Review of Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views

I have always been puzzled by the question of how Christians ought to think about politics and the government. Christianity has a long tradition, inherited from Judaism and shared with Islam, of treating sacred scripture as the ultimate court of appeal for questions about how to live one’s life. However, the New Testament does not say very much about how to run a nation. Caesar exists in the background, and we are given some advice about how to deal with him, but the New Testament writers take pains to emphasize that Jesus is not “that kind of Messiah”—i.e., the kind of Messiah who leads a political revolution. The general attitude seems to be that governing a country is someone else’s job, not ours, and besides, Jesus is coming again soon to usher in a new heaven and a new earth, so the question of what kind of political system the followers of Christ should set up is a moot point; the issue is just not going to come up.

For a United States citizen, the issue is further complicated because there is another document that more or less plays the role of sacred scripture, namely the Constitution. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So the American Christian is faced with two texts, each of which demands total allegiance, while at the same time seemingly saying that the other text is “none of my business.”

I was therefore very curious to see what Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views had to say about the topic. In this volume, each of five leading Christian thinkers has written an essay explaining his own views, and has also been given a chance to write a brief response to each of the other four essays. Producing a volume like this one is no easy task, and the editor, P. C. Kemeny, is to be congratulated on pulling it off wonderfully. Kemeny has also written a fine introduction in which he briefly reviews the history of the church/state issue in the United States.

The five views represented in the book are: Catholicism (Clarke Cochran), classical separation (Derek Davis), principled pluralism (Corwin Smidt), Anabaptism (Ron Sider), and social justice (J. Philip Wogaman). I am not going to try to summarize every aspect of each view here. Instead, I will focus on identifying each contributor’s starting assumptions and methodology. Where one starts has a strong influence on where one ends up, and I personally am less interested in what the authors’ conclusions are than in how they get there.

Methodologically, Cochran and Smidt are the two authors who are closest to each other. Though Cochran is Catholic and Smidt is Reformed, they both take what I would call a systematic-theological approach; that is, they take their cue from a long tradition of theologians that have tried to construct a “theory of everything.” Both Cochran and Smidt regard the church and the state as institutions with legitimate (though limited) authority over our lives. For Cochran, the government’s purpose is “attainment of the common good and pursuit of justice” while for Smidt, the state “functions to secure justice” and “is an agent of common grace.” The relationship that the church and the state have with each other is complex; Cochran identifies four modes of interaction, namely cooperation, competition, challenge, and transcendence, while Smidt appeals to Abraham Kuyper’s concept of “sphere sovereignty.” What I find interesting is that neither Cochran nor Smidt feels compelled to demonstrate in detail how his views can be derived directly from the Bible. As Davis astutely notes in his response to Smidt:

I am not quite sure where the biblical permission to make this bold move to sphere sovereignty comes from. I think it is rationally derived, which is acceptable to me, but somewhat odd in a theological tradition so rooted in finding a biblical basis for everything.

Indeed, if we were to ask Smidt why any nation or government has a right to exist at all, he would probably point to his section on the theological basis of principled pluralism:

Assume, for example, that Adam and Eve had not eaten of the forbidden fruit. … Even in this sinless world there would be a need for some kind of authority that held a legitimate right to have its rules followed. Different people cannot choose to follow different rules at each intersection where traffic lights are installed; identical rules must prevail across the different intersections. Once the legitimate authority establishes the rules, all parties must agree to follow these “arbitrary” rules.

Regardless of how compelling this line of reasoning may be, Davis is correct that it is a rational argument and not a strictly biblical one.

Still, Cochran and Smidt do not go as far as Davis does in embracing fundamental principles that have no direct basis in the Bible. The bulk of Davis’s essay argues for the separation of church and state on the basis of a careful grammatico-historical exegesis; however, the text that he so carefully analyzes is not the Bible, but the First Amendment. This time it is Wogaman, in his response, who notes that Davis only briefly mentions theological arguments in his main essay. It is only in his response to Smidt that Davis explicitly justifies his methodology:

If I were to cite my own biblical basis for taking political matters into our own hands, so to speak, I would suggest that Christ taught that spiritual goals and political goals are not synonymous. In Matthew 22:21, Christ said that Christians are to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (ESV). … Christ was amazingly unconcerned with much of what falls under the rubric of politics. … The idea of a Christian or religious nation, it seems, was foreign to him. He gave us room, so to speak, to frame political orders in keeping with a principle of justice. … The goal, even duty, of Christians should be to assist the government in the promotion of the welfare of all American citizens based on a shared morality, not to set up a kingdom of God on earth.

Of the five authors, Sider is the one who is most explicitly biblical. The Anabaptist tradition, whose most familiar representative nowadays is the Mennonite church, places a strong emphasis on living as a counter-cultural community that is closely patterned after the early church and Jesus’ own teachings. Sider places great emphasis on Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek, and devotes a large portion of his essay to a defense of pacifism, and the rejection of the use, or even the threat, of lethal force. In my opinion, this is one of the best sections of the book, because Sider fearlessly and relentlessly follows his principles to their logical conclusion, addressing all the most common objections along the way. Perhaps the most cogent objection comes from Cochran, who notes that Sider “paints a robust and clear picture of the church, but only a fuzzy and vague picture of the state.” While I agree with Cochran, I believe that the “fault” lies not with Sider, but with the New Testament, which itself paints a fuzzy and vague picture of the state. If Sider is fuzzy and vague, I think he is merely being faithful to his source of teaching.

The final contributor is Wogaman, who represents the so-called mainline churches. A common criticism of mainline Christianity is that it has abandoned the Bible and traditional Christian teaching in favor of rationalism, and so it too easily buys into the value system of the surrounding culture. Though I believe that this criticism is exaggerated, I also believe that there is some truth to it, in that of all the contributors to this book, Wogaman is the one whose methodology I find most difficult to identify and characterize. For example, in Wogaman’s discussion of justice, he begins with Aristotle’s definition that justice is “rendering to each his due.” And what is each person due? Wogaman answers:

What is “due” to every person, by God’s own undeserved gift, is to be included in God’s intended community of the covenant. To be included, to belong.

While I have no specific objection to what Wogaman says here, the relationship between justice and grace is a subtle one, and I am not sure where Wogaman’s account of that relationship comes from, nor am I clear where he wants to go with it. Wogaman certainly does not ignore the Bible, but in his response to Sider, he says, “Whether consciously or unconsciously, every Christian who takes the Bible seriously must determine which parts are more basic than others.” On what basis does Wogaman make that determination? Reason? Church tradition? Experience? Wogaman makes reference to all of these, but I have trouble finding a consistent principle behind the views he presents.

When I reached the end of the book, I found myself rather dissatisfied. This was not because I thought the book was poorly conceived or poorly written; on the contrary, I would not hesitate to recommend it to other Christians as an introduction to the topic. Nor was I bothered by the lack of consensus, not only in theory but on practical issues such as Charitable Choice and governmental support of faith-based organizations. After all, the whole point of the book was to bring together dissenting views. Rather, it bothered me that none of the authors gave a truly fundamental explanation of why governments should exist and why they should do the things that we typically expect them to do. Smidt perhaps came the closest with his traffic-light example, but even then it was not clear why any organization should be given the right to force dissenters to conform to a set of arbitrary rules. As mentioned by Sider, not even Romans 13:4 “requires the interpretation that God wants governments to punish evil and protect good through killing.”

I suspect that Davis may be correct that the dearth of specific guidance in the New Testament means that Christians are free to “take political matters into our own hands,” subject of course to the constraint that our politics be consistent with our theology. But if so, then I believe that theologians ought to do the hard work of developing a political philosophy from scratch, taking nothing for granted. The systematic theologians (represented by Cochran and Smidt) come closest to doing so, but many of their philosophical assumptions about governments are not theologically compulsory and in my opinion deserve fresh scrutiny. If the contents of Church, State and Public Justice are anything to go by, an enormous amount of work in this direction remains to be done.

Posted June 2013

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