Jerusalem and Washington

Image of President John F. Kennedy: official White House portrait

“Here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

– President John F. Kennedy, 1961 presidential inaugural address.

American political history since at least the Civil War has been marked by religiously-driven political movements. “In God we Trust” was added to our coinage in 1864. The “Christian amendment,” introduced several times in the late 1800s would have amended the Constitution to acknowledge “Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the nations, and his revealed will as our supreme authority.” William Jennings Bryan famously placed the banking battles of his time period in naked theological terms. Wilson’s War To End All Wars bore a similarly crusading tone. Domestically, prohibition was fought as the next great religious cause. The New Deal, evolution in schools, welfare programs, President Johnson’s Great Society, the civil rights movement, the anti-death penalty movement, the fight over prayer in schools, the Cold War, abortion and the culture wars, free market economics, and health care all represent twentieth century political movement largely rationalized on moral and religious terms. Indeed, twentieth century politics in the United States was arguably marked primarily by religion.

That is why JFK’s inaugural statement is so striking. In the country of separation-of church-and-state and no-prayer-in-schools, the President of the country is declaring that we, the people and government of the United States, are called to work as agents of GOD on earth. And JFK’s claim is not an isolated instance. In his groundbreaking 1967 essay on American civic religion, sociologist Robert Bellah notes:

“[JFK’s] whole address can be understood as only the most recent statement of a theme that lies very deep in the American tradition, namely the obligation, both collective and individual, to carry out God’s will on earth. This was the motivating spirit of those who founded America, and it has been present in every generation since.”

If it is true that most of American politics has been marked primarily by religious arguments, how are such claims to be evaluated by those who recognize their legitimacy? Ought religious arguments be permitted in defense of prohibition? Why or why not? Ought religious arguments be permitted in defense of the civil rights movement? Why or why not?  While religious arguments are constantly explicitly and implicitly invoked in American politics, it is extraordinary that we have developed almost no theological-political basis on which to evaluate such claims.

In fact, I would suggest that there are only four arguments regularly used—and their inadequacy shows the depth of the problem. The first argument is that religious claims in politics must be rejected because introducing absolute religious claims into the political realm necessarily destroys politics. This is because religious claims end the political debate because they are unanswerable. Abortion is murder, God says so, it must be banned. Gadaffi is a tyrant who massacres his people, he must be removed. The poor are hungry, God says they must be fed, so they must be fed. Claims about human dignity and God’s righteousness demand action. Theology consumes the political in its righteous cause.

Thus, the historical narrative goes, Christendom was being torn apart by competing religious claims in the political sphere. As Mark Lilla put it, Christianity’s “inner ambiguities produced endless doctrinal differences over spiritual and political matters that rendered medieval European life increasingly intolerant, dogmatic, fearful and violent.” It is only with the enlightened realism of liberal political theorists that politics was freed from its theological shackles and the peace and stability of the modern age became possible. Religious claims must be excluded from politics altogether if politics is to be possible.

Not so fast. The second argument makes the exact opposite claim: when religious claims are made in the public sphere, they cease to be religious. Instead, those religious impulses are crassly manipulated and redirected toward the state. In fact, while proponents of the first argument point to Thomas Hobbes as the beginning of the liberal realist project, proponents of this second argument point to Hobbes as the beginning of such civic religion. Hobbes gives specific instructions on the manipulation of civic religion in support of political absolutism. Thus, the second argument is that the introduction of religious claims into politics necessarily destroys religion as it is swallowed up by the political cause of the day and is eventually directed toward the temporal state. Only the cynical and corrupt political actor would dare to manipulate the sacred in support of secular and temporal ends—such as garnering support in a republican primary election.

Merely to juxtapose these two arguments is to unmask their absurdity. Both have been absolutely true in specific contexts. In fact, both are probably true on a daily basis in some specific political context. However, to claim that either is necessarily true must be false. The first argument—that religious claims end the political debate—can only be absolutely true if religious ends (Eric Voegelin might call it the eschaton) are wholly immanent. The second argument—that politics destroys religious claims—can only be absolutely true if religious ends are wholly transcendent. Since religious claims are neither wholly immanent nor wholly transcendent, both argument one and argument two provide no satisfactory basis for critiquing any of the religious political claims listed above.

There are two additional arguments advanced within the Christian tradition: the chastening effects of human finiteness and the chastening effect of man’s fallen condition. Human finiteness, especially our finite knowledge, must limit our ability to govern. As memorably illustrated by Saint Augustine in book XIX of The City of God, political action is necessarily tragic because of our limited knowledge. A judge cannot know the consciences of those at the bar; he cannot know what actually occurred. Thus, the very exercise of justice by the most well-meaning and wise judge inevitably results in injustice. “The ignorance of the judge frequently involves an innocent person in suffering,” and worse, inevitably even involves the unintentional execution of the innocent. Requiring political action of blind and ignorant political actors must be done with caution–even if the religious or ethical claim is true and known, its application is usually shrouded in ignorance.

The fourth argument is similar: man’s sinful condition means that all political action must be taken by sinful persons. Placing political power in the hands of sinful persons—even those freed from the limits of Augustine’s tragic judge—will necessarily result in the abuse of that power. Indeed, at the very heart of the Christian religion is just such an act: politics being illegally and corruptly manipulated to arraign, try, sentence, and execute the Son of God for political usurpation. History has repeated that lesson of the gospels (and, incidentally, the lesson of Eden) time and again: political authority results in injustice, because governments are made up of persons, and persons are sinful.

These two arguments should give us pause whenever a religious claim demands political action. Both counsel against taking political action to support religious claims. But, of course, it is the very nature of such religious claims to require that action be taken. Thus, these final two arguments, while extremely important considerations, can only provide context to our original problem. They are not a means to evaluate religious claims in politics, they are merely considerations that provide context to all political discussion.

And so we are left with the original question: if Bellah is right, and every generation of Americans has agreed with JFK’s declaration that it is the responsibility of Americans and America to be the instruments of God’s will on earth, how do we evaluate the wisdom of religious claims in politics? More pointedly—why is it so rarely even asked?

Those men of yours never loved the people, they didn’t suffer for them, and didn’t sacrifice anything for them, though they may have amused themselves by imagining it! … You can’t love what you don’t know and they had no conception of the Russian people … And he who has no people has no God. – Shatov in The Possessed (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

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