Not since the end of the Victorian age in Britain had such undefined angst gripped the Western world as that which took hold soon after September 11, 2001. Terrorism brought new clarity as the teaching of religious doctrines seemed to simmer for years before erupting in rage. Obvious connections quickly became apparent: any religion is dangerous, all should be equally held to account, as all religions possess latent tendencies toward extremism.
The 9/11 masterminds’ continual mention of a god and praise to him prompted a public debate. Religious doctrines supported the governments and regimes associated with the atrocities in such a dramatic way that avoiding epistemic study of government policy apart from at least a cursory glance toward religious teachings would be impossible.
From the divine right of kings to direct democracy to representative democracy to communism to theocracy, political governance requires a working theology. Exposing the active theology of statecraft is the work Jonathan Leeman has taken up in his book, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule. For Leeman, statecraft is soulcraft—to borrow the words of George F. Will in his 1984 book by the same title.
A Battleground Of Gods
What a government does is directly contingent on the worldview of who is writing the rules. For the rules (or public policies) themselves are nothing more and nothing less than an exposed theology of sorts that often masquerades in the garb of secularism. Leeman states:
If all of life is religious, and some god or idol rules every square inch of it, it would seem that inside the public square there is only religious overlap and religious imposition…The public square is nothing more or less than a battleground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favor. Which means, from one perspective, there are no truly secular states, only pluralistic ones.
Atheists would immediately object to Leeman’s assertion, but anticipating what could be perceived as theonomy (the conjoining of spiritual and political power in the church) he offers a clarification: “We must not confuse the separation of church and state with the separation of religion and politics.”
The genius of James Madison was to set up a government where religious passions would not hold sway over government actions insofar as the religion of the people would not become a divisive faction capable of bringing down the entire government. For Madison, it was the Protestant reformer Martin Luther who began to decouple and thereby disassemble any church or government that would not recognize distinct spheres of sovereignty: the state with the sword for justice and the church with the keys of the kingdom for salvation. Both important, both viable, but both, in the words of Madison, “a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity” that remained separate in terms of role and function.
This framework is the foundation of the American experiment, and Leeman challenges this foundation both from a logical and theological perspective. Refusing to concede that political ideas emerge in a “view from nowhere,” Leeman believes everyone and every idea is “standing somewhere” and “embedded in some cultural perspective, identity, and tradition of rationality and justice.” Therefore, secular liberalism “does not offer some neutral brand of justice or neutral divide between public and private.”
He offers a clarification: ‘We must not confuse the separation of church and state with the separation of religion and politics.’
The issue of slavery in America could not withstand any sort of relegation to a private sphere of religion amidst the very public outcry against the oppression of thousands bought and sold as chattel. Ironically, many self-identifying orthodox Christians were obstacles to emancipation. Yet slavery struck at the heart of an American public theology and forced the nation to grapple with the exact boundaries of the private/public dichotomy so deeply ingrained in the American system of government.
In the end, American politics was deeply informed by a biblical theology where texts of Holy Scripture became the impetus for freedom and forever changed the way social policy and justice would be understood in American public life.
All About Worldview
For Leeman, it is all about worldview. Affirming philosopher Brendan Sweetman’s statement that “secularism is just as much a religion as any traditional religion,” he builds a different framework where the Bible and the local church become an alternative political community that stands in stark contrast to its world of residence. He does so by first striking at the root of what he perceives as a serious error in the thinking of John Rawls and his theories of justice and political liberalism.
He builds a different framework where the Bible and the local church become an alternative political community that stands in stark contrast to its world of residence.
Rawls’ widely accepted position of neutrality in matters of public reason assert that persons must maintain neutrality in political matters and not allow metaphysical (read religious) doctrines to cloud the judgment of the public good. Ever the provocateur, Leeman moves right toward the heart of the matter as he engages with one of Rawls’ chief examples of the irrelevancy of religion – the conversion of Saul of Tarsus to Paul the Apostle.
Rawls asserts any internal or spiritual change did not alter Paul’s relationship to Caesar or the Roman government thus circumventing any possible objection to the position of neutrality as the foundation for religious freedom. Believing that not only can the political and the spiritual be separated, Rawls maintains they must be separated to maintain universal ethical norms for the public interest.
Leeman will have none of it. The “I” of the Pharisee Saul was transformed all the way down when he became the apostle Paul (see Galatians 2:20), contra Rawls. One only need read the book of Acts to see how much Paul changed from Saul politically. Doesn’t the book conclude with Paul under house arrest, not waging war against Christians?
The Threat Churches Pose
Throughout the book, Leeman maintains that the consensus between Protestant and Enlightenment thought has produced a confusion that is now eroding the very religious liberty the American founders sought to protect. As the culture wars escalate, so does the possibility the constitutional order established to prohibit religious persecution will actually be used against religious people whose theological beliefs lie outside a rapidly expanding cultural consensus.
‘Churches do not need to take up arms…they only need to oppose the gods upon which a nation’s political and economic institutions depend.’
Herein lies the looming crisis. Sooner or later the cultural consensus will not hold, and decisions must be made. Those decisions (also known as laws) will directly impact and curtail religious belief and expression in the nation. Not naïve to the coming crisis, Leeman believes the answer will not be to simply return “to the Founders or to Locke as a solution to the culture wars.”
Rather, he believes the United States is seeing the fulfillment of the prediction made by George Washington and John Adams of what would happen “should their philosophy of government be inhabited by an unreligious and unvirtuous people.” Why? Because “churches do not need to take up arms against the state in order to pose a threat to the state; they only need to oppose the gods upon which a nation’s political and economic institutions depend.” And oppose them they do.
The Colony Of Heaven
Leeman’s work is not primarily an engagement with political theory or political philosophy. It is a work of theology. The Bible is the key specimen of investigation, and the covenantal structure of the Bible forms the path forward both in understanding the problem at hand and how a local church might represent the answer to escalating tensions in politics. His examination of the covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and finally what the Bible terms the “new covenant” form the basis of political understanding and engagement on different terms.
He believes the ‘political hopes of the world rest upon the local church–in its life together.’
As the title suggests, the local church is to be seen as an “embassy of Christ’s rule.” Leeman realizes that prevailing notions of a local church are largely unknown as to the significance of all that churches are and can be in a community. He believes that ultimately the “political hopes of the world rest upon the local church–in its life together.” This startling statement tacitly rebukes the prowess of legislative chambers where politicians seek to make the world anew. In ways that continually reinforce the fact that the most important realms of life lie outside the ability of men and women to legislate, the great hope offered to the world by the church is a different kind of politics.
Leeman believes the church to be a place where “aliens, strangers, and unwelcome immigrants” are present. It is a politics that “expects, even embraces, persecution” because it is a community who has submitted themselves to a crucified King who laid down his life for them so that they might lay down their lives for one another. In the end, the church is the colony of heaven where war is no more, as men and women from differing political perspectives and cultures “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
Douglas Baker is Vice-President of Communications at the Commonwealth Foundation.