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From the Jan/Feb, 2012 issue of Touchstone


For the Common Good by J. Daryl Charles

For the Common Good

Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics
by Robert Benne
Eerdmans, 2010
(128 pages, $14.00, paperback)

reviewed by J. Daryl Charles

Robert Benne, Director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society and Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion (Emeritus) at Roanoke College, writes from within the confessional Lutheran tradition. In his latest book he is concerned with the mode by which people of religious conviction interact with the political process. He begins with a brief sketch of several factors that have helped galvanize cultural reaction to religion since the 1960s. Among these were the election of Jimmy Carter, a professed Evangelical Christian, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that found a constitutional “right” to abortion, the subsequent emergence of groups such as the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition, and the very public faith—and influence—of John Paul II.

Serious religion, Benne insists, always has a conspicuously public dimension. The burden of the volume, however, is to critique two prevalent modes of thinking about religion and politics, what Benne calls the “separationist” and “fusionist” fallacies.

The Separationist Distortion

The first common distortion is to divorce religion and politics by claiming, or requiring, that they have nothing to do with each other. This separationism is produced by both militant secularists and the ardently religious, and in both crude and sophisticated forms. Its fruit is what the late Richard John Neuhaus called the “naked public square,” wherein public life is tightly sealed off from religious presence and religious action. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, these groups, in their distaste for religion becoming a public influence, tend to confuse the interaction of religion and politics with the “separation of church and state”; in the end, to conflate the two is to corrupt both.

Most of the objections to the role of religion in political life, in Benne’s view, amount to a “selective separationism” that invariably is opposed to a politically active conservative religion, frequently stigmatized as “fundamentalism.” In fact, “selective separationists” are so bothered by conservative religion’s influence that they seem utterly blind to the ongoing and pervasive role of liberal religion’s influence on political life. And when they rail against public religion, it is almost always the so-called religious right receiving the brunt of their criticism.

While one form of separationism seeks to keep religion and politics separate because of its fear of religion, another type—“classical sectarianism”—operates on the assumption of politics’ corrosive effect on religion. Given their optimism about the Church and thoroughgoing pessimism about the world, its representatives invariably take the pacifistic elements of the “Sermon on the Mount” as the key to Christian belief and activity. Because the world is full of violence, and politics is based on coercion by the state, there can be no compromise. Either the believer is devoted to “peace” or he must participate in a violent public sphere; there is no reconciling these two elements.

This form of sectarianism continues to flourish among Anabaptist (particularly, Mennonite and Brethren) and Amish communities, as well as in the thought of theologians like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. Benne views this form of sectarianism, whatever salutary features it may have, as deficient precisely because it gives up on the world and, in its non-engagement, denies God’s sovereignty over history. From the standpoint of Christian theology, however, there can be no realm of human existence in which the presence and the commands of a Creator-God are not found and mediated. Christians must actively participate in God’s care for the world.

The Fusionist Distortion

A second distortion of the relationship between religion and politics is to bring them so closely together that they become fused. Fusion creates politicized religion or theological politics; in either arrangement religion and politics are both corroded. Benne understands Nazism and Communism as bastardized and utopian versions of this fusion, in contrast to the more intentional theocratic model by which a particular political party might be associated closely with faith and the divine purpose.

Given the flurry of shrill warnings against theocracy in recent years—consider, for example, such over-heated titles as The Theocons, American Theocracy, Wayward Christian Soldiers, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, and Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers in American Empire—one would guess that massive religious oppression exists in America. Yet, for Benne, these diatribes are unconvincing, when not downright dishonest.

At the same time, he is not insensitive to the theocratic temptation. Christians are surely aware of those episodes in history, at least in the West, when religion attempted to wield political power, thereby violating one of its essential principles—namely, that the Church is given the persuasive power of the Word and not the coercive power of the sword. Three classical Christian traditions—Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed—have theologies that clarify this important distinction, recognizing a tentative dualism (though not separation) between the Church and the world.

Three Concentric Circles

Having outlined and critiqued both the separatist and the fusionist distortions, Benne moves to the constructive task of construing the relationship between religion and politics. Benne is an “Augustinian realist,” to borrow the coinage of political ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain. That is to say, he affirms particular “theological essentials” that necessarily inform political life—to wit: that justice and love must be wed together, that human nature is simultaneously dignified and depraved, that a tranquillitas ordinis must characterize the social order, that there is a qualitative difference between divine and human activity, and that religious faith, if it is authentic, will be motivated to serve others. Benne is also attentive to social, ethnic, religious, and cultural factors that shape the manner in which religious conviction will express itself in a particular society.

He is quick to concede that the trajectory from core theological beliefs to specific public policy is complex and rarely clear, suggesting that the most helpful way of construing the relationship between the two is to envision a circle with three more concentric circles moving away from its center. At the very center are core theological beliefs that do not change. The first concentric circle moving outward from the core corresponds to “principles relevant to politics.” Roman Catholic social teaching, which has developed over time and through painstaking moral reflection, is for Benne perhaps most instructive in this regard. It stands in marked contrast with the social ethics of mainline Protestantism, which has been so conditioned by contemporary culture that, in our own day, the theological core has become almost completely eviscerated.

The next concentric circle in Benne’s understanding represents the application of the Church’s social teachings to new social and cultural challenges that continually arise, while the third and final circle is concrete policy itself. Sound public policy, he emphasizes, is notoriously difficult to craft, given the give-and-take of political practice. Nevertheless, policy must be crafted, and someone must do the crafting. Hence, religiously minded citizens play a significant role in the shaping of responsible statecraft and public policy.

Modes of Engagement

Benne acknowledges that there are different modes of engaging in politics. For some, it will be indirect, with an ethical focus on “character” and “conscience.” For others, more direct modes may be intended. There will be times and situations, he believes, when the Church will need to assume a “prophetic” stance on particular social issues, recognizing a moral obligation to protest a particular political ideology or policy prescription: for example, Nazism, apartheid in South Africa, or the one-to-two million abortions that occur every year in the United States. Difficult as this is in our own day, the Church nonetheless can effectively address policy issues through church agencies, service organizations, and similar mediating structures that have a social, educational, or charitable trajectory. One need only think of the “hospital” as a culture-shaping institution, which more often than not arose out of religious conviction and caring compassion.

This very accessible volume should be required reading for politics and religion majors, for clergy and laity alike, as well as for all who aspire to public office. Benne does us an important service in reminding us that there is rarely a straight line between cherished religious beliefs and specific public policy. Even where our beliefs inform us about the general morality of an issue, it is not automatically clear precisely how wise public policy might be crafted. There are many steps in moving from one to the other, and not infrequently will well-intentioned (and well-informed) religious believers find themselves parting company on particular political strategies.

Another book on politics and religion? Yes, but this one clearly has substance. • 

J. Daryl Charles teaches in the Honors Program and the Department of Religion & Philosophy at Berry College. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

“For the Common Good” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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