The Common Good
May 2012

Bearing Witness in Contentious Times

by Debra Dean Murphy | May 2012

Four books that encourage people of faith to bring more light and less heat to the public square—and to our pews.

ELECTION-YEAR POLITICS reveal the struggle faced by people of all political persuasions: how to meaningfully engage a process that increasingly sows division, disappointment, disgust, and even despair. Americans, no surprise, are more cynical than ever. Our elected officials are spectacularly unpopular. While there has never been a golden age of American politics, the current levels of vitriol, fear-mongering, and childish bickering have unsettled even the most jaded of political observers. And the corruption wrought by money? Let’s not even go there.      

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Navigating the intersection of religion and politics in such a toxic environment poses an even more acute challenge. What’s a person of faith to do? That, of course, depends on whom you ask, since the political battle lines in religious communities are often drawn as rigidly as they are in the culture at large.

Four recent books, each dealing broadly with religion and politics in contemporary America, offer insights on these and other pressing questions.

In Testing the National Covenant: Fears and Appetites in American Politics (Georgetown University Press), ethicist William F. May takes the historical approach, examining two competing accounts of America’s origins—the contractual and the covenantal—and the prospects and promises held out by each. He notes that the preamble to the Constitution begins with a given identity—“We the People”—followed almost immediately by the acknowledgment of ongoing work (to form “a more perfect union”). May argues that this “American identity of gift and task” is best held together by the concept of covenant. The nation, he says, “is both a community and a community in the making.” May is a keen observer and an eloquent chronicler of the “runaway fears and appetites” that have driven a good deal of self-deception in American public life, and he reckons honestly with the harm done to our national character and, more urgently, to decision-making in policies both foreign and domestic. His final chapter, a moving discussion of immigrants and undocumented workers, brings the theme of “keeping covenant” to bear on one of the most pressing moral and political issues of our time.

Mike Slaughter and Charles E. Gutenson’s Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide (Abingdon Press) has the feel of a “handbook”—a practical guide for navigating a sensitive subject in small-group settings. Drawing on their years of experience in church leadership (Slaughter is the longtime pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio), seminary teaching and advocacy (Gutenson has taught at Asbury and worked at Sojourners), the authors examine the partisan divide and increasing ideological homogeneity among white evangelical Protestants. With input from religion pollster Robert P. Jones, Slaughter and Gutenson note the escalating rancor, the obscuring of the gospel’s own political edge, and the loss of disaffected church members (Slaughter’s exasperation comes through when he pleads: “Will someone please tell me how we are not proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel?”). Moving from description to prescription, Hijacked seeks to chart a way forward, offering practical tips (e.g., “select news sources with care” and “teach, teach, teach”) for “escaping the ideological bubble.” It is possible, though, that the very way the authors have framed and narrated the debate—for example, tracing the root of the problem (accurately) to the ascendency of Ronald Reagan—will keep the “hijackers” from joining the negotiations.

In A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Brazos Press), prominent Yale theologian Miroslav Volf writes about a longtime interest of his, one informed by his work as director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture: how people with deeply held religious convictions might be agents of reconciliation and signs of hope in an increasingly fractured world. Resisting the false choices of exclusion or saturation in such a quest (withdrawal from culture, on the one hand, or a dangerous mingling of church and state on the other), followers of Christ, Volf says, must recognize that they have “no place from which to transform the whole culture they inhabit—no place from which to undertake that eminently modern project of restructuring the whole of social and intellectual life.” Instead, Christians undertake the task of bearing witness in the world to the wisdom of Christ—to an “integrated way of life that enables the flourishing of persons, communities, and all creation.” A Public Faith returns to a familiar theme in Volf’s work: a refusal of the popular view that all religions share a common core. It may seem counterintuitive, but conflicts between, say, Muslims and Christians cannot be resolved by appealing to an underlying sameness; rather, insists Volf, hope is found in attending to the “internal resources of each for fostering a culture of peace.”

Parker Palmer’s latest offering trades in these same aspirations of bridge-building and human flourishing, though it is the least theological of the books under review here. Palmer is the founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage and Renewal, and his body of work resists easy classification. For decades he has written about and advocated for a transformation of the educational process—its theories and practices and pedagogies. In Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (Jossey-Bass), Palmer strikes familiar notes with his insistence on “looking at politics through the eyes of the heart.” Palmer’s passion for the restoration of a true democratic process in American political life is evident throughout: He sees through the tears in his own eyes and through his own “broken-open heart.” Only in this way, he insists, is it possible to see and understand clearly “the gap [that exists] between America’s aspiration and its reality.” To make his case, Palmer draws on the eloquent prose of Abraham Lincoln and the poetic imagination of Rainer Maria Rilke throughout the book. In appealing to “the better angels of our nature,” he argues that “[f]ull engagement in the movement called democracy requires no less of us than full engagement in the living of our own lives.”

Yet it is this reflexive embrace of (and uncritical stance toward) “democracy” or—as with the other authors here—“the political realm” or “the public space” that deserves deeper scrutiny. When May matter-of-factly observes, for instance, that “the church and other volunteer communities contribute to public culture,” it is easy to forget that there is, in fact, no singular, universal “public.” That is, as John Howard Yoder once observed, “there is no non-provincial general community;” there are only competing narrative visions and varied sets of social values, institutions, laws, and symbols that determine and direct our ways of living, doing, and being. For Christians, what is “given” (inevitable, assumed) is not “the secular” or the political arrangements of modern, democratic social orders but the body politic of the church across time and space. And as a body politic, the church engages other orders, spheres, powers, etc. in an ad hoc way: sometimes resisting, sometimes cooperating, and, when at its best, negotiating the complexity of these challenges with generosity, not hostility, practicing the way of radical, embodied, cruciform witness.

These authors, for all the impressive insight they bring to their respective undertakings, do not go far enough in naming “America” or “democracy” or “the public realm” as the imaginative projects they are, and thus the church-as-an-alternative-polis (and not merely a “contributor” to something more determinative than the Body of Christ) is unavailable for their descriptions and prescriptions. For each of these Christian apologists, the means they advocate are, finally, insufficiently radical for the audacious ends they rightly desire.

And thus the challenge endures: As partisan politics gets uglier, as economic injustice increases, as suspicion and distrust continue to win the day, how might Christian communities do better at both conceptualizing and giving material witness to another way of living, doing, and being in the world?

Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at debradeanmurphy.wordpress.com and ekklesiaproject.org.

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