Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Americanism and Maintaining Religious and Political Pluralism

Joe Carter over at Evangelical Outpost has arranged a symposium on an article entitled, “Americanism-and Its Enemies” by David Gelertner appearing in Commentary magazine. You can find an aggregation of the posts here.

The article argues that what the author calls “Americanism” is a direct doctrinal descendant of Puritanism. This sentence is a straight-forward formation of this history:

And so we circle back to the beginnings of Protestantism, which begot Puritanism, which begot Americanism.

A sense of America’s divine and moral destiny can, in the author’s eyes, be traced directly back to the Zionism of colonial Puritanism. Mr. Gelertner does a good job of tracing explicitly Christian references through some crucial political moments in American history. It is still said today that we are a nation based on Judeo-Christian values, and when one reads the kinds of quotes contained in the article, that point is well supported.

The issues I want to briefly tackle as a result of the argument in the article are religious and political pluralism and what I call “confusing kingdoms.”

Religious and Political Pluralism

How can it be that we can maintain a civil level of religious freedom in a nation that is politically pluralistic? We are not, and as a Union have never really been, a theocracy. Even though Christian thought has permeated the halls of power throughout the history of our nation, we have never been ruled by priests. But some would argue that a rule by religious principle is a kind of theocracy; even though the priests are not Senators and Presidents, they are influential to the point where they might as well be. How is it that a rule by religious principle, specifically Christian principle, is different from rule by priests?

In short I believe it comes down to a well-developed tradition of natural theology in the Christian religion. Mr. Gelertner says the same, I believe, without using the term itself. In his article he argues that the principles of liberty, equality, and democracy are direct descendants of a careful reading of Scripture. Because the early founders were familiar with the biblical principles which applied to all people regardless of their faith or birth, these rights were, at least theoretically, extended to all.

And that, I think, is the key to a civil religious pluralism-recognizing principles which apply to all people regardless of their position in life. Of course the task gets harder from this point, but when we take a close look at the teachings of natural theology and the creation of our republic, we see a close overlap of ideas which allow for religious liberty in specifics, and civil liberties based on the universal fundamentals.

Francis Schaeffer famously/infamously (depending on who you ask) argued that a democracy such as we have here could only have been developed as a result of Christian natural theology. For instance, in order to create the kind of political pluralism we experience today, the Christian doctrine of creation was necessary. Despite our nation’s failure to always apply the doctrine of creation to all people, it was built into our fabric from the very beginning. We have always believed, at some level, that every person was created by God and was therefore worthy of respect and dignity. This is a fairly unique political principle, and it is one that does not interact well with many other religious and political systems (as we are discovering).

Confusing Kingdoms

One more point I would like to add is that it becomes easy for Christians, especially those caught up in “American Zionism” to confuse the political régime of the U.S. with the Kingdom of God here on earth. The U.S. is not, nor will it ever be, God’s Kingdom. It will disappear with all the rest of the earthly kingdoms when Christ comes to establish His reign. Our hope for redemption is fundamentally eschatological. True, we strive to be redeeming influences where we can, and we do what we can to bring the principles of natural theology to bear upon our political system, but if we place our hope in political systems we have gone astray. The hymn is still true, “My hope is built on nothing less/than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

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