Monday, January 8, 2018

Empires, Shires, And Incense To Ceasar

I have been reading The Benedict Option, a book by Rod Dreher that generated quite a bit of discussion after it was released just over a year ago. I'm trying to think clearly about the argument he is making, which is basically that "the culture war as we know it is over," and the church needs to focus on building strong communities that learn from and build on Benedict's monastic model.  

My goal here is not to support or critique his argument since I've not yet finished the book (or read a rebuttal). However, as I have been reading his chapter on Christians and Politics, and I have had a lot of thoughts bouncing around in my head.

So, if you are up for (perhaps) being unsettled, here are some excerpts from this chapter that will hopefully bounce thoughts around in your head as well - thoughts which I would love to hear either in the comment section on this post or on social media. I seem to remember reading that there is much wisdom to be found in a multitude of counselors...

* * * * *

Chapter 4: A New Kind Of Christian Politics

“Today the culture war as we knew it is over… Moral issues may not be as central to our politics as they once were, but the American people remain fragmented, often bitterly, by these concerns. Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it. 
 The diminishment in the drama of American politics has allowed the natural tensions within both parties over economic issues to assert themselves boldly. The nation is fracturing along class lines, with large numbers on both the young left and the populist right challenging the free market, globalist economic consensus that has united U.S. politics since the Reagan and Bill Clinton presidencies. In 2016, the Republican nominee ran as a nationalist opponent of trade deals while the Democratic candidate, a globalist to the fingertips, was Wall Street’s favorite. This is the first wave of a tectonic political realignment, based around competing visions of free trade and national identity. Race and class will be front and center, for better or worse, and we may look back fondly to the years when abortion and gay marriage were the things animating our fiercest fights…  
Where do the erstwhile values voters fit in the new dispensation? We don’t, not really. The 2016 presidential campaign made it clear—piercingly, agonizingly clear—that conservative Christians, once comfortably established in the Republican Party, are politically homeless. Our big issues—abortion and religious liberty—were not part of the GOP primary campaign. Donald Trump captured the party’s nomination without having to court religious conservatives. In his convention acceptance speech, he ignored us. 
During the general election campaign, some prominent Evangelicals and a handful of leading Catholics climbed aboard the Trump train out of naked fear of a Hillary Clinton administration. In his upset victory, Trump captured 52 percent of the Catholic vote, and a stunning 81 percent of the Evangelical vote. Will Trump govern as a friend to Christian conservatives? Perhaps. If he appoints Supreme Court justices and lower court judges who are enthusiasts for religious liberty, then his administration will have been a blessing to us. Though Trump’s conversion to the pro-life cause was very late and politically expedient, it’s a reasonable bet that his administration will cease its predecessor’s hostility to it. 
For Christians who anticipated four more years of losing ground under sustained assault by a progressive White House, these are no small things. However, there are a number of dangers, both clear and hidden, from the new Washington regime. For one, Donald Trump’s long public life has shown him to be many things, but a keeper of his promises is not one of them. The Psalmist’s warning to “put not your trust in princes” remains excellent advice. For another, the church is not merely politically conservative white people at prayer. Many Hispanics and other Christians of color, as well as all who, for whatever reason, did not vote for the divisive Trump, do not thereby cease to be Christian. Holding the church together during the Trump years will pose a strong challenge to us all. 
Besides, fair or not, conservative Christianity will be associated with Trump for the next few years, and no doubt beyond. If conservative church leaders aren’t extraordinarily careful in how they manage their public relationship to the Trump administration, anti-Trump blowback will do severe damage to the church’s reputation. Trump’s election solves some problems for the church, but given the man’s character, it creates others. Political power is not a moral disinfectant… There is first the temptation to worship power, and to compromise one’s soul to maintain access to it. 
There are many ways to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar, and some prominent pro-Trump Christians arguably crossed that line during the campaign season... No administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries. To expect any different is to make a false idol of politics. 
One reason the contemporary church is in so much trouble is that religious conservatives of the last generation mistakenly believed they could focus on politics and the culture would take care of itself. For the past thirty years or so, many of us believed that we could turn back the tide of aggressive 1960s liberalism by voting for conservative Republicans…The results were decidedly mixed on the legislative and judicial fronts, but the verdict on the overall political strategy is clear: we failed. Fundamental abortion rights remain solidly in place, and Gallup poll numbers from the Roe v. Wade era until today have not meaningfully changed. The traditional marriage and family model has not been protected in either law or custom, and because of that, courts are poised to impose dramatic rollbacks of religious liberty for the sake of anti-discrimination. 
Again, the new Trump administration may be able to block or at least slow these moves with its judicial appointments, but this is small consolation. Will the law as written by a conservative legislature and interpreted by conservative judges overwrite the law of the human heart? No, it will not. Politics is no substitute for personal holiness… 
The church must not shrink from its responsibility to pray for political leaders and to speak prophetically to them… The real question facing us is not whether to quit politics entirely, but how to exercise political power prudently, especially in an unstable political culture. When is it cowardly not to cooperate with secular politicians out of an exaggerated fear of impurity—and when is it corrupting to be complicit? Donald Trump tore up the political rule book in every way. Faithful conservative Christians cannot rely unreflectively on habits learned over the past thirty years of political engagement. The times require much more wisdom and subtlety for those believers entering the political fray. Above all, though, they require attention to the local church and community, which doesn’t flourish or fail based primarily on what happens in Washington… Republicans won’t always rule Washington, after all, and the Republicans who are ruling it now may be more adversarial to the work of the church than many gullible Christians think… 
Christians must turn their attention to a different kind of politics. Part of the change we have to make is accepting that in the years to come, faithful Christians may have to choose between being a good American and being a good Christian. In a nation where “God and country” are so entwined, the idea that one’s citizenship might be at radical odds with one’s faith is a new one…. 
[Our] ultimate political goals are “to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, [and] to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human community in mutual love and responsibility.” In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them… 
No matter how furious and all-consuming partisan political battles are, Christians have to keep clearly before us the fact that conventional American politics cannot fix what is wrong with our society and culture… disorder in American public life derives from disorder within the American soul… the most important political work of our time is the restoration of inner order, harmonizing with the will of God…  this means being ordered toward love. We become what we love and make the world according to our loves. We should act from a place not of fear and loathing but of affection and confidence in God and His will…
Believers must avoid the usual trap of thinking that politics can solve cultural and religious problems. Trusting Republican politicians and the judges they appoint to do the work that only cultural change and religious conversion can do is a big reason Christians find ourselves so enfeebled…. We will be increasingly without influence, but let’s… welcome this humbly as an opportunity sent by God for our purification and sanctification. Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul.  
Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires."

No comments:

Post a Comment