The Common Good

An Emergent Politics Primer: Part Two

Emergents seek a theological rationale for their political engagement. The thing is, that rationale varies from issue to issue, which makes the emergents an infuriatingly moving target for those with more traditional political viewpoints. For instance, the Christian speaker Len Sweet, a longtime friend of Emergent, recently spoke out against the movement in Relevant magazine, saying:


We got to this point in the '70s where you could not tell the difference between the Democratic Party platform and the Church's portrayal of the Kingdom of God. I think that any intrusion of Christianity into politics-whether right or left-is ugly. So I don't see Jesus as coming with a political agenda. Yes, there are radical social and economic consequences to His message, but to claim that Jesus' message was a political one [is incorrect]. It's Jim Wallis's evangelical updating of the Social Gospel movement, or liberalism's liberation theology of the '70s and '80s.

In the article, Sweet charges that emergent Christians are nothing but the New Christian Left, based primarily, it seems, on Brian McLaren's increasingly political writings. But to those inside Emergent, the criticism missed the mark, as do the protestations of the lefties when emergents don't play by their rules either. For gathered around the Emergent table are Republicans and Democrats, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, laissez-faire free-market capitalists and communitarian socialists. There is no ideological requirement to join, just a shared commitment to robust, theological dialogue about issues that matter.

And surely, most emergents vehemently disagree with Sweet's claim that Jesus' message was apolitical. This school of thought-that Jesus was interested in the kingdom of God, not in the machinations of human politics-is not shared by emergents. The emergents are activists-even political activists-just not in the conventional sense. If "politics" means the way that human beings collectively make things happen, then this supremely interested Jesus.

But where Sweet is right is to claim that Jesus was not co-opted by any of the political parties of his day. Emergents have grown up in the dire shadow of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, who too closely allied with the Republicans in the 1980s and 1990s. From the emergent perspective, this partnership was a match made in hell, a marriage in which one partner (the Republican Party) will inevitably corrupt the other (the Christian Right). Thus in my travels, many emergents have expressed to me great hesitation about the building momentum of leftward or progressive groups (such as Tikkun magazine, Sojourners/Call to Renewal, and FaithfulDemocrats.org). Their fear is that these groups will make the same mistakes that their conservative brethren did 30 years ago: lose their independence by aligning with a political party. Politics is a dirty business, which is why political scientists refer to the compromises required as the "theory of dirty hands." In other words, for politics to work in a liberal democracy, elected officials cannot stand unbudgingly on principle. To get things done-like getting legislation passed-politicians have to compromise. That's just how it works.

But this very compromise has drawn the ire of Stanley Hauerwas, dubbed by Time magazine as America's most influential theologian (and known by many as the theologian with the saltiest tongue). Looking back on the 20th century, Hauerwas is supremely disheartened by the compromises of his coreligionists. The American mainline-Hauerwas is a Methodist-forsook many of their distinctives in order to have influence in society. Many flowery prayers have opened the session of the U.S. Senate as a result, but the radical and liberating gospel got lost. Hauerwas and his legion of acolytes respond by saying that Christians operate according to a rationality and language that is mutually exclusive from the compromises required in a democracy. Hauerwas himself has gone so far as to say that Christians should not run for political office.

While the Hauerwasian position appeals to many emergents, others find it an overreaction and agree with the Princeton University philosopher Jeffrey Stout, who charges Hauerwas with creating a "Christian enclave theory." Emergents seem stuck in a no-man's-land: on the one hand, they're committed to a deep, political engagement in American society, but on the other hand, they vow not to be co-opted by a political party. This is driven both by the belief that the national parties are ultimately concerned with self-perpetuation (not a gospel value) and by the clear inference in the Gospels that Jesus remained independent from all of the political parties of the day: the Essenes, Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, and Herodians all appear on the biblical stage, yet Jesus identifies with none of them. The one thing predictable about Jesus' interactions with the powers that be: he was predictably unpredictable.

Consequently, emergents are looking for a couple of things. First, they're intent on finding and supporting politicians who will change the political landscape, those who will resist doing business as usual. This may not differ appreciably from many politically engaged Americans, but the emergents may be the generation of Christians to represent a critical mass, a tipping point to upset the political apple cart. Second, emergents will look at political engagement as an art rather than a science. Therefore, they will artfully look for points of intersection and moments of potential cooperation with politicians on both sides of the aisle. The junctures of the gospel and political engagement are myriad, and they will surely not line up exclusively with the ideology of one political party. But the independence of emergents does not preclude activism. In fact, it begets activism.



Tony Jones is the national coordinator of Emergent Village. This post is excerpted from his new book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. In the book, Tony gives an insider's view of the emergent church movement and an analysis of American Christianity as a whole.

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