Scandalous Witness (Lee Camp) -- A Review
SCANDALOUS WITNESS: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians. By Lee C. Camp. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020. Viii + 183 pages.
The 2020 election cycle has raised the question of the role of religion in America’s political life. In 2016 it was reported that some 81% of White Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Something similar happened in 2020. Some of Donald Trump’s most vocal supporters, even after the attack on the US Capitol building, comes from that community. Why is that? What is driving such loyalty to a person who has not demonstrated any true Christian commitment or values? That raises the question of how religion and politics relate to each other. Questions of power and influence, of course, are always in play. Although the Constitution guarantees freedom from religion and bans religious tests for government offices, many believe that the United States is a Christian nation, and that Christianity should have a favored position in public life. Indeed, Christians (of the proper perspective) should control the government. For those who hold that belief, the growing diversity of the nation is a problem, as you might expect. There are others in the Christian community that affirm the separation of religion and government, with some calling for complete withdrawal from public life. Most of us live between the two poles of control and withdrawal. That’s where I find myself, as does the author of Scandalous Witness. Though, I should note that the author, Lee Camp, places himself closer to those who advocate withdrawal than do I. So, how should Christians relate to the public square?
Lee Camp’s book Scandalous Witness is subtitled A Little Political Manifesto for Christians. The keyword here is manifesto as it gives us a sense of what the author is up to with this book. As a manifesto, the book draws a line in the sand. In it, the author critiques Christian partisans on both the left and the right. He strongly rejects the idea that the United States is the last great hope for the world, a vision that among others Abraham Lincoln espoused. Instead of America, Camp offers Christianity as the world’s last best hope. Unfortunately, as the author makes clear in this book, things have gone awry within the Christian community, which undermines its witness.
Before we get to the heart of the book, I need to introduce the author. Lee Camp is a professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University, a university affiliated with the Churches of Christ, a branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement of which I'm a part. I should note that the university at which he teaches is named after a religious leader who did argue for complete withdrawal from public life, including voting. I see a bit of David Lipscomb in Camp’s manifesto, along with some anabaptist leanings.
Camp roots his manifesto in the proposition that Christianity is not a religion. That is, Christianity is not a private commitment, like joining a service club or fraternal organization. Rather than being a religion, Christianity is an alternative politic. It is a political system in its own right. In making this proposal we see similarities to the positions of people such as Stanley Hauerwas, who endorses the book. In making this declaration, he responds to those who insist that the United States is a Christian nation, by saying that this is an impossibility. He argues that the United States can’t be a Christian nation because nation-states are geographically bounded, and Christianity is not. Nation-states also have citizenship requirements that are different from Christianity. Nations build walls, while the church welcomes all. Nations use military might to maintain their existence, and they seek their own partisan agendas. Christianity is a different entity from this. That is because Christians are called to offer a faithful witness to a way of life that is different from that of the world and which extends beyond national and ethnic boundaries. In making this argument he seeks to place himself between those who would withdraw and those who would control.
Camp offers us fifteen propositions that define how he believes Christians should participate in life as we know it (remember this is a political manifesto). He begins by outlining his understanding of history, reminding us that "History Is Not One Damn Thing After Another." He offers an eschatological vision that suggests history has an end and a purpose. This vision of history as something is moving toward a destination should guide Christian engagement in the world. From here he moves through such propositions as making sure we understand that the United States Is not the great hope for the World. In other words, he rejects the idea of American exceptionalism. Having made that declaration he moves on to the idea of the United States being a Christian Nation, arguing instead that Christianity is not a religion but a politic. The final proposition argues that "Christian Engagement Must Always be Ad Hoc." That is because until the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness "there is no ideologically pure or utopian social arrangement among the nations for which we should strive." (p. 164). Therefore, we must take each issue as it comes. It also requires us to understand where our allegiance lies. Our allegiance should be to Christ and not a party, whether that be Republican, Democratic, or something else. I’m not sure whether he rejects party participation in general, but he does argue strongly that party allegiance must come after allegiance to Christ.
I agree with much of what Camp writes here, especially regarding matters of allegiance. I have argued that the Lord’s Prayer is itself a pledge of ultimate allegiance to Christ. His message does resonate at a time when Christians have gotten themselves so caught up in partisanship that they have betrayed the allegiance to Christ. I agree strongly with that argument that as Christians, our allegiance transcends national boundaries. However, despite my agreement here, I will confess that I’ve struggled with figuring out how to implement my values in a national context without joining the political system, and that includes joining a political party (confession here—I’m a registered Democrat and vote accordingly. I have my reasons, which I think are sound, but the confession needs to be made). I will note that Camp takes a stronger view regarding nonviolence than do I, though I will note that he offers a strong critique of my Niebuhrian realism that has guided my mature engagement with the political systems. That said, he does remind me why I am at times uncomfortable with the idea of a Christian Left that stands in opposition to the Christian Right. The question always centers around which pole has the upper hand, my faith, or my political allegiance? In other words, can liberal/progressive Christians easily slip into the posture of being the religious arm of the Democratic Party?
I have my concerns and I do quibble with some of what Lee Camp argues in this manifesto. Part of my concern here has to do with living in a religiously pluralistic country. If Christianity is an alternative politics, how does that relate to my partnerships with non-Christian friends who themselves are committed to their faith positions? I know from reading other pieces from Camp that he understands this reality. Nevertheless, his manifesto serves as an appropriate warning to Christians who live on both the Left and the Right. He critiques both extremes, arguing that he's not staking out a middle position. He’s not arguing for a moderate politic. He’s arguing for an alternative that is defined by Christ, and in doing so places Christianity in a different position regarding the way in which the world turns. Thus, when it comes to matters such as race and justice, we can’t simply adopt the views of the reigning political ideologies. I agree, and yet I struggle with how this gets implemented. But Lee Camp’s Scandalous Witness is a book that speaks to the church in the Age of Trump.