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The Gospel, Public Policy, and Coercion

The 81st General Convention of the Episcopal Church will be called to order on June 23. As always, it will consider a number of resolutions that purport to speak to government leaders on matters of public policy, foreign and domestic. Most of these resolutions will be passed, some with no debate. This habit is a holdover from the days of late Christendom, when Christians in general, and Episcopalians in particular, constituted a rather larger percentage of the total U.S. population than we do today, and the opinions of religious leaders were thought to carry some actual weight among legislators and government executives.

It used to be said that the Episcopal Church was “the Republican Party at prayer.” Those days are long gone. The public policy resolutions passed by General Convention will be painted a deep blue. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends largely on one’s political leanings. If your views run to the right, it’s at least an annoyance and, for some, a significant incitement to frustration. If one leans leftward, the response is more like, “So what’s the problem?” Some argue that the gospel transcends the categories of politics, so the church should not be identified too closely with any particular political agenda, left of right, blue or red. If the church’s positions map too closely to those of either party, that in itself is a warning sign. Others respond that the gospel is political on its face, lifting up as their banner the trenchant language of the Magnificat: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

The Episcopal Church’s canon for evangelism, Stephanie Spellers, was recently interviewed on The Living Church Podcast. Host Amber Noel led Canon Spellers into this territory, and she advocated passionately for the “gospel is political” viewpoint, citing the language of the Baptismal Covenant and the example of Jesus, suggesting that these lead inexorably, via the pursuit of justice, to positions that would fall left of center. If we run our political convictions through the filter of the gospel, according to Canon Spellers, we cannot help but support programs that provide more food to hungry people and, presumably, aid to others who are, for various reasons, marginalized or displaced.

Of course, I have heard such arguments in the past, a great many times. They make a certain degree of undeniable sense. I can easily follow them … to a point. Invariably, though, they leave me scratching my head, with an inchoate feeling of discomfort. The missing component, it seems to me, the absence of which keeps these arguments from being airtight, is a failure to delineate between private behavior, which is voluntary, and public behavior, which, under any form of government, including democracy, is coercive.

As a disciple of Jesus, I have no option but to be personally committed to an ethic of indiscriminate love and justice. A few days ago, while out on my daily walk, I was approached for assistance by a family of five — father, mother, and three young children. They were refugees from Venezuela, only eight weeks out of their home country and eight days in Chicago. Their immediate need was for food, so I walked with them several blocks out of my way to a Colombian restaurant — which, for them, was comfort food — and paid for their meal before I went on my way. They quite understandably ordered enough not just for that meal, but to take with them for later. I told the husband, Julio, I was helping them in the name of Jesus, to which he responded very positively. I saw this as what charity, agapē, demanded of me, and a joyful privilege. They were in my path. They had an evident need, and I had the means to meet that need without harming either myself or any others who depend on me. For me, it was an act of Christian discipleship, and I was a microcosmic extension of the whole church, the whole community of the baptized. As a leader in the church, even in “elder statesman” status now, it is entirely appropriate for me to urge Christian communities to adhere to that same standard. When I was last in parish ministry, we had a displaced family, bearing a wide range of needs, come through our red doors one Sunday morning, and the parish soon became a support structure that was integral to their lives. It’s what Christians do.

There are those, no doubt, who would encourage me to complete my recent act of caritas by lobbying legislatures at various levels to allocate more public funds toward the assistance of people like Julio and his family. I have no problem with that notion per se, but what bothers me about advocating for such a thing is that I would thereby be imposing my Christian values, coercively, on my fellow citizens who may not share my Christian commitment. It is one thing for me to ask myself, “What would Jesus do?” It is quite another for me to participate in a process that compels my neighbor to emulate my example.

Most any discussion about evangelism among Episcopalians (at least, though also among many other categories of Christians as well) gets to the idea that there is nothing the least bit coercive about sharing the gospel. Christian communities bear witness in the lives of their members, in acts of collective compassion and, at opportune moments, by using words to explain the love of God and the invitation to spiritual health and wholeness through faith in the crucified and risen Christ. Manipulation is to be eschewed. Even the hint of manipulation is to be eschewed. I can call to mind the aggregate effect of news stories in church periodicals about parish ministries to disenfranchised — often immigrant or refugee — populations. At some point in the article, almost as if it were a mandatory bit of virtue signaling, the absence of which would be problematic, a parishioner participating in the program is invariably quoted to the effect that “It’s not our goal to proselytize. We don’t ever mention religion.”

I always wince at this. It seems like such an opportunity squandered. It  does testify, however, to the reluctance of many Christians, in the private sphere, to do anything that might be construed as imposing their religion on others. Yet, in the public sphere, many of those same Christians seem more than ready to do the very thing they eschew privately — impose Christian values on those who are not Christian. I strongly suspect that most Episcopalians would join their voices to the chorus that proclaims, “America is not a Christian nation” — a chorus that includes my voice. Yet General Convention (and various diocesan conventions) never tire in commending public policies that would enact the social views of the majority, views that are invariably justified as required by the gospel.

I can already hear the retort: What about the demands of justice? Justice is not a uniquely Christian value, is it? It is presumed to be part of the bedrock of any modern, civilized society. All people of goodwill, Christian and non-Christian alike, share a commitment to basic human rights: beyond the classic trio of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” things like safety, shelter, nutrition, clean water, education, and healthcare might be added to the list. In today’s rhetorical environment, the presumed corollaries of justice — diversity, equity, and inclusion — should surely be given space as well.

But this is a house of cards. If you pull on one of the loose threads (to mix my metaphors), the whole thing begins to unravel. Here’s a case in point: Many Christians — though, perhaps not many Episcopalians — would argue that the right to life, as a matter of gospel justice, extends to the conceived but not yet born. This position passes the three-way test of Scripture, tradition, and reason with flying colors. If our duty is to allow the shade of justice to cover the weakest and most disenfranchised among us, who more fits that description than an unborn child? Yet General Convention will pass no resolutions aimed at protecting the unborn, even though it is patently a justice issue. Why? Because they would not fit under the bright blue blanket that covers all public policy resolutions.

When the Christian community in North America, including the Episcopal Church, recovers its gospel-shaped identity in a way that demonstrates complete independence from the categories, structures, and rhetoric of secular political discourse, and can speak with an authentically Christian voice, not one that merely pays lip service to some theological jargon, then it may be capable of speaking an influential prophetic word to our society regarding matters of public policy. We are nowhere near this point, but I believe it could happen, and pray for that. Until then, though, we would do well to cultivate the virtue of collective humility, and keep quiet.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you. I also commend you for sticking with TEC and making a witness there. I have now left as I can no longer endure such absurdities about which you write. Be blessed.

  2. I tend to think that the political process is just the right place for this kind of ‘coercion’ to occur. Politics has collective ground-rules that are specifically made so that collective decisions can occur while respecting fundamental rights of minorities and minority views. Somebody’s ‘side’ is going to end up losing in politics and may end up feeling that they have been coerced into behaviors they don’t agree with, but the basic idea is: If we can collectively decide that putting out fires is desired from the community as a whole, then it is ok to ‘coerce’ those who don’t agree into paying to support what the community has decided they need. And if politics is the right forum for these potentially ‘coercive’ decisions, then it is our responsibility to our neighbors to explain our stance and why we believe/vote the way we do.

  3. The difficulty, I think, is distinguishing between the church as a corporate body and the church as individual Christians. It is our duty to discern our political and social duties as individual Christians and to act to meet them. However, the church’s corporate decision to speak and act politically risks becoming captive to political actors. My impression as an admittedly conservative Episcopalian (there are still a few of us) is that the Episcopal Church has become the Democratic Party in demonstration.

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