Being a Public Christian in a Public Church

The recent, and still ongoing, debate over health care reform has provoked another serious (and at times not so serious) debate over the role of religion in public life.  Glen Beck has undertaken an offensive against those who believe that social justice is part of our calling.  In doing this, he attacks not only Jim Wallis, but Bishops of Rome for the past century.  There are, and have been, different understandings of the role and purpose of the church and of Christians in government and society.  There has always been a tradition that calls for the church to remain outside the world -- the most distinctive example being the Amish.  There have also been examples, including the Social Gospel movement, that called for the church to be actively engaged in the transformation of society.  Still others, including fellow blogger Allan Bevere, are arguing that the church should be the locus of transformation and that the reach of government should be constrained rather than encouraged. 

Mark Toulouse wrote an excellent book a few years back called God in Public (WJK, 2007).  In it he argued that Christians have engaged society in four different ways -- Iconic Faith, Priestly Faith, Public Christian, and Public Church.  The last of these expressions, the public church, describes a faith community that gets actively involved in the transformation process.   No better example of this would be the churches and synagogues that actively participated in the civil rights movement.

Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer and I wrote an article, published in Congregations, in the Summer of 2008.  We used Mark's taxonomy to argue for a way in which progressive religious folk could engage the political arena -- both as individuals and as communities.  It was entitled "Faith and Politics:  Finding a Way to have a Fruitful Conversation."  An rewritten version of this essay will be published this summer in a Rabbinic journal, carrying the title:  "Same-Gender Marriages from the Intersection of Faith and Politics," (CCAR Journal). 

In the essay we made this observation, that I think might be helpful -- along with a set of guidelines that can be found in the article itself.

There are inherent dangers in mixing religion and politics, and clergy must be careful about how involved they get with partisan efforts. There are legal and tax ramifications that must be kept in mind. There are many who believe that it is not in the church’s best interest for clergy to become heavily involved.7 If clergy and people of faith enter into the political realm, certain rules need to be considered. Besides the legal issues, there are ethical ones. As clergy with sympathies for the Democratic Party enter into conversation with the party of their choice, it would be important that neither party nor person of faith feel beholden to the other. Clergy must not take on the role of “kingmaker” or dictate policy. They can, however, offer words of advice and guidance from the perspective of faith. There can be no quid pro quo relationships. Indeed, the question that stands before both the political and religious communities as they enter into conversation is whether one or two issues trump all others.
I will close by saying that at this point I'm operating more out of the Public Christian mode than the Public Church mode -- though as a church we are taking up missional causes that while not politically aligned may have political implications.  With this as an introductory statement, I invite my readers to consider the relationship of faith and politics.


Allan R. Bevere said…

Thanks for the good and thoughtful post.

The one thing I want to make sure in this discussion is that people do not come away from it thinking that somehow, I align myself with Glenn Beck.

I am not suggesting that you did, but if someone did, it would be a gross mischaracterization of my position.


No, I don't believe you're aligning with Glen. I'll make that point clear here.

You are arguing, I would suggest, for a backing away from a public church position, a position, that I'm inching toward.
Allan R. Bevere said…
Thanks, Bob... I am not sure I would characterize my position in that way ("backing away from a public church position"), but that is the current kind of Niebuhrian lingo we have, so I will let it stand.

I hope your post generates some good discussion
Anonymous said…
Faith and politics are fine together. Just not a specific faith and a specific politic.

Geeze Allan, you never make me want to change channels while surfing like that Bleck cry baby does. David Mc
Allan R. Bevere said…

Glad to hear that... I think.

I'm not paranoid, but you should hear some of the names I've already been called just putting forth my views.
Scot McKnight said…
Bob, I'm all for taxonomies and breaking down how things are working. I've not seen this one, I have to admit.

1. I'd like to see explanations of Iconic and Priestly as you see thing; the link didn't work for me because I'm not a member.

2. The Reformed view seems to be Public Church in many ways, at least as classically seen in Netherlands and in Puritan New England. I do think it's the aspiration of the older Dobson/Moral Majority group, though some of them are now "defecting" to libertarianism.

3. I see Jim Wallis a little more in #3, public Christian, but he's so involved at the DC level to be almost #4.

4. I'm more along the line of #2, but I'd have to see your definitions.

For me, the Church is called to the gospel, to its proclamation and to its embodiment, and needs to be wary of too great of involvement lest it compromise it's capacity to speak gospel.
Anonymous said…
I come here mostly for the views Alan. You can call me David if you like. David Mc
Anonymous said…
I think politics is an area that is RIPE to become an idol in the church's life. (I have been there and still dance with it at times) We worship our idol by telling others about it, hating those who oppose our idol, or do all we can to promote it. The funny thing is.. regardless of your views, you have likely been severely disapppointed by it in recent years (as it will continue to do so).

As a more conservative, I cheered Bush and the new "morality" that would be issued in. While his marital standing was strong, he spent like crazy, started wars, and failed to be a great Christian president. Obama ran on undefined "hope" and after a year we have some form of health care, far from what was campaigned. In the process, unemployment is over 10%, we "own" major corporations, and our standing with Israel is at a 25 year low.

Point being.. the church WILL BE DISAPPOINTED and risk splitting itself by becoming involved in politics. To strike allegiances with Glen Beck or Rahm Emmanuel are dangerous places to be.

Ideally, our ways of living and serving God should be our political cause. It should be desirous for others and let them be drawn to changed living vs forcing it through laws and regulations. We are the church of Grace after all.

Anonymous said…
That was awesome Chuck. Failures on both sides tend to bring us together nearly as much as our successes do. If God is on our sideS. How can we lose? David Mc

In brief, Mark's taxonomy is as follows:

Iconic Faith is one that gives religious icons, such as the Bible, a nationalistic meaning. Or, in reverse, a national icon, such as the flag, takes on a holy/venerated status.

In Priestly Faith the nation is seen as the vehicle for God's work in the world, and the church provides moral support for this effort. I would actually see the Moral Majority here, as well as some aspects of the old Social Gospel movement.

Public Christian then is the person who acts in the public sphere out of faith. I believe that this is actually where I find myself.

Public Church then is an expression of faith in the public square where the church itself takes on an activist role. In Mark's view, and in mine, the church must remain mindful that it is separate from the state and not subservient to a party. That is, it does not become an arm of any party. This is difficult to practice, which is why many moderate to left Christians chose to engage as individuals not as communities.

I hope that this is helpful -- I'll post some other pieces to flesh this out. Oh, and I don't think you'd be in #2. Each of these four is an expression of faith in the public square. For those churches/Christians who seek to remain outside that square, then that would be expressed differently.

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