Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Demands of Faith and the Duties of Citizenship

Book Review: Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation By Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life by Charles J. Chaput (Doubleday, 2008)

Charles Chaput, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Denver, has written a timely and well thought reflection on the tension between the demands of Christian faith and the duties of American citizenship. While Chaput is addressing Roman Catholics, the book can be read profitably by any Christian--an really should be read by all Christians. If you pick up this book to discover whether God is a Democrat or a Republican or which of the two candidates is God's nominee you will be disappointed. But if you are looking for reasoned reflection on Christian citizenship then you certainly want to read this book.
To those unfamiliar with Roman Catholic social thought a word of explanation might be helpful. The Catholic Church, since the latter part of the nineteenth century, has had a developing body of what is called social doctrine which is considered the authoritative teaching of the Church. This body of social doctrine is a set of principles which Catholics are to apply to their specific situations. In other words, the Church teaches fundamental norms which are to be applied through prudential judgments. One thing this means, and Chaput is concerned to emphasize, is that no political party can ever be identified as "the Catholic party" since the positions of any political party will coincide with Catholic social doctrine only a various points. Thus, Catholic social doctrine is very critical of the excesses of unrestrained capitalism (connecting with traditional Democratic Party positions) but also holds that such things as stem cell research, abortion and same gender unions are inherently immoral (connection with traditional Republican Party positions). One can not say, fairly, that Catholic social doctrine is either "liberal" or "conservative;" one can only say that it is the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Chaput devotes considerable attention to the most pressing issue facing Christians in post-Christian America: The difficulty of bringing Christian convictions into political life at a time when it is asserted that such convictions should be kept private. The notion that Christian convictions should be kept private is advanced not simply by secularists but even by some churches. Chaput thinks that we need to reflect deeply on what religious convictions are and how they should connect with political life.
One way to get at this issue is ask about the nature of the state. Is the state merely an administrative apparatus for the provision of certain services and the balancing of interests? If it is, what kind of claim could it make upon us? Upon what principles does it decide issues and how its power is to be exercised? For Chaput, we can not get away from the fact that political life inherently involves moral principles and moral decisions because it involves people who are inherently moral creatures. This means that Christians are not the only people who bring moral commitments into public life; some will bring in such commitments disguised as "what most Americans really want," "the assured results of scientific research" or "what America is all about". Chaput reminds us that the Christian faith is not simply a set of doctrines which we cherish in the privacy of our own lives but, rather, has profound implications for how we understand human life, the nature and purpose of politics and proper function of law.
Attempts to exclude Christian convictions from the public square generally begin with the argument that because we live in a democratic and pluralistic society we must filter out religious convictions because they are "divisive" and only lead to "religious extremism". Some hard shell atheists openly worry about an American theocracy. Chaput's reply to this is twofold. First, he notes that as a matter of historical fact, no significant Christian body in this country has shown the least interest in turning America into a theocracy: "The specter of an American theocracy is a tool designed to bully serious religious believers into silence" (p. 29). (He notes that according to Catholic social doctrine the establishment of a theocracy would be an immoral act on the Church's part.). Second, Chaput notes that as America has become more secular it has become more fragmented at the level of first principles. The debates over the issues of abortion and same gender marriage make this very clear. The secularist drive to expunge any religious influence from the public square has a "religious" zeal about it; it appears to be a kind of secular Inquisition. What would a fully secularized America look like?: "A truly secularized United States would be a country without a soul; a nation with a hole in its chest. Such a state could not stand above tribalism in public affairs. It would become a tool of the strongest tribe" (p. 30).
What should be the goal of Christian political involvement? The goal is not, obviously, the forced Christianization of America or the mere acquisition of power. As Chaput makes clear, Catholic social doctrine maintains that Christians need to be involved politically not to blur the lines between government and Church but to serve the common good. The common good is not determined by mere opinion poll but by reflecting on what makes for the protection of human dignity and what promotes human flourishing. This means that political action is an inherently moral enterprise and can never be reduced to pragmatic considerations. The motive for all Christian political activity is love and this is a direct consequence of being related to the Triune God: "Christian faith is not just vertical. It's also horizontal. Since God created all human persons and guarantees their dignity by his Fatherhood, we have family duties to one another. That applies especially within the ekklesia--the community of believers we call the church--but it extends to the whole world" (p. 38). The Christian life is not based on the maximization of self-interest (indeed, this is what we call sin) but on the love of neighbor. But love--as some Christians need to be reminded--is not a sentiment but a pattern of action. Rightly ordered love is governed by the norms of justice and this is why the taking the of an innocent life (abortion, euthanasia), an economy based upon consumption, same gender marriage and freedom as liberty without responsibility can never be considered moral--each represents a disordered form of love.
For Chaput, one of the most important contributions that the Church can make to society is the formation of virtuous people. As he notes, virtuous is not a synonym for "nice". The most powerful political act that a Christian can perform is not to step into a voting booth or to put on a political button but to live out his or her faith in society. Christian virtue begins with the recognition that life is not about us--our comfort, our desires and our self-esteem. Life is about living with other people who also bear the image of God and who therefore exert claims upon us--we do not take our faith seriously until we take these claims seriously.
Christan faith makes a second important contribution to politics. Because Christians believe that only God can fully redeem us, we are disinclined to utopian promises that the right candidate or the right political system will deliver utopia. Politics, while important, will always be of penultimate value and this means that the powers of the state must always be limited: "We will never build God's kingdom here on earth. When people have messianic expectations of the state, when they ask politics to deliver more than it can, the story ends badly. But neither will we ever be released from the duty to sanctify, humanize, and bring Jesus Christ to the public square in which we live" (p. 76).
While it can never be the mission of Christians to usurp political authority, so Christians fail in their mission if they remain silent when political authority needs to be challenged. In this sense, while the Church can never have or be a political party, she can never stay out of politics because to do so would be to mute her witness and so fail in her mandate. We can not allow working for the common good to be smeared as "imposing religious dogma": "...the well-being and destiny of the human person is very much the concern, and the special competence, of the Christian community. It's no use arguing that we live in a 'post-Christian' age. There is no such thing. God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. He died for our redemption. Then he rose again. The changes this brought to humanity and history are permanent and irreversible. Therefore, for those of us who describe ourselves as Catholic, we can be disciples and missionaries, or we can be apostates; but there's no room for anything else" (p. 218). Indeed. One only wishes that more Anglican bishops could think and write like this.


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