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Public Theology and the Republican National Convention (Daniel R. DiLeo)

“Father God, in the name of Jesus, Lord we’re so thankful for the life of Donald Trump. We’re thankful that you are guiding him, that you are giving him the words to unite this party, this country, that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party, to keep us divided and not united.” These are the words that Pastor Mark Burns used in his benediction to open the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Following his prayer, Pastor Burns was excoriated by politicians, pundits, and citizens from across the political spectrum for his ideological and divisive use of religion. Yahoo News senior editor Amy Sullivan described Pastor Burns’s benediction as “the most explicitly partisan prayer heard at a major party convention in modern times,” and as a person of faith I echo the condemnations of Pastor Burns’s perverse invocation of religion.

In response to this prayer, however, some people might go further than denouncing Pastor Burns’s words. Instead, some might claim that this event exemplifies why religion has no place in the political arena.  “Because religion can be twisted,” so the case might go, “it should be kept out of the public square – especially in a liberal democracy like the United States.”

Although I understand the sentiments that ground this argument, it violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which protects the freedom of public religious expression. Additionally, the case that religion should be kept out of the public square is inconsistent with the Catholic, Christian vocation of “scrutinizing the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel,” as the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes describes (#4). In particular, the case against religion in public is averse to public theology which, as advocated by figures like David Hollenbach and Michael J. and Kenneth R. Himes, is the discipline by which believers seek to shape public discourse and policy through appeals to Christian texts and teachings.

In light of the legal and theological justifications for the presence of religion in public, what might Christians do to appropriately bring their faith into the public square? In my opinion, Christians should take at least four steps.

First, Christians should avoid what H.R. Niebuhr calls the “Christ of Culture” type of social engagement and instead employ the “Christ the Transformer of Culture” model. The former works to demonstrate how Christianity is wholly harmonious with popular culture, and in so doing employs a shape-shifting theology which makes unorthodox adaptations as necessary and fails to prophetically challenge society (on my reading, Pastor Burns’s benediction was implicitly animated by the “Christ of Culture” model). In contrast, “Christ the Transformer of Culture” seeks to help shape society into an entity that enables God’s love to flourish for all, and is arguably the mode of social action for which Gaudium et Spes calls.

Second, and relatedly, Christians should act on the recognition that the Gospel transcends partisan ideologies. As such, Christianity should neither be identified with one party nor portrayed as antithetical to another. For Catholics especially, “[N]o one is allowed . . . to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion,” as Gaudium et Spes instructs (#43).

Third, and inspired by Hollenbach, J. Bryan Hehir, and Bishop Robert E. McElroy, Christians should look to transform society through concurrent appeals to both Christian wisdom and corresponding “constitutional consensuses,” i.e., those fundamental norms, values and beliefs that John Courtney Murray believed animate a people and are legislated as such. Murray thought that Catholics especially could do so in the United States given the natural law-basis of both Catholic Social Teaching and the American Proposition, and doing so avoids the sectarian pitfalls to which Hollenbach warns Christians’ exclusive public use of religion is subject.

Finally, the church should take part in charitable dialogue with people of goodwill rather than seek to monolithically dispense Christian wisdom to the world. The latter approach presumes that the church cannot learn anything from society, as Hollenbach observes, and this assumption is inconsistent with the recognition in Gaudium et Spes that the church “benefits from” the world (#45).

Pastor Burns’s benediction at the 2016 Republican National Convention is not the first time that the public use of religion has created controversy, and it surely will not be the last. Nevertheless, I believe that the aforementioned recommendations can help Christians engage in public theology that is both faithful to the Christian tradition and respectful of American liberal democracy.

Daniel R. DiLeo is a Flatley Fellow and Ph.D. student in theological ethics at Boston College. He writes regularly for Millennial Journal.

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