Politics Feed

Church as Polis

In the second chapter of Awaiting the King, James K. A. Smith discusses the political nature of Christian worship, which he describes as "a public ritual centered on--yea, led by--an ascended King."  As a corollary to this, "Implicit in the practices of Christian worship is an economics, a sociology, a politics."

One of the most puzzling things for many of us clergy is how we are deeply trained to understand church and worship this way--these are not new or radical ideas in theology or liturgics--but how so many congregants seem completely unformed to understand church and worship in this way.  How did this disconnect arise?

Smith is also making the point that politics (and many other aspects of our culture) are also religious--they are rituals trying to form us in certain ways.  So if the church cedes the political terrain, it is actually allowing forces outside the church to shape people according to narratives that are not the churches.

I like this quote from Richard Bauckham, "Worship . . . is the source of resistance to the idolatries of the public world."

What was frustrating about this (and some subsequent chapters) is that he spent much of the time simply reviewing the analysis and arguments of someone else, here Oliver O'Donovan.  

A key theme of the chapter is that "The politics of worship is tied to the renewal of moral agency of the people of God, who are formed to be sent."  Unlike some thinkers who focus on the church as polis, Smith reminds us that we aren't separate from the world, we are in fact sent into it to make our mark and try to influence politics and culture for God.

Smith is mainly writing to other NeoCalvinists (Reformed Evangelicals).  Some of his arguments were broadly embraced by Liberal Protestants in the 19th century.  For instance, there is this sentence, also a quote from O'Donovan, which sounded a lot to me like the Congregationalists of the 19th century who were abolitionists, temperance campaigners, suffragists, etc.--"Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God's saving power; you leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin--their own sin and others."

The chapter includes a surprising analysis of Cormac McCarthy's magnificent apocalyptic novel The Road.  Smith asks, "Where did these characters [the father and son who are main characters] come from who shine like lights in this brutal darkness?"  He doesn't read McCarthy as claiming they have a natural goodness--rather, they were formed in some way.  What liturgy then shaped them?  Smith cites numerous examples of sacramentality referenced in the novel.

In a side bar on the liturgical calendar he points out "The Christian year is a political rite that invites us to reinhabit the life of our King and learn what it might look like to imitate the strange politics of his kingdom here in the meantime."

He rightly points out near the end of the chapter that worship is not directed against any specific regime but against the entire notion that politics is ultimate for us as human beings.


Awaiting the King

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyAwaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology by James K.A. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mixed thoughts about this third entry in the Cultural Liturgies series. One the one hand the book makes good strong arguments for liturgical practice as political theology. On the other, many chapters are detailed reviews of other scholar's arguments that got a little tiresome.

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Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy

Continuing blogging about James K. A. Smith's Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyHere's the last post.  

Smith contends that the political is "a way of life, a constellation of loves and longing and beliefs bundled up in communal rhythms, routines, and rituals."

Drawing upon Augustine, he contends that earthly politics is a penultimate concern, but it has a way of trying to be an ultimate concern.  I do find this refreshing in this particularly difficult political age, a good reminder that my faith and values are my ultimate concern.

Similar to the criticisms of Michael Sandel (who is not quoted) he believes we need a vision of the good life, which is lacking in much liberal democracy (or has been lost, as it was part of the tradition).  

This chapter furthers his analysis that politics is already religious, a liturgy that is shaping and often misshaping us.

He references the work of Jeffrey Stout that "pragmatism is democratic traditionalism."  I want to read this work.

Christians cannot be separated from contemporary political concerns.  He writes, "to seek the welfare of the city precisely because we are called to cultivate creation."


Loss of a Nebraska Legacy

The Nation details how the current governor of Nebraska, billionaire scion Pete Ricketts, is dismantling the unique legacy of Nebraska state politics--its bipartisanship as embodied in the unicameral Senate.  

It didn't take long after Michael and I moved here for me to begin expressing my regard and admiration for this system.  Particularly coming from the dysfunctions of Oklahoma politics, which have worsened since 2010.  In Nebraska crazy bills generally never made it into serious contention, must less passed.  All Senators of all parties could hold leadership positions and have say in legislation.  Pragmatic rather than ideological solutions to problems were the pursued.  Bills killed in committee weren't surprisingly brought back to life the final day of the session.  Citizens were actively engaged in the hearing process and were fully informed of a bill's progress through the legislature.  And there was a spirit of working together.

I've often spoken highly of this system, as a committed convert, to people living elsewhere.  So sad to see it endangered.


Public theology

"And what if the political is not just some procedural gambit to manage our mundane affairs but an expression of creational desire and need, a structural feature of creaturely life that signals something about the sociality of human nature?"

I've begun reading Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, the third volume in the Cultural Liturgies project of James K. A. Smith, and I found the Introduction to be quite good.  I'm looking forward to the rest.

He is writing about how politics is inherently religious and religious is inherently political and what is the best way for the church to do public theology.  A few highlights from the Intro.

"While we often speak of the public 'square,' the metaphor is antiquated and unhelpful. . . .  The political is less a space and more a way of life; the political is less a realm and more of a project."

"The polis is a formative community of solidarity . . . political participation requires and assumes . . . a citizenry with habits and practices for living in common and toward a certain end, oriented toward a telos."

"Politics is a repertoire of formative rites."

"What unites a 'people,' an 'us,' is a project, something we're after together.  We collaborate in a common life insofar as we find goods to pursue in common; and we establish institutions, systems, and rhythms that reinforce the pursuit of those goods."

"Worship is the 'civics' of the city of God."

He believes Christians need to cultivate "a sort of engaged but healthy distance rooted in our specifically eschatological hope, running counter to progressivist hubris, triumphalistic culture wars, and despairing cynicism."


Robert Peel: A Biography

Robert PeelRobert Peel by Douglas Hurd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Peel, the 19th century British Prime Minister, appeared as a supporting character in a number of things I've read and watched in the last year. I had a growing intuition that Peel is the sort of leader our nation will require in the next generation to recover from our current crisis. So, I wanted to know more about him.

This biography is written by Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign and Home Secretary, writing as a contemporary Conservative politician on the founder of the Conservative party. Hurd's asides comparing Peel and his time to issues in our time are part of the joy of the book.

In short, I have come away from the book hoping that America will find someone like Peel to help lead us in the middle of this century. But, yet, how unlikely that will be because Peel is so singular and rare. We can only hope.

Peel created the modern police force, revised the entire English economy, helped to reform the church, reformed the banking system, completed negotiations with the US settling our northern border, revised the entire English criminal code, and helped open public office to Roman Catholics. But his greatest achievement, according to Hurd, was establishing free trade as the dominant global force it has become.

What Hurd admires most about Peel's position on free trade, is that Peel did not make it a matter of negotiation with other nations, with some quid pro quo. He eliminated English tariffs unilaterally because he felt it the right thing to do. Primarily that it would lower the cost of living for the poor and working classes, helping to improve their lives. And also that the bounties of nature (God's blessings) ought to be able to move about the world freely to the benefit of all.

Peel's form of conservatism was devoted to some key ideals and values, not any dogmatic positions on issues and policies. For he radically changed his mind on major issues more than once--Catholic emancipation and the Corn Laws being the two supreme examples. Where others, such as Benjamin Disraeli, saw hypocrisy and equivocation, Peel saw his changes of mind as furthering the core values.

Those were conservative values of maintaining order and stability and moving slowly and deliberately to change and only when the facts and reason compelled it. Peel studied the French Revolution in-depth, clearly in an attempt to understand what forces had led to it and how to avoid something similar in Britain. So his changes of mind on major issues were often because he realized that to hold dogmatically to a position would invite social discord and lead to the destruction of the things he valued most. He could not grasp why other conservatives did not understand this.

So his concerns to alleviate poverty did not arise from some deep humanitarian feeling--quite the contrary--but because he saw poverty as leading to social disorder and revolution. Therefore poverty should be alleviated.

He was also committed to diplomacy and a quieter, persuasive foreign policy. The more adventurous foreign policy of Palmerston, for instance, appalled him. He thought a strong nation was made stronger by persuading others to adopt its values (Hurd has a little commentary on recent American foreign policy at this point).

In the introduction Hurd writes that 150 years is a relatively short time in the life of a nation (a sentence I marveled at as an American) while making the point that the issues dominant in Peel's day are not completely gone from British life and his solutions created the systems still followed.

Peel was pragmatic, studied deeply, worked hard, led decisively, was convinced by facts and reason to change his mind, and was devoted and loyal to family and friends. Even when he was the leader of the opposition, he argued that it was wrong to oppose everything the Whigs did, that instead the proper role for the opposition was to help for the good of the country to achieve the best legislative outcomes. He also thought that doing so built trust that would lead to electoral success, and he was proven right.

So I read this book with a deep sense of admiration and sadness at the current plight of America and what we lack in our political leaders.

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Trump & Evangelicals

Many authors have analyzed the puzzling alliance of Evangelicals with Donald Trump, who is antithetical to traditional Evangelical views.  Writing The Atlantic, Michael Gerson, himself an Evangelical and conservative Republican, gives one of the most insightful and perceptive contributions yet to this growing body of literature, including a good history of American Evangelicalism. He concludes, "It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment. "

I appreciated his discussion of the social justice actions of Evangelicals in the 19th century and then how American Protestantism split into Liberal and Fundamentalist factions in the 20th century.

Here are some of the best excerpts:

The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.

While detailing Evangelical history, he points out that long ago the Fundamentalists changed in ways that have led to Trump:

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”

In the late 20th century some Evangelicals (think Billy Graham) engaged successfully with the American mainstream culture, only for Evangelicals to then feel the culture slipping away after the changes of the 1960's and 70's.  He writes:

 As a result, the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated.

He identified a lack of intellectual engagement as the deepest flaw of contemporary Evangelicalism:

For a start, modern evangelicalism has an important intellectual piece missing. It lacks a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action. Over the same century from Blanchard to Falwell, Catholics developed a coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection. Catholic social thought includes a commitment to solidarity, whereby justice in a society is measured by the treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable members. And it incorporates the principle of subsidiarity—the idea that human needs are best met by small and local institutions (though higher-order institutions have a moral responsibility to intervene when local ones fail).

In practice, this acts as an “if, then” requirement for Catholics, splendidly complicating their politics: If you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, then you have to oppose the dehumanization of migrants. If you criticize the devaluation of life by euthanasia, then you must criticize the devaluation of life by racism. If you want to be regarded as pro-family, then you have to support access to health care. And vice versa. The doctrinal whole requires a broad, consistent view of justice, which—when it is faithfully applied—cuts across the categories and clichés of American politics. Of course, American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard.

I found this comment insightful: "The evangelical political agenda, moreover, has been narrowed by its supremely reactive nature. Rather than choosing their own agendas, evangelicals have been pulled into a series of social and political debates started by others. "

One theological point Gerson importantly makes is how 19th century Evangelicals were mostly premillennialist who believed that the kingdom of God would arrive through human progress.  Evangelicals only became postmillennialist after the Civil War.  Postmillennialism believes in an apocalyptic end to human history when God will intervene with judgement.  He faults this apocalypticism for Evangelicals current political problems.

The difficulty with this approach to public life—other than its insanely pessimistic depiction of our flawed but wonderful country—is that it trivializes and undercuts the entire political enterprise. Politics in a democracy is essentially anti-apocalyptic, premised on the idea that an active citizenry is capable of improving the nation. But if we’re already mere minutes from the midnight hour, then what is the point? The normal avenues of political reform are useless. No amount of negotiation or compromise is going to matter much compared with the Second Coming.

He also points out historical mistakes that conservative Evangelicals made, such as opposing evolution, which has resulted in placing "an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity."

Gerson believes that Trump stumbled upon a message that resonated with Evangelicals and their apocalyptic worldview.  And that the essence of his message was "Protecting Christianity, Trump essentially argues, is a job for a bully."

Near the end, Gerson passes harsh judgement upon Evangelical leaders:

It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity and dismiss decency as a dead language. Whatever Trump’s policy legacy ends up being, his presidency has been a disaster in the realm of norms. It has coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise. Falwell, Graham, and others are providing religious cover for moral squalor—winking at trashy behavior and encouraging the unraveling of social restraints. Instead of defending their convictions, they are providing preemptive absolution for their political favorites. And this, even by purely political standards, undermines the causes they embrace. Turning a blind eye to the exploitation of women certainly doesn’t help in making pro-life arguments. It materially undermines the movement, which must ultimately change not only the composition of the courts but the views of the public. Having given politics pride of place, these evangelical leaders have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense.

He goes even farther in rebuking them for supporting Trump's racism. 

Americans who are wrong on this issue do not understand the nature of their country. Christians who are wrong on this issue do not understand the most-basic requirements of their faith.

Here is the uncomfortable reality: I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.

And

For a package of political benefits, these evangelical leaders have associated the Christian faith with racism and nativism. They have associated the Christian faith with misogyny and the mocking of the disabled. They have associated the Christian faith with lawlessness, corruption, and routine deception. They have associated the Christian faith with moral confusion about the surpassing evils of white supremacy and neo-Nazism.

I appreciated his characterization of democracy:

Democracy is not merely a set of procedures. It has a moral structure. The values we celebrate or stigmatize eventually influence the character of our people and polity. Democracy does not insist on perfect virtue from its leaders. But there is a set of values that lends authority to power: empathy, honesty, integrity, and self-restraint. And the legitimation of cruelty, prejudice, falsehood, and corruption is the kind of thing, one would think, that religious people were born to oppose, not bless.

And his definition of faith: "At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death."

 


Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

The Last Interview and Other ConversationsThe Last Interview and Other Conversations by Hannah Arendt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this little volume of four Arendt interviews while in Oklahoma City last week. I continue to be impressed by Arendt's analysis and enjoy teaching her in my philosophy and ethics classes.

Among the interesting tidbits in this volume:

"A functionary, when he really is nothing more than a functionary, is really a very dangerous gentleman."

Her worry, in 1970, that the American working class was going to be attracted to nationalism.

That the student movements of the late 1960's had revealed the fun and joy of political action, what she called "public happiness." Also that the students acted with "the assurance of being able to change things by one's own efforts."

Her view that capitalism and socialism were both exploitative, even though the latter was created to solve that problem in the former.

The idea that she didn't consider herself a philosopher, but a political thinker.

She advocated a new form a government she called "the council system." People would be part of small councils working on a very local level--neighborhood, work, etc. The councils would discuss issues and make decisions. People who demonstrated strong capabilities would then represent the small councils at a higher level. In this system power would be horizontal, not vertical, and sovereignty and that nation state would vanish and be replaced by federations of councils.

This latter put me to mind of the congregational polity of the denominations I've been a part of and also what I valued about the Collegium model that the United Church of Christ had until last summer, which they unfortunately abandoned for a more corporate national structure.

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