I am grateful to Ron Beiner for responding to the talk I gave recently at a symposium on Faith and Politics at The Wheeler Center. He observes that our theoretical differences are so “huge” he doubts that any exchange we might have will be productive. I hope to show that is not the case. As one long influenced by his work, and in particular his book, What’s the Matter With Liberalism?, I certainly hope some dialogue between us is not only possible but fruitful.
Beiner suggests that I want a politics, and by politics he seems to mean what the state does, that is at the service of Christianity. As someone deeply influenced by John Howard Yoder’s critique of Constantinianism, that is precisely what I do not want. Of course I should like Christians to be free to try and convince their non-Christian neighbors that war is a bad idea, but I do not think that amounts to trying to have a state that is at the service of Christianity. In other words, I seek no special status for the church. I do think that states that do not impede the free preaching of the Gospel to be more nearly just, but I do not assume that Christians cannot survive states that do not allow for the free preaching of the Gospel. The irony, of course, is that in states like the United States there is nothing to prevent the free preaching of the Gospel, but the Gospel that is preached is policed to insure that the state is not challenged.
That result, i.e., the result that in liberal societies the Gospel is not preached because Christians do not want in any way to appear subversive, has everything to do with the confusion of the Gospel with civil religion. One of the things I like so much about Australia is the absence of any strong civil religion. As a result the church has the possibility of being free in a manner I think almost impossible for the church in America. My way of trying to help American Christians locate their profoundest loyalties is to observe that they often think they ought to let their children make up their minds about whether they will be Christians or not but they assume that they must be Americans.
Beiner thinks my attempt to help Christians reclaim the church as a polity sufficient to challenge the state fails to acknowledge Locke’s claim that “every church is orthodox to itself.” Moreover he wants me to be more specific about ”which church” I want. From his perspective I seem to be but a Christianized form of the Muslim Brotherhood. I think I understand why he might think I am really the “return of the repressed,” but I think he is overlooking one thing—the church. The reason I am not a Christianized Islam is because of what Oliver O’Donovan in The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, calls the doctrine of the two. To be sure the way I understand the “two” is different from O’Donovan’s understanding, my two is not only two politics but two times, but I reference him because he is a conversation partner I think Beiner would find fruitful.
I should like to think I am not “completely dismissive” of liberal narratives about the wars of religion but I do think Cavanaugh has provided a strong case against that overly simplified narrative. But Cavanaugh’s narrative can give the impression that the church was largely without fault and that the emerging state was the villain – though this impression is not one Bill wants to give. That Christians fought against one another in terms of loyalty to the state is from my perspective an indication that something had gone desperately wrong. What had gone wrong was that the church lost any sense that worshipping a crucified savior makes war problematic.
I shall have to leave it to Beiner to determine whether I have wrestled sufficiently with Reinhold Niebuhr. I do not know if he has read my account of Niebuhr in Wilderness Wanderings or With the Grain of the Universe, but I have tried to make my differences with Niebuhr clear. I am not “nonchalant about the stern responsibilities” associated with a shared political community, but how I understand what “stern” entails I suspect may be quite different than how Beiner understands it. For me “stern” is determined by a people capable of saying “no.” I should like to think that any state that acknowledges people capable of saying “no” has some chance of being of service to a social order in which difference is not repressed in the name of “sustaining a shared political community.”
In closing, let me say again how much I appreciate Beiner’s willingness to be in dialogue. I hope I have not had a tin ear.