The last installment in this year’s series of political theology syllabi comes from a remarkable and unique program at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, where faith, politics, and rigorous study come together to a degree few other programs can offer.
Teaching Public Theology: The National Capital Semester for Seminarians Course at Wesley Theological Seminary
Co-taught by Mike McCurry and Kristopher Norris
Mike McCurry | Contours of the NCSS Program
For nearly two decades, Wesley Theological Seminary has sponsored the National Capital Semester for Seminarians (NCSS), a program which immerses students from Wesley and other seminaries around the country in the politics and policymaking of Washington and the ways people of faith intersect in those spaces. When Dr. Shaun Casey, the long time coordinator of the program, left to join the faith outreach office at the U.S. Department of State upon request of Secretary of State John Kerry, I stepped in to help direct the program. A practitioner with White House experience (Press Secretary to President Bill Clinton, 1995-98) and modest theological training, I helped bring a practical perspective to our 2014 NCSS offering.
We sought to give our students a deeper understanding of what we mean by “public theology” and the ways it informs and challenges those doing the real work of governance in the public square. We also wanted to give our students an opportunity to test classical models of public theology against the experiences of those serving our nation and its citizens in real time. Our encounters were memorable, and though off-the-record, they included a conversation with the White House Chief of Staff in the West Wing about the moral dilemma of applying just war theory to drone attacks on suspected terrorists. We visited with Rep. David Price (D-NC) on Capitol Hill, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and Jim Winkler shortly after he took over as President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. We also sought political diversity in our visits, scheduling appointments with Tim Goeglein of Focus on the Family and Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
The opportunity to compare theoretical and academic discussions about theology in the public square to the real-life actions of those who make decisions gives the NCSS program its distinctive flair. It is one thing simply to examine famous texts from scripture, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Niebuhr, and King and discuss them in the context of modern practice. It is another thing to watch the arguments of those theologians play out in how people of considerable faith actually juggle their beliefs and faith perspectives in the jobs they do in Washington. In many cases, we caught some of our guest presenters thinking about things for the first time … but hopefully, after our visits, not for the last time. In many ways, we exemplified Charles Wesley’s observation that the academy needs to unite the pair often disjoined – “vital piety and knowledge” (inscribed on the cornerstone of the library at Wesley Seminary).
The NCSS program at Wesley Seminary provides a foundation for the Seminary in its new efforts to establish a Center for Public Theology. With assistance from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation and the Henry Luce III Foundation, Wesley will soon launch a Center for research, teaching, and event programming that will serve as an important resource for public theology where it is desperately needed – in the heart of the nation’s capital.
Kristopher Norris | What is Public Theology?
Despite the popular declension narrative of religion’s influence, America has witnessed a resurgence in the impact of faith in the political realm since the turn of the century. Examples abound: the mixing of patriotism and religion in the aftermath of 9/11, awareness of the rising global significance of Islam, religious liberty cases like Hobby Lobby and the Indiana RFRA, protests led by churches in the wake of Ferguson, dependable religious language in political campaigns, to the growing number of faith-based advocacy groups. The early 19th century French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville is still correct: religion remains one of America’s most important political institutions. Amid the growing number of “Nones” and fears of an ever-encroaching secularism, the church continues to retain a great deal of public and political influence—even if more focused and occasional. It is important, therefore, for theological schools to help future church leaders recognize and be stewards of that influence in faithful ways by training students in “public theology.”
The term public theology has meant many varied things. Much of the initial work in public theology consisted of clearing the philosophical ground in order to justify theological work in public life. And it is true that public theology must appreciate the pluralistic character of our culture in a twofold way: on the one hand, public theologians must acknowledge that a social religious consensus no longer exists, but on the other, we must move past the assumption that religious convictions deserve no place in public conversations.
Apart from this debate, public theology has often referred to the attempt to keep theology relevant—that is, to maintain some position of powerful influence over the execution of government (a “take America back for Christ” mentality) or, perhaps even worse, a desperate attempt to keep ourselves employed as people who make money off of thinking theologically! Other times it reflects a bland form of public intellectualism pivoting around an American civil religion, preaching a watered-down Gospel of humanism and national harmony in the attempt to keep society civil and keep religion—and religious people—from destroying everything.
But public theology must move beyond these well-trodden tropes and debates to address the ways in which Christians do and ought to engage and interact in public, social, and political contexts. Public theology brings normative and historical methods of analysis to religious accounts of the political world and to particular theologies offered as guides to collective action. This is a new opportunity for the church to enter into mutual exchange with culture and society.
At Wesley Theological Seminary, and in the NCSS program, we teach that public theology simply is theology—with all of its mysteries, contingent contexts, internal debates, and radical demands of love and justice—simply pointing outward to a world that is watching. Public theology at Wesley recognizes that theology matters not just for the church but for the entire world. What we say and do as the church has significance for public policy debates, for media and fine arts, and for business practice. And what we say and do is useless (and unfaithful) if not conducted in dialogue with those in these other arenas and for the sake of those both within and without the doors of the church. We are growing comfortable at Wesley with the motto that our job is “to turn the church inside-out.”
Mike McCurry | The Audience for Public Theology
My work outside the academy still involves a great deal of interaction with congressional aides, political operatives, and journalists who cover national politics. I am struck by how often our conversations turn to questions about what I am doing at Wesley Seminary and why. Beyond the curiosity (Q: “Are you now called Reverend McCurry?” A: “No, God has certain standards for that.”), I get many inquiries about how the church and those trained for leadership in the church might arrest the depressing descent our public discourse has taken into name-calling, polarization, and meanness.
Rarely do you encounter anyone happy with the current conduct of our politics and civil discourse. I often find myself asking what role the church and its institutions of theological education have in addressing this sad state of affairs.
I think we need to do at least two things. One, to model conversations and dialogue that are rich in faith perspectives and examples of how believers reflect the love of God in the way they behave and interact with each other. And second, to train those who go out to serve the church in ways they, too, can lead and help facilitate those conversations.
Discussing politics and contemporary controversies does not come easily to those who serve in our pulpits. Many pastors in local congregations are risk-averse when it comes to guiding debate on troubling public issues that are complicated and lack easy answers. They certainly don’t want to send half the congregation out the door grumbling about “politics in the church.” And even when a pastor feels compelled to speak prophetically about some public controversy, his or her challenge is to use vocabulary, tone, and demeanor that respect the integrity of those who may disagree. These are not natural skills for many, so the role the seminary must play is to help train and equip church leaders for this type of “holy conferencing.”
The pedagogy of public theology is often built around justification for the role religion can play in debate about vital issues of the day. This NCSS course is much more about moving beyond justification to engagement in how to do it.
Kristopher Norris | Why Seminaries Need Courses on Public Theology
I think there are three inter-related phenomena occurring in our seminaries and churches that indicate the need for greater emphasis on public theology. First, one of the most frightening aspects of theological education today is the way that the theological academy has become severed from the everyday ministry of the church and parachurch organizations. Our approach, language, and focus has become so insular that we sometimes forget how to speak to those without theological training. This does not mean that we water down our convictions or even our language. And it does not mean that we search for ways to make the Gospel more palatable in society for the sake of keeping ourselves relevant; the Gospel is always meant to be foolishness to some. But we must remember that if the academy is tasked with serving the church and the church exists for the sake of transforming the world, then we must always maintain an evangelical focus that reaches outward in ways that touch and impact people where they are.
Second, as many scholars have noted, folks in churches are suffering from an alarming inarticulacy of faith. That is, church members are not able to explain why it is that they believe and do the things they do. I think this is a symptom of the first point. Christianity is in some part a training in how to speak theologically—we form people into the habits of being Christian through the common language of scripture and liturgy. But clergy are not always adequately trained to teach others how to teach others about their faith. I think this is in some part a reason for the decline in the mainline church, as well as the perpetuation of a shallow form of discipleship in many evangelical congregations.
And third, despite persistent rumors about the rise of secularization and the demise of public religious influence, I believe we are witnessing a reawakening of faith in the political realm. With the role of religion in politics intersected with a church that often fails to properly witness and an academy too inwardly focused, the need for public theology is great. This requires an approach to public theology that is not near-sighted but which looks beyond the horizon to a time when leaders in the church – lay and clergy – are in the middle of important work to renew our institutions of civic and social organization. And doing that work always in a thoughtful, loving, inclusive, and faithful way, as Jesus would have expected.
Michael McCurry is Distinguished Professor of Public Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary and former White House Press Secretary.
Kristopher Norris is Lecturer in Public Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary and a PhD candidate in theology and ethics at the University of Virginia.