Christianity, like the prophetic Judaism with which it is inextricably linked, is rooted in the idea of liberation, and I have long seen the Exodus and Easter as twin narratives involving a release from oppression and the victory of freedom. These promises have left a permanent mark on the culture outside the traditions from which they sprang.
Yet even in the Easter season, it’s hard not to notice that Christianity hasn’t been presented in its own best light during this election year because Christians have not exactly been putting forward their best selves.
My colleague Michael Gerson wrote recently about the “crude” way religion has played out in the Republican primaries, including “the systematic subordination of a rich tradition of social justice to a narrow and predictable political agenda.”
Gerson is exactly right, but I don’t propose to use his admirable column as an excuse to pile onto the religious right. Instead, I want to suggest that what should most bother Christians of all political persuasions is that there are right and wrong ways to apply religion to politics, and much that’s happening now involves the wrong ways. Moreover, popular Christianity often seems to denigrate rather than celebrate intellectual life and critical inquiry. This not only ignores Christian giants of philosophy and science but also plays into some of the very worst stereotypes inflicted upon religious believers.
What I’m not saying is that Christianity should be disengaged from politics. In fact, the early Christian movement was born in politics, in oppositional circles within Judaism fighting Roman oppression. There is great debate over how to understand the relationship between Jesus’s spirituality and his approach to politics, but his preaching clearly challenged the powers-that-be. He was, after all, crucified.
But because Christians have a realistic and non-utopian view of human nature, they should be especially alive to the ambiguities and ambivalences of politics. The philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain captured this well in reflecting on Augustine’s writings. “If Augustine is a thorn in the side of those who would cure the universe once and for all,” she wrote, “he similarly torments critics who disdain any project of human community, or justice, or possibility.”
Christians, she’s saying, thus have a duty to grasp both the possibilities and the limits of politics. This, in turn, means that the absolutism so many associate with Christian engagement in politics ought to be seen as contrary to the Christian tradition. And that’s the case even if many Christians over the course of history have acted otherwise.
Similarly, some Christians encourage a view of their faith as profoundly anti-intellectual. Faith is seen as more about experience than reason, more about loyalty than dialogue. The desire to assert The Truth takes priority over exploring productively and honestly what the truth might be.
In his important book “Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind,” the great evangelical scholar Mark Noll urges Christians down the second path. He argues that “if what we claim about Jesus Christ is true, then evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious and most-open minded advocates of general human learning.
“Evangelical hesitation about scholarship in general or about pursuing learning wholeheartedly is, in other words, antithetical to the Christ-centered basis of evangelical faith.” Noll might have added that a devotion to higher learning does not make anyone “a snob.”
So if Easter is about liberation, this liberation must include intellectual freedom. It entails a tempered approach to politics involving a steady quest for human improvement, not false promises of perfection or wild claims about the demonic character of one’s opponents. Elections, even an election as important as this year’s, should not be routinely cast as Armageddon.
Oh, yes, and a compassionless Christianity is no Christianity at all. I have always been moved by this presentation of Jesus from a Catholic Eucharistic prayer: “To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation, to prisoners, freedom, and to those in sorrow, joy.” To which one can say: Alleluia.