Imagine a libertarian Christianity, which urged individuals to give away as much of their property as possible to the poor, to forget about the sex lives of their neighbors and focus on their own, to pray more than politic and to forgive more than to judge. Imagine, in other words, Christianity, and remind yourself how alien Christianism is to it.
So asked Andrew Sullivan (who we here at CMT.com are grateful to have as an occasional reader of this blog) last week on his blog The Daily Beast. Christianism, according to Sullivan, “is the fusion of politics and religion for the advancement of political goals.” His recommendation for a more privatized expression of the Christian faith has, I think rightly, received criticism. Alan Jacobs illustrates how Sullivan’s view of “Christianism,” if taken to its logical conclusion, would lead him also to denounce the actions of Martin Luther King. King, writes Jacobs rhetorically,
could have stayed in his prayer closet instead of politicking; he could have attended to his own failures as a Christian, which of course were many; he could have forgiven white Southerners instead of judging them. But no. He became an “outside agitator,” marching into ordinary American communities and telling them that their local laws, and indeed in some cases federal laws, were not to be obeyed — and why? Because they conflicted with the law of God! Notice the arrogance with which he associates his cause with God Himself. He even asserts that “human progress” only happens when “men [are] willing to be co-workers with God.” His whole vision for America is Christian and Biblical through and through: in his most famous speech he simply identifies the American situation with that of the Biblical Israel: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.'” Talk about “the desire to control other people’s lives and souls”!
“Christianism” is pretty antithetical also to the Catholic social mission of the church, which has found its expression in the United States in a wide range of political and very public actions. Was it “Christianism” that led the World Synod of Catholic Bishops to write in Justice in the World
Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation (6).
Or was “Christianism” at work in Vatican II during the drafting of Gaudium et spes, which, in almost direct contradiction of Sullivan, states forcefully,
It is no less mistaken to think that we may immerse ourselves in earthly activities as if these latter were utterly foreign to religion, and religion were nothing more than the fulfilment of acts of worship and the observance of a few moral obligations.
One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and their day-to-day conduct. As far back as the Old Testament the prophets vehemently denounced this scandal, and in the New Testament Christ himself even more forcibly threatened it with severe punishment.
Let there, then, be no such pernicious opposition between professional and social activity on the one hand and religious life on the other. Christians who shirk their temporal duties shirk their duties towards his neighbor, neglect God himself, and endanger their eternal salvation (43).
Was it “Christianism” that motivated Archbishop Hunthausen, Daniel Berrigan, SJ, Dorothy Day, Cardinal Bernardin, and a whole host of other influential Catholics to fuse “politics and religion for the advancement of political goals”? I’d say it was not “Christianism” but real, authentic, post-Augustinian Christianity at work in all these cases. Christianity, especially in the way Catholics see it, is imminently public and political. It demands that Christians attend closely to the “signs of the times” and seek to change those laws, practices, and structures which violate the tenets of the faith, especially when it comes to affirming and protecting the dignity of all human beings, attending to the needs of the poor, affirming the family as the fundamental unit of society, and working for the protection of all of God’s creation.
For Catholics, the “live and let live” attitude that Sullivan endorses is simply not a viable option when there are clear affronts to human dignity and rights at work in the world. While Sullivan is clearly frustrated with the religious right’s efforts to ban gay marriage or make abortion illegal, these actions too are part of the Church making an effort to act out her social mission, just as much as it is the Church making an effort to act out her social mission that led Catholics to criticize the Iraq war, to advocate for the protection of the poor and elderly in budget cut debates, and to lobby for universal health care (a position Sullivan himself supports). The rubber hits the road when it comes to debating how best to prudentially achieve the goals of the Church’s social mission. But when well-meaning members of the Church disagree, on gay marriage, say, the solution is not to get rid of the social mission altogether and relegate Christianity to a private quest for personal holiness while the rest of the world goes to hell in a hand basket.
I think Sullivan knows all this. In response to Jacobs’ quote above, he writes that
King’s Christianism was crucially leavened by his manifest Christianity. I’d argue that it was his and his movement’s moral example of Christian non-violence that truly changed America’s heart and broke the politicized Christianist deadlock between the two camps. He didn’t just preach his faith as politics, but he practised it in a way very close to Christ’s, seeking punishment, enduring imprisonment, and risking death, to bear witness to a deep moral truth about the dignity of every person. This submission to violence, rather than its gun-totin’ celebration, is what distinguishes King’s Christianism from so much of today’s. It embraced its powerlessness, as a paradoxical way to change the world. And that, truly, is Christianity more than Christianism. It is an indirect approach to power.
Maybe what Sullivan meant to say was that the social mission of the Church should trump political ideology, and there I think he would be right. When labels like “Republican” or “Democrat” or “conservative” or “liberal” are more important than the words of scripture or the tradition of the Church, we clearly have a problem. Maybe what Sullivan really has a problem with is not the fusion of religion and politics to advance the goals of politics, but rather the fusion of religion and politics to advance the narrow goals of a particular political party. If this is what Sullivan means by “Christianism,” he has identified a real problem indeed. The solution, then, is not libertarian Christianity, which I would argue is actually a contradiction in terms, but rather, a more authentic and consistent Christianity at work in the public square.
Beth thanks for this post. This seems to be a topic that will call for attention for some years to come. I will say that libertarian philosophy is fundamentally at odds with the Catholic-Christian tradition. Its roots are secular and traced historically to English whig political thought which was also anti-clerical in nature. A review of the life of Lord Acton and his relationship to the Church is revealing in this regard.
That being said, the Church must reject attempts to make its message purely temporal and politically partisan. The Church’s message must be holistic. Catholic anthropology recognizes the necessary and corresponding relationship between matter and spirit in the human person. While a person cannot “live by bread alone,” neither is the person a soul that just happens to be trapped by matter. This world and all that is in it, counts. As the Church has taught very clearly, it is not enough to just pray for a person’s soul or to care for one’s own salvation.
The Church also does not support totalitarian statism on one side nor anarchy or radical privatization and individualism on the other. Government has a positive role to play in promoting and defending the common good of civil society. As to the Church itself, communio by definition rejects the privatization of faith. How can we individually and privately be a Eucharistic people?
I find it rather odd how naively utopian libertarian thought is when one compares its philosophical premises with the lived reality of persons and groups. This requires further reflection. The quote offered here seems to me a bit of wishful utopian thinking: “Imagine a libertarian Christianity, which urged individuals to give away as much of their property as possible to the poor, to forget about the sex lives of their neighbors and focus on their own, to pray more than politic and to forgive more than to judge.” While aspects of this are good such as being more generous and encouraging more prayer, Christianity is much more than this. This is an insular and inward faith that resembles little the kingdom which Christ preached.
Does Sullivan really believe that without government people are suddenly going to be generous enough to donate in quantities capable of covering most of society’s needs? This is unrealistic to put it generously.
A Thomistic Catholic understanding of civil society, as manifested in the social teaching of the Church, just does not square well with a philosophy rooted in English anti-government and anti-clerical sentiments. Classical liberalism cannot support concepts such as the common good and preferential option for the poor. And no, subsidiarity is not synonymous with “government is a necessary evil” so let’s limit it to only enforcing contract and providing for the common defense.
As our country continues to debate the future, our economy and what government should be or not be, we need to consider our values, ethics and goals. We know through our tradition that “all things act for an end.” What are the ends we are seeking as a people? As a Catholic community we have a great potential to help shape the debate both within the ecclesial community and outside on how best to build a just and virtuous society that values the good of individuals in the context of the common good.
I agree with Beth’s concern that we not solve today’s problems by abandoning a long tradition of recognizing the power of social and political orders and engaging them for the sake of the gospel. But how would it change this conversation to think about the church’s social mission first as becoming a reconciled people who attest to justice in their own communities– which are, of course, never self-enclosed? That need not exclude engagement with governments and may in fact lead quite directly into it. I’m thinking of a church I know that has committed itself to pragmatic, specific work for the kingdom in its neighborhood, where its communicants and neighbors are. As a result, they have to become involved in the political debates that dictate the terms in which that community has to live. They do that as part of the work of the church– no hard distinction between charity and justice, between being church and being public.
In such a case it is clearer (to those willing to see) that such engagement is not using the faith for political ends. It is, rather, how the eucharistic community lives in the world. (Of course, starting from that end, the question of whether to use force looks different as well.)