What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians?
This famous rhetorical question of Tertullian’s has been used in many ways—including, by many skeptics, as a tool with which to bash him in particular and Christians in general as arrogant know-nothings who prefer to stay ignorant. In context, that’s not exactly fair, given the nature of the philosophy he’s rejecting, and the sort of disputations it produced; but the fact remains that most people aren’t satisfied just to wave away all skeptical inquiries and challenges as Tertullian did, declaring,
With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.
I don’t think we should be satisfied thus. For all that he meant it as a rhetorical question, if we truly believe that all truth is God’s truth and that his common grace is available to all people—which, if we follow Scripture, I think we should—then his question needs to be taken seriously as a question, and addressed accordingly.
The same, I believe, must be said of the relationship between faith and politics. Consider Tertullian’s description of the philosophical art of his day as
the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions—embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing!
That’s as vivid a description of academic disputation now as it ever was—but at least as much, if not more, it’s also a vivid description of our political scene. Looking out at a political landscape in which people do things like try to bankrupt their political opponents with an unending stream of frivolous complaints, Tertullian might well have asked, “What has Calvary to do with D.C.?” And again, though he would undoubtedly have answered “Nothing,” and moved on, we need to stop and consider the question carefully and thoughtfully. What is the proper connection between these two very different things, the life of faith and the life of politics?
This is a problematic question, and while it has ever been thus—this relationship has never been as clear and easy to understand as many people have assumed—the current polarized state of American politics causes us to feel the problem quite keenly. The negativity and the fearmongering are corrosive to the spirit, and the vehemence with which people disagree is wearying. To be sure, neither the nature nor the degree of this problem are unique in American history (just think of the 1860s, when the political divisions in this country were so deep, we wound up going to war over them); what is new, however, is the particular role of religion in our political disputes. In the Civil War, as Lincoln noted, it was true that
both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other
(while in the background echoed St. James’ anguished cry, “This should not be!”). In contemporary America, the situation is very different. In our day, by and large, churchgoers tend to side with one party, while those who have no use for church vote for the other—and in popular perception, the gap is nearly total (to the frustrated fury of liberal Christians, who understandably don’t like being overlooked).
In light of this, many would say that the problem is that religion is mixed up with politics when it shouldn’t be. In this view, religion only serves to exacerbate our differences and drive the wedges between us deeper, and the only solution is for religious folk to keep their faith in their churches and out of the voting booth. There’s a certain superficial appeal to this suggestion, but a little more thought shows it for the discriminatory idea it really is. Why, after all, should non-religious people be permitted to vote on the basis of their deepest convictions, but religious people be forbidden to do the same? Any attempt to make religion the problem is ultimately an attempt to privilege one mode of thought (the secular) over others, and thus is essentially antithetical to the nature and purpose of the American experiment.
Our current situation is complex, and there is no one step we can take that will make it better; everyone involved in our political system contributes in some way to its problems, and it will take efforts from all sides to improve America’s political health. Those who are Christians need to address the ways in which overtly faith-based political involvement has often been unhelpful; to do this, it will be necessary for us to do a much better job of integrating our theology with our politics.
That might seem counterintuitive to many, who would point to the great many references to the Bible and Christian faith which we already hear from our politicians (and not just Republican politicians, either), but it’s the truth. The problem is that as frequent as such statements may be, most of them aren’t good political theology; while there may be an effort to relate Christian faith to politics, the effort is made in the wrong way and thus does not bear good fruit. Rather than true political theology, what we get instead is mere theologized politics; we get faith used as a tool to advance a political agenda, rather than free to critique and correct that agenda. This is the point at which things go awry.