My email inbox recently included several messages from the Illinois Conference of Churches (ICC) — of which the Diocese of Springfield is a dues-paying member — publicizing a rally at the state capitol to protest President Trump’s executive order on immigration. ICC officers have issued a statement strongly condemning the order.
Whenever something happens that merits national news coverage, several of my colleague bishops are quick to raise their voices in the public square, invariably making an appeal to the principles of justice, and attempting to connect those principles to the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus. I believe they sincerely consider themselves duty-bound, as Christian leaders, to make such statements.
Then there are the platforms for the masses, not for “councils of leaders” or those of high ecclesiastical status, but the latter-day soapbox on Speaker’s Corner — Facebook and Twitter. An already established pattern of political opining and posturing has dominated these media in the weeks and months prior to the nationwide election, but, for this cycle, the game has gone into overtime, with no indication of an impending sudden-death resolution. If anything, the operational tempo has palpably accelerated since November 8. This, of course, reflects parallel currents in offline activity; witness the protest marches that took place in Washington, D.C., and other cities across the country in January.
As a private citizen, I like to think of myself as politically engaged. I have an underlying political philosophy. I follow the news — the headlines, at least, with occasional forays into the weeds on particular issues. And I vote, basing my decisions on the interplay between that underlying philosophy and what’s actually happening in the world. I am also a Christian. My faith forms my conscience — most days, at least. My political engagement is inseparable from Christian moral and ethical principles, and from the eschatological vision that I am in this world as a resident alien. My status on Planet Earth is: Green Card.
Even so, I have always been reticent about publicly revealing very much about my political views. I might occasionally “like” or “retweet” an item on Facebook or Twitter, but I try to be circumspect in doing so, and I never post anything on my own that advocates for or against a candidate or a policy or pending legislation. Is this cultivated habit itself perhaps a political ploy on my part? Given that the flock over which I am a shepherd represents nearly the entire array of political positions, might I be accused of being coy in order to preserve my standing among that flock?
I won’t deny that there is an element of this sort of political calculus in what I do — or, more precisely, don’t do. But, in my defense, I would point out that there is not only a diversity of political opinion among the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Springfield, but that some, if not most, of those opinions are held by Christians of goodwill and an informed conscience.
Goodwill. Informed conscience. These are the markers, I would suggest, of a political perspective that need not be agreed with, but must be respected and tolerated within the household of faith. When an opinion is rooted in anger or vengeance or irrational fear or invidious rancor, it may be appropriately judged by the larger community as unchristian. Similarly, if it is grounded in ignorance of relevant information, it may also be dismissed. This is not to undermine the authority of conscience, but the authority of conscience presumes that it is informed, aware of all the applicable facts. Christians of goodwill and an informed conscience may legitimately disagree about political philosophy or particular issues of public policy. What they cannot do is insist that theirs is the only valid Christian position.
To illustrate this, let me use an issue that is no longer near the front burner, and therefore not currently “hot.” During the Cold War, American Christians found themselves on both sides of questions around the buildup and maintenance of their country’s nuclear arsenal. Many contended earnestly that the mere possession of nuclear weapons aggravated relations with the Soviet Union and elevated the possibility that they would eventually be used. Others countered with the deterrent value of “mutual assured destruction” and insisted on the necessity of continually outpacing the Soviets. Either position, I would say, could be held by a Christian of goodwill and an informed conscience.
This principle is perpetually manifest around economic theory. A person may be a free-market “supply side” conservative or a Keynesian government-spending liberal and still retain Christian bona fides. Of course, the more local the concern, the more impossible it becomes to delineate one position as “more Christian” than its counterpart. Whether to increase the property tax rate to pay for a new swimming pool at the high school is not likely to become a church-dividing issue.
This is why I avoid taking public positions, in my persona as a Christian leader, on specific matters of public policy. I want to respect and honor the informed conscience and goodwill of all who are committed to my pastoral charge. It would be an abuse of my position as a Christian leader were I to turn it into a platform merely for what Dan Martins thinks, rather than for what Bishop Daniel of Springfield teaches — because what Bishop Daniel of Springfield teaches is governed by and accountable to the witness of sacred Scripture as understood by the collective mind of the Catholic Church scattered throughout space and time. So, where there is room for Christians of goodwill and an informed conscience to disagree, I back off, lest the integrity of Bishop Daniel’s teaching office be compromised by the mere political opinions, however well-considered, of Dan Martins.
Practicing this sort of reticence in public political speech pays dividends for a Christian leader. When a situation is so morally stark that there can be but one authentically Christian response, that leader’s voice is imbued with extra gravitas. Can there be any justification, from a Christian perspective, for a law that would require Rosa Parks to move to the back of the bus? No, there is none. To use a more current illustration, is there any conceivable apologia that can be made for an ordinance forbidding the feeding of homeless people? My personal assessment is that such an ordinance descends to truly unchristian depths, and I would have no qualms about lending whatever weight I might wield as a Christian leader in opposition to it. I would even say something about it on Facebook if it were proposed in my community. Anything less blatantly obvious than these examples, however, would lead me to suspect that, somewhere, a Christian of goodwill and an informed conscience was coming to a different conclusion, and while I might remonstrate privately with my sister or brother, I would hold my peace publicly.
The problem, of course, is that these hypothetical “Christians of goodwill and an informed conscience” are going to apply that very criterion in divergent ways. There are Christians in my social networks who are on both sides of the Dakota Access Pipeline issue, and there are even some supporters of the original version of President Trump’s executive order on immigration. While my perception (as “Dan Martins”) of Christian moral principles leads me to personally oppose the DAPL and anything but hospitality toward refugees, I (as “Bishop Daniel”) can at least begin to imagine the broad strokes of opposing arguments that do not eviscerate the demands of the gospel or the Christian moral tradition. So I (in either of my personas) refrain from pretending to sit in judgment on those who do not share my moral analysis.
I realize that I’m raising more questions than I’m even addressing here, let alone answering. One implication of what I’m saying is that, since Christians of goodwill and an informed conscience may legitimately differ widely in their political perceptions, the Christian community, or even any segment of the Christian community, will not be able to speak with one voice on any given issue of public policy. Indeed, I will go so far as to enjoin (in humility, I hope) my example on other Christian leaders about their public speech. Still less ought synodal assemblies (e.g., the General Convention of the Episcopal Church) take public positions on issues about which there is any credible “minority report” within that same assembly. To do so alienates large segments of the faithful from their own church, creating “winners” and “losers” in a community that urgently needs to be speaking univocally to the world about core issues of the gospel, matters about which there is no dispute.
At the same time, I would encourage all disciples of Jesus to be politically engaged, at the very least by voting conscientiously, while also remembering that we are in this world on revocable visas; our true and native land is elsewhere. And I encourage Christian pastors to consider it part of their ministry to help form the conscience of the faithful by diligently schooling them on the habits of thought and practice that most effectively model life in the kingdom of God.