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Caesar’s Coin

If you are looking for a quixotic project, try offering a theological word at the borderline of faith and politics in election year 2024. Politics is always and by definition conflictual, but noxiously so now, and with a great deal at stake. All of us are faced with this question as believers and as citizens, but doubly so as clergy. I have recently been trying to step back and hear what advice we might receive from the great theologians and Christian philosophers of our era, together a contemporary version of Hebrews’ cloud of witnesses. You might, like the witch of Endor, summon other voices, but let these four be a beginning of an imagined conversation on behalf of the perplexed.

Karl Barth was a man of strong leftward political commitments, which sometimes surprise those who hear his objections to any cultural accommodations of the gospel with the liberalism of his time. To these he uttered his famous Nein. Such accommodations may today come in different forms, ranging from programs on social issues that seem like “the Democratic Party at prayer” on the left to calls for a “Christian nationalism” on the right. But how, Herr Professor, am I to discern when to speak? Christology, of course — or, put negatively, the question whether there is, even implicitly, some other Lordship afoot in the agenda. For then one would find oneself in the status confessionis. Does the blurring of politics and theology mean that the possibility of speaking and hearing the gospel is at stake?

In the latter 20th century, no theologian was of more consequence at the borderline than Reinhold Niebuhr, who became in essence the theologian of Cold War America. What matters most for our purposes was his Augustinian awareness of the pervasive reality of original sin in all of us, including political actors. In light of moral theologian and pacifist Stanley Hauerwas’s trenchant criticism of him, it was interesting to hear Stanley, at our recent RADVO conference in Dallas, say that he should have given more attention to the rule of law. Now there is a crypto-Niebuhrian thought indeed: Luther’s first use of the law to restrain evil! We can disagree often and vehemently with one another, but, in the spirit of Niebuhr, we need an Augustinian defense of democracy, and in particular the checks and balances of our inheritance. They imply an Augustinian awareness of the corrupting effect of power. We need not just a pragmatic, but also a theological, defense of democracy, even when it results in policies that we inveigh against.

The only living witness I would summon is Alasdair MacIntyre, a moral philosopher, though as a Thomist he has theological interests as well. He might have several words of critique to bring to our moment. He is of course famous for the genealogy of thought in the modern age offered in After Virtue. There he shows how easily the emotivism of modern liberalism, unmoored as it is, drifts all too easily into a reduction to the will to power, most forcefully articulated in Nietzsche. It is hard not to find his fingerprints today across the political scene, from left to right. While politicians focus on banning this book or that, deconstruction has been burrowing into the humanities for half a century. Corroboration may be found by rereading Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, popular two generations ago. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, so much of libertarianism may be traced back to the Nietzschian perspectives of Ayn Rand. The appeal to power has come to be more overt. The tale of Rod Dreher’s movement from endorsing MacIntyre’s vision of a new Benedict to praise for the authoritarianism of Viktor Orban is cautionary indeed. My point is simple — those inhabiting the edges of our political and ideological spectrum are intellectual cousins more than they wish to admit.

Readers of MacIntyre will recall the importance of the virtues in his account of traditions, practiced along with the rehearsal of a narrative within which claims to truth are made. In this regard we cannot help but note how awash in wrath our political scene is. Again, this has always been thus, but in our time there is an intensity, along with an unhinged quality, that feels different.

Here I must note that all the thinkers cited thus far knew nothing of the ominous new fact of technology, the incubator of that rage, not to mention sexual degradation, crackpot political theories, and attack by our foes. Less dramatic, but also worrisome, is social media’s inherent encouragement of disembodiment and a distorted search for community. So our last voice from the cloud must be the modern Christian prophet Jacques Ellul. He saw the rise of la technique, by which he meant technology’s inherent drive to “bind them all” (see for example The Technological Age).

By his encouragement, we as Christians need to make our witness to the truth in real and embodied communities, even as we insist on the inherent dignity of humans as they work, speak, and suffer. We do not yet know what an Ellulian Christian politics should look like. At the very least we need to see how technology has made problems raised by our other witnesses yet more vexed. Hobbit-like though we be, the churches, small in scale, diverse, local, corporate, exemplifying the “mediating institution” embodied, as places where human suffering and dying receive God’s blessing and promise, might come to have, in God’s providence, an outsized influence. With the help of such a cloud of witnesses, moving at society’s margins, may we, by God’s grace, make our witness of protest and solidarity, in the time that is upon us.

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