalms;

"Put not your trust in princes, sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth and all their plans vanish".

This is often said before the Gospel proclamation.

Jordan Lester

Hi, I found your post highly enlightening and useful. Instead, we need a faith-based activism as opposed to a political activism that only uses faith as a justification for a certain political agenda.

I also found it interesting how you've pointed out what happens when the church gets too close to the state. As Jim Wallis said, Separation of Church(the institution) and State is necessary. However, the separation of Church and State doesn't mean a separation of faith from public life: the question ought to be not whether we ought to be living our faith out, but how.

Indeed, some people have accused Jim Wallis of being part of 'The Religious Left' (because they perceive him as being too closed to the Democratic Party and such). But indeed, thanks for sounding the warning bell as to help christians avoid falling into that trap.

It's also odd that even when we try to base our political views on our faith, that our own human ideas that we inherit from society can still pour through without our awareness. For example, historically, there have been two brands of mainstream Christianity: the conservative and radical traditions (this is something I learned about in my Environmental Philosophy 2800 class).

Whereas the Conservative Stream prefers to preserve nature as it was and sees any attempt to alter nature as violating the rights of Providence, the Radical tradition prefers to cling to the idea that people can improve the human condition.

Although Jim Wallis doesn't tend to be partisan, he does seem to have a bit of the Radical Christian stream in mind when he wrote his book "God's Politics". But don't get me wrong, although it's not a perfect book, it did end the monologue of the Religious Right and started a new conversation and dialogue about what it means to be a Christian who is "In the world, but NOT of it"!


On point 1, I hear the concern. I agree that the temptation to the idolatry of nationalism is great. However, let us not forget that the various forms of government used by Israel (even somewhat theocratic) did not lead to much better success at resisting such idolatry. I think the problem, at least at some level, is the unwillingness of the church to genuinely stand in opposition to such idolatry. Our own self-interest too easily justifies the use of the state's force for our protection. Nevertheless, God intended governments to serve a purpose. Our goal, as church, should be to model what it means to take that seriously, while steadfastly resisting the idolatry. I suspect this is at least partly why Jesus spoke of the roads broad and narrow.
2. I think we are in agreement here. I was just trying to keep things relatively short:>) Upon expansion, we'd get into these points.
3. I see the relationship as dialogical between the two. On the impossibility of the current model being reformed in a helpful way, I hear this complaint about so many things. In effect, isn't it a lot like the "we got to kill Saddam 'cause he is too bad to reform." I think this fundamentally surrenders the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It is easy enough to set back and say, "oh, just give up, it can't be fixed" (which, by the way, I do not hear you saying:>)). It is much harder to give up the cynicism and attempt to fuel a genuine reformation. Reformation will involve transformation, but I believe God's intentions could be much more closely realized.
4. I am generally not sympathetic to Niebuhr. I do not have him in mind. Again, my focus is on seeing how we can get the divine intent realized.
This is a bit more quickly thrown together than I'd like:>) So, push back and help me nuance:>)


MS, I appreciate you sharing that with us. Certainly, my focus on public policies and institutions that will meet God's intentions will lead to some serious transformations, if undertaken. It will likely require more, not less, political involvement. I am open to the question of how radical the surgery needed.


A good many protestants would benefit from that reminder, Evagrius.


Hey, Jordan, thanks so much for joining us and for offering your fine comments!


Coming from the perspective of a "recovering conservative"(and non-theologian), this is a great topic and sums up many of the concerns I have been expressing. Here are my comments/questions:

1. How/why should we as Christians be "centering" our faith/walk with ANY secular political position? Goes to my past comments questioning why we identify ourselves first by our political alignment and then as Christian (Progressive Christian, Conservative Christian, etc.). By definition, neither side has it totally right. Seems we should center our faith on Scripture itself and (political) alignment on an issue-by-issue basis.

2. A big part of the "unholy alliance" that resulted from Constantinianism is that the church lost its culture and began adopting that of the dominant culture. Clapp argues that if the Church were to regain this lost culture, it/we would be in a better position to live out our faith in not only true community, but also politically and otherwise. I agree with this.

3. Jesus seemed to speak out often and emphatically (activism) on issues of social injustice, but he never used the political process to (directly) influence legislation. Why is it that we should be engaging in the political process at all? Legislating morality doesn't necessarily make people moral.


Jerry, thanks, man, good comments.
On one, I was arguing for re-centering in the church. Are you asking me that question, or is it more rhetorical?
On three, 1) there was no means for Jesus, short of going with the zealots. We have a participatory democracy wherein folks get to argue for the common good, not accept Caesar's position:>) 2) Laws are not about legislating morality, they are about legislating moral behaviors. Hence, for example, we have laws against murder. 3) The position of withdrawal is exactly what the "powers" desire of us Christians. When we do not counter really bad legislation and policy positions, we appear to acquiesce. The prophetic voice from outside is the model I most favor.


I was really seeking clarity by what you mean by "recentering". I'm seeking a way to do this on an issue-by-issue basis (without having to specifically align with a political party. As for the Church, how can it accomplish this and follow the rules of 501c3? (among other "obstacles").

I agree with your comment regarding withdrawal, but again, I'm seeking a way to engage both lovingly and appropriately.


On recentering, I was trying to find a way of saying that the church needs to be at the center of what we are doing. We cannot see our political work as separated from the church.

Brad Anderson

Chuck - Thanks for responding.

1. My first point didn't really have anything to do with nationalism. I was referring rather to Enlightenment-rooted political philosophy (liberalism in whatever form) that locates human fulfillment in what the state can do (or not do) for the individual. Rights language and democracy do play a major role in the language of Christian Progressivism today, so I'm concerned too great an emphasis is being placed there. There needs to be much more critical evaluation of democracy by Progressives before I can be comfortable with their agenda. I base this, incidentally, largely on what I read from Sojo, Wallis, and various other theologians, though not as much from you. :-)

Incidentally, and I know you disagree with me on this, I must say here that I don't read the biblical account of Israel this way. The problems began largely when they sought a centralized monarchy to begin with. Had they been content with Yahweh as king over a tribal confederation, the other problems would not have developed as they did.

I'm with you on the church not standing against idolatry...especially when it is complicit with such.

2. I didn't think we'd have a problem here, but it's worth mentioning because too much of the latter and not enough of the former permeate so much of the discussion these days.

(BTW - Let's do expand sometime and get into these issues...:-) )

3. Well, I disagree with your response here, but I also want to clarify. I'm not saying government cannot be reformed; I'm saying the modern, self-absolutizing state - which is such inherently - cannot become a domesticated, servant-of-the-Kingdom self-absolutizing state. The governing political apparatus - along with the philosophy behind it - must change altogether. This is not to say there can be no proper government.

I'm not trying to box the Holy Spirit in here; I'm simply saying that when the nature of the modern state is itself antithetical to the Kingdom, sufficient reform without changing its nature is impossible.

My frustration lies in my belief that Christian Progressives are putting so much energy into transforming that which must be undone and rebuilt, while they could be focusing on gettin the church in order to begin with.

4. Again, my Niebuhr comment was not addressed to you but to Progressivism in general.

Let's keep this conversation going, even if we need a Part II thread. :-)

Brad Anderson

Jerry - Seems you like Clapp quite a bit. A very good author to like, in my opinion. :-)

Chuck, on your third point in response to Jerry's third point:

I'm having a bit of a disconnect here. He questioned engaging in the political process, i.e., resisting from "within." You seemed to equate not doing so with "withdrawal," yet you yourself mentioned your preferred position of "the prophetic voice from outside," which I take to be Jerry's implied point. Is there actually disagreement here?

If so, I would really object to the notion that the only appropriate way to resist is by participating in the state's own political apparatus. The church resists first and foremost - indeed, most faithfully and ultimately most effectively - through our constitutive life, i.e., throught our very embodiment of proper human community under the reign of God.

Brad Anderson

Sorry, one other thing Chuck:

You wrote in response to Jerry, "We have a participatory democracy wherein folks get to argue for the common good, not accept Caesar's position."

Again, a bit of a disconnect. In a participatory democracy, to what extent are the "folks" themselves actually Caesar? What does this do to the idolatry of the state but make it blasphemy? Who, ultimately, will be judged in this situation?

Finally, as this "participatory democracy" is in the process of becoming an empire, certainly many will seek to resist this development through attempts to increase "democratic participation." Yet, it would seem that a counter-community tied to sibling counter-communities throughout the world would best resist a global empire. If there was ever a time for the universal church to rise as one, this is it.

Mystical Seeker

Cynic and radical that I am, I think that we are much less a participatory democracy than an oligarchy with democratic trappings. I see it as a matter of competing factions for power within this oligarchy, which use the veneer of "democracy" as their means of vying for power. The political parties are powerful and entrenched organizations within this structure, with hierarchies of power and intimate ties with the funding apparatuses, especially corporate interests. I think that participation within that process inevitably results in making compromises with the powerful economic interests and it ultimately corrupts the participants. It seems to me that churches have a higher imperative not to make moral compromises with entrenched interests. Politicians may have to do it, but churches lose their moral standing once they start down that path.

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