Sunday, April 09, 2006

Would Jesus Stay Out of Politics?


Gary Wills tries his very best to keep Jesus from being used by the two major political parties, arguing that "there is no such thing as a `Christian politics'", but at the end of the day he can't quite manage it. The tell-tale sign comes in this passage:
Those who want the state to engage in public worship, or even to have prayer in schools, are defying his injunction: "When you pray, be not like the pretenders, who prefer to pray in the synagogues and in the public square, in the sight of others. In truth I tell you, that is all the profit they will have. But you, when you pray, go into your inner chamber and, locking the door, pray there in hiding to your Father, and your Father who sees you in hiding will reward you" (Matthew 6:5-6). He shocked people by his repeated violation of the external holiness code of his time, emphasizing that his religion was an internal matter of the heart.

But doesn't Jesus say to care for the poor? Repeatedly and insistently, but what he says goes far beyond politics and is of a different order. He declares that only one test will determine who will come into his reign: whether one has treated the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the imprisoned as one would Jesus himself. "Whenever you did these things to the lowliest of my brothers, you were doing it to me" (Matthew 25:40). No government can propose that as its program. Theocracy itself never went so far, nor could it.

The state cannot indulge in self-sacrifice. If it is to treat the poor well, it must do so on grounds of justice, appealing to arguments that will convince people who are not followers of Jesus or of any other religion. The norms of justice will fall short of the demands of love that Jesus imposes. A Christian may adopt just political measures from his or her own motive of love, but that is not the argument that will define justice for state purposes.

To claim that the state's burden of justice, which falls short of the supreme test Jesus imposes, is actually what he wills — that would be to substitute some lesser and false religion for what Jesus brought from the Father. Of course, Christians who do not meet the lower standard of state justice to the poor will, a fortiori, fail to pass the higher test.

It's one thing to say that Jesus is beyond politics, but it's quite another to say that your religious views have no necessary connection to the pressing political issues of the day, many of which directly concern religion (like school prayer) or justice (like the nation's relationship to its poor and infirm). So Wills admits that school prayer is not what Jesus wanted, and support for the "lower standard" of "state justice" toward the poor is necessary but not sufficient to meet the higher standards of Christianity. It sure sounds like Jesus is taking sides to me.

Wills hopes that once people understand that Jesus was a rebel, not of this world, who continually distanced himself from all forms of secular power, they will stop trying to quote him for their favorite political causes. But this is a fool's errand. People want to quote Jesus precisely because we live in a world of profound moral and political disagreement; tying our arguments to widely acknowledged moral symbols or authorities is a good way to persuade others, or, at the very least, to shame them in front of others. And since the United States is, after all, a predominantly Christian country, and since one of the most powerful and successful political movements in the last generation has been Christian conservatives, it seems only natural that both liberals and conservatives would put their rhetoric in the hand of the man from Galilee.

The best way to make the argument that Wills wants to make is not to insist that Jesus is otherworldly and therefore beyond politics; it is, rather, to point out that not everyone in the United States is a Christian, and that, even among Christians, not everyone agrees about what Christianity requires. Therefore, in a world of pervasive moral disagreement and sectarian division, it is probably not a good idea to base public policy-- under which all Americans must live-- on a particular interpretation of Christian scriptures. People are free to argue about what Jesus meant and what religion demands in the public square, and government is free to recognize the important and powerful influence that religion plays in people's lives. But government officials should not make laws that are binding for all Americans on the basis of the religious views of a single religious group, even a dominant one. You don't need to have a particular view of what Jesus meant to believe this principle of politics. You only have to believe that there are good reasons, in a democracy with many different peoples and cultures, to keep the life of politics separate from any one religious orthodoxy.


In many respects, JB's criticisms of Wills' piece miss the point of the author, and perhaps the point of the scholarly debate. While Wills' arguments may be "a fool's errand" since he is trying to depoliticize something that it is inherently political, one must question who is the fool, the seeker or diviner of truth, or those who refuse to listen.

In this piece, Wills' seems to be trying to expose a valuable lesson: there is a difference between the amoral world of politics and the moral world that is religion. This lesson is therefore not one so much of politics, as JB has interpreted it, as much as it is a comment on the moral consequences of those Christians who choose to try and exist in both world's simaltaneously.

The point of this article, and one which seems quite valid, is that those who most love Christ are frequently the one's who most tarnish Him, and themselves, by drawing Him into a down to a battle He chose to rise above. If, as the Gospel teaches, those of this world choose to ignore this message for political gain, regardless of which side they are on, do so at their own peril.

The exploitation of God (Jesus in this particular case) has been proven to pay political dividends. As long as it benefits the politicians they will continue to exploit it. In their world there is no difference "between the amoral world of politics and the moral world......".

A striking fallacy in WIlls' analysis is the false distinction between "the government" and "the people" in a democracy. At least theoretically, the two are the same.

Thus, in spite of the constitutional separation of church and state (which was developed due to practical concerns, not fundamental ones), it is completely consistent with the democratic form of government to incorporate religion discourse and principles into politics. In practice, it is extremely annoying and dangerous to do so, but there is no a priori reason it can't be done. And, an argument based on Biblical passages such as Jesus's "Give unto Caesar..." aphorism is, if you think about it, meaningless in our Caesarless democracy.

Greg Shenaut

May be the "same channel" effect at work again, but late last night I posted a long-planned piece, Separation of Church & State, as a history resource to help eliminate confusion on the topic. Any of you legal eagles who have time to check me are more than welcome to send corrections.

This is much simpler than either Wills or Professor Balkin make it out to be.

The Constitition is a prism. Our religious beliefs-- or moral tenets-- are the incident light. What emerges are laws and regulations.

If our light is so feeble that it imagines that human worth is determined by skin color, then the laws permit discrimination. If our light is strong enough to see that for all our prattle about charity, there are more poor here than in any industrialized nation, then what emerges is Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and other basic protections.

No one can be asked to deny their religious beliefs or set them aside at the voting booth. They can be asked not to broadcast them over the school PA or insert them into science books. Indeed, the Constitution-- which allows for light from all sources-- demands it.

When this is a Christian nation, it will be seen in laws and mores that reflect Christ: the poor will be fed. Prisoners will be treated respectfully. The sick will be healed. Peacemakers will be celebrated, not called traitors. To be rich will be regarded as a curse. The fifty million dollar library will be regarded as a bribe offered to God, while the dollar offered by the widow to the veteran living on the streets will be written up in all the newspapers.

I am not worried about the day this will become a Christian nation. With the nation drowning in the hypocrisy of people calling themselves Christians, it will never happen.

The problem religious conservatives--and Mr Wills--face is that they are conflating two religious traditions without properly distinguishing between them.

The first strand is the OT injunctions to the nations of israel and Judah to behave in certain ways favorable to God. Then in the NT, we have Jesus making similar statements, only directed to individuals.

As Paul makes clear, after the advent of the Christ, there is no point in necessarily caring about governmental public policy. The admonition to care for widows and orphans is directed to the church and the individuals within it.

This is not to say that government cannot have a powerful role to play in social justice, or school prayer etc, but that true Christianity is unconcerned with these things. As jesus said to Peter, "You must follow me." What other people or governments are doing is irrelevant.

So to argue that there is such a thing as a Christian public policy is a misnomer. Christians are trying to forge a coalition to effect certain policies that they privately favor, the same as any other interest group. It may be the good fight, but it's not the one jesus chose.

Proffesor Wills sounds like he knows what he's talking about. Indeed, "My kingdom is not of this world." "Render unto Caesar..." His error, his fallacy, lies in attempting to separate the Old and New Testaments. Can't be done. Jesus didn't abnegate the Law, he personalized it, internalized it. So when Prof. Wills says, "Those who want the state to engage in public worship, or even to have prayer in schools, are defying his injunction..." he ignores and contradicts the public prayers of, say Ezra, or the commandment to 'teach your children the law.'

In no way are Christians prohibited from a full expression of their faith in public life. The drum-beating hypocrites are of a special catagory - if not, then, say, how could Paul have preached on Mars Hill?

Consider the meaning of the word "wisdom." It isn't about a set rule, but about the appropriate action for a specific case. With one child, you are soft, with another hard. In some public situations, you are moderate, in others strident. Always we strive for integrity, but the serpent is as worthy as the dove.

Wills says, "to display and honor the Ten Commandments as a political commitment enjoined by the religion of Jesus. a violation of the First and Second Commandments. By erecting a false religion — imposing a reign of Jesus in this order — they are worshiping a false god. They commit idolatry. They also take the Lord's name in vain." Well, I'm a bit dizzy, from that leap. I don't see how even a symbolic honoring of God is a false religion. Displaying the Ten Commandments his hardly the same as "imposing a reign of Jesus." Please, sir, you did make some good points. This is quite the opposite.

Wills points out Jesus' cleansing if the Temple, yet misses the obvious, um, "activism" of such an act. Very political, albeit religious too. To advance one's moral agenda, religious or self-invented, is a natural right, and in no way enjoined by Jesus.

Then Wills lapses into a riff about Neitzche. Very misguided. Sort of loses credibility there, what with his implacable literalism and all.

Ah well, he started out well, and lots of people don't even do that.


A fundamental distinction needs to be made: Jesus was ultimately a personalist, not a socialist (as opposed to personalism). The few commands and imperatives Jesus mentions are overtly individualistic. "Turn the other cheek," "give the needy your shirt," "love your neighbor as yourself." Even adultery is cast in personalist terms of "lust in your heart," rather than an abrogation of a "social" arrangement that typified most arranged marriages. If Jesus had a social agenda, he kept it to himself. Perhaps his quip, "render to God, God's; render to Ceasar, Ceasar's" is about as clear a distinction one can make about a social agenda versus a personalist disposition.

Whilst Jesus was univocally personalist, apparently his apostles were communalists. The Acts of the Apostles clearly gives the communal "state" the upper hand, "and they held all things in common." But Luke, the author of Acts, makes it clear that those who followed the apostles' teaching and fellowship in common did so voluntarily. Followers disposed of their private holdings and gave the proceeds to the apostles to hand-out to "each according to his need." Without being anachronistic, obviously Marx found this practice to his liking.

The other apostles' writings only stress the personalist responsibility to help the poor, widowed, orphaned, imprisoned, sick, and needy. The "overseers" or bishops were obviously the recipients and dispensers of alms and other goods, but it was left to the deacons to do the distributive good works according to local needs. None of the apostles confused the Church for distributive justice or economic welfare. Again, Jesus made it clear that his "kingdom is not of this world."

So any Christian who wants to impose a Christian polity onto temporal affairs cannot appeal to Jesus's teachings or the apostles' teachings to construct any kind of social policy on everyone. The closest anyone comes to a social policy is the communal holdings of Church members found in Acts (Chaps. 2 and 4), which is distinct from imposing communality on all of society.

Despite this deficit in social teachings by Jesus and his apostles, Roman Catholicism has evolved a rather grandiose "religious" scheme of the State, built on communitarian principles, and established on tidbits of biblical texts from Old and New Testaments alike (see, Gaudium et spes, Vatican II). One of its key concepts is the fundamental preferential option of the poor, who make licit demands on those with plenty to help support them. Even so, Gaudium et spes goes much farther in establishing a core social teaching for Christians, most of it interpolated from scriptural and hagiographic writings.

If socially-conservative Christians were to read "Gaudium et spes," they'd howl in an instant. But why? The communitarian document is well-supported by biblical texts, even if the support is more covert than overt. Still, protestantism's Puritanical ethics would find little to like in "Gaudium et spes," especially on the role of the State to foster a certain philosophical anthropology that Catholicism extols. Catholic Christians, which take a much more personalist approach to their faith, would butt heads with fundamentalists' quasi-Social Darwinism, generally-angry Yahweh. Calvin's "city on a hill" looks nothing like Augustine's, even though both regarded the human condition as fundamentally depraved.

Thus, two very different Christianities have two very different perspectives on the nature of man and his social relationships and how those relationships orient one toward man's natural end. One sees humanity redeemed by Christ, the other sees humanity largely condemned by Yahweh. One sees God as the merciful and endearing Father, while the other sees Yahweh rescuing only 144,000 of the "elect." And the Devil is not in the details, because the two perspectives could not be more different.

So let them cavil over who's redeemed and who's condemned; the smart politics is not to side with either perspective. The freedom of religion also includes the freedom to be free of religion, which in a liberal democracy, entails a neutral state that keeps religion out of play altogether. That the fundamentalists have decided to remake America into Yahweh's promised land, even if the president must become a fascist, is enough reason to keep that wall between Church and State as high as possible.

I think it is a noble idea to keep religion out of politics, but (as Professor Balkin suggests) probably an impossible one. Politics is a reflection of people's most deeply held values: to say that those values cannot come into play if they are religiously based seems illogical and discriminatory in nature. The issue, it seems to me, is styles of argument. If one says, you have to do this, because my Bible says so, that ought to be impermissible, if only because it explicitly or implicitly excludes anyone who reads a different Bible (or a different version of the same original one). If one says, here is something from my Bible, look at how good and persuasive it is even to someone of another faith, that seems to me no less reasonable than persuading with an argument from Socrates, Rawls, whoever. This may appear to be a semantic distinction in some cases; but it still is a crucial one.

Jesus was not a "Christian." Christianity is the institution that grew long after his time on earth.

So, speaking of his message is a bit questionable in this context. Christianity as an institution does have some connection to politics.

In fact, the Nicean (sp) Creed and so forth, perhaps of the era when the religion of Christianity can be said to truly have begun underlines the point. There was some mixture of church and state there.

I concur as well btw with the artificial split between people and the government. We are the government. One reason for the 1A was a felt need that religion was fundamental to a moral society. The rub was that joining it with government, especially by playing favorites, would be counterproductive.

But "we the people" have religious beliefs that guide our choices, including at the ballot box. Tell Martin Luther King Jr. and others taht Christianity had nothing to do with choosing our leaders.

It is somewhat comforting to look to the separation of church and state at this point to protect our freedom. That "wall" however, is going to come crashing down as soon as fear takes over. Why will fear take over? Because those in charge of our country are uniting with other world leaders to create mass fear over the issue of "terrorism". People are already willing to give up freedom for safety, and soon the constitution will just be a piece of paper holding the globalists back. I am a Christian who agrees with paying attention to the fact that not all Christians believe the same way. This is going to be hugely central in the coming day events.

The idea that there can be separation of church and state is a modern, Western one. When Jesus made the statement about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's, the distinction was between two systems - Roman and Jewish - that were both political and religious in nature. The emperor was a God; the Chief Priest had serious political power. How "political" Jesus actually was we do not know - certainly the act that apparently got him crucified, violently upsetting the tables of the "money-changers" in the temple courts, was certainly political. And authors of the accounts of his life (the Evangelists and others, like the Gnostics) certainly used political imagery, e.g., coming into Jerusalem in the midst of a what seems to me to be a political demonstration. What he was constantly talking about, it appears, was the "kingdom of God," or how to live together in love, and surely talk about how to live together is in the widest sense "political." Mind you, I am arguing that loving someone can be - and really must be - a political as well as a personal act.

HUGE flaw in the article

Jesus told Pilate: "My reign is not of this present order. If my reign were of this present order, my supporters would have fought against my being turned over to the Jews. But my reign is not here" (John 18:36). Jesus brought no political message or program.

Jesus was about the internal politics of the hebrews as they were divided over religion

Jesus always had a program

Jesus and the early Christians did nothing to interfere with human governments of their day. John 6:15; 17:16; 18:36; James 1:27; 4:4

One temptation of Jesus was when he was offerd political power, he refused. "So he brought him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the inhabited earth in an instant of time; and the Devil said to him: “I will give you all this authority and the glory of them, because it has been delivered to me, and to whomever I wish I give it. You, therefore, if you do an act of worship before me, it will all be yours.” In reply Jesus said to him: “It is written, ‘It is Jehovah your God you must worship, and it is to him alone you must render sacred service." Luke 4:5-8

One major prophecy in the bible says that human governments, although tolerated by God for a specific purpose, will eventually cease. "And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be brought to ruin. And the kingdom itself will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it itself will stand to times indefinite" Daniel 2:44
Jesus taught his apostles to pray for that kingdom using the "Our Father" prayer. "Let your kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as in heaven".

Until the arrival of the kingdom, some form of government is necessary for the existence of society. Christian subjection to human governments is relative in that they are to be obedient to the superior authorities. However if human laws conflict with God's laws, they are to obey God rather than men. Matthew 22:21

To usher in God's Kingdom, the book of Revelation symbolically shows Christ leading heavenly armies against the rulers of all earthly kingdoms and their armies at Armageddon. Revelation 16:14-16; 19:11-16

Wills is simplistic to make such an either/or proposition. Further, it can play into the hands of those who want to privatize govermental services. It also neuters those of Christian (and other theologies and religions as well). It assumes that all relilgious involvement in the issues of the day lead to evil outcomes. How about an overtly Christian movement that led to the end ov the slave trade and slavery itself first in England and then in the US. The Southern Christian leadership Conference only had the concept inherent in Christianity of freedom and equality to allow people to place their lives passivley on the line to move a nation toward Civil Rights for all. From the Clapham Sect tot he SCLC isn't bad.

Interesting debate. Greg - the seperation of church and state is not necessarily the same thing as seperating relion and politics. People find a meaning in their lives and that informs their politics - Sometimes that gets entangles with church and state, other times it does not.


Mention Jesus and the comments come flying out of the cracks. Torture, the debasement, and dismantling of the constitution, assertion of King like powers by a dim-witted, bizarre, would be aristocrat, and you get a comment or two. Ah, good old Jesus…..everyone’s got an opinion on him and what his ‘teachings’ mean.

Isn't there reason to doubt that the person 'jesus' depicted in writings of the early christians even existed? Aren't the writings of early christians the only references to jesus? I think the reason such a question is important to ask is that christianity by time of the archeological date of early christian texts was clearly a strong form of social control. What with the notion that no others could partake of god's rewards and true acceptance, they were clearly out to form a kind of empire of their own. They openly proclaim that followers of other faiths cannot experience god's true love, and state the their goal is the elimination of all other religions - one religion to rule them all.

A story of a virgin-born founder performing miracles and rising from the dead, while not original, would suit such a purpose quite well. I point this out because modern-day christians see political activism as integral to their religious practice and conquest. Since a literal interpetation of the bible seems to be a reason for most of what they do, it may serve to offer perspective to question whether or not the events, including words spoken, depicted in the early christian writing were historicaly real, or just instruments meant to help build a religious empire.

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