Tuesday, February 7, 2012

1. Secularism and Questions about Christianity and Politics

One of the marks of Anabaptism, as I have come to understand it in recent years, is what I might call “secularism”, or the political doctrine of the separation of church and state. The members of the Radical Reformation in Europe came to be called “Anabaptists” (lit., “re-baptizers”) because they regarded the baptism of infants into a state church whose membership is determined by birth nationality as illegitimate and unbiblical, and they practiced instead the baptism of adult believers into a faith community whose membership is determined by voluntary association. For this, the Anabaptists were slandered and persecuted.

Note that the issue of baptism is really, for the Anabaptists, an issue of what defines or determines church membership, or religious identity. The Anabaptists broke with the (at that time normative in Christian Europe) State Christianity model, according to which the Church and the King work together to govern the spiritual and worldly affairs of the kingdom. In a Christian kingdom (or, nation-state) membership in the church (a particular Christian religious identity) is mandatory, for the good of the social order. In a secular nation (as some at least regard the U.S. today) membership in the society (i.e., citizenship) and membership in the church (i.e., one’s religious identity) must be kept separate. This secularism is good for the social order because it means all citizens are ruled by the same laws, regardless of their religious identity. And, this secularism is good for the Christian faith community because it means all are free to respond to the call of God in a genuine decision to follow Jesus, accepting baptism as his disciple, and becoming part of the faith community. The church is thus made up of voluntary disciples of Jesus, not of those who are compelled to join for other reasons (for example, in order to be eligible for employment). (See John 1:12-13)

I would argue that secularism and religious pluralism provides a more ideal context for mission than does a “Christian nation”.

If we Anabaptists are secularists, this raises questions about whether and, if so, how, we should involve ourselves in politics: that is, concerns of social and legal policy in the larger society of which we are citizens alongside our Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic, and Presbyterian (etc.) neighbors. At least some of the early Anabaptists seem to have rejected involvement in the affairs of the state: refusing to take public office, as well as refusing to bear arms on behalf of the state. And the most visible communities of Anabaptists to many Americans today are the Amish, whom Americans imagine as living separate from the rest of the world, refusing connection to the larger society whether by the electrical power grid or by access to Social Security.

Anabaptists are not the only Christians in North America who ask questions about the propriety of our involvement in politics. Until the birth of the “Religious Right” as the “Moral Majority” in the hey-day of Jerry Falwell and others, it was the most common position for American Protestants (at least white fundamentalists) to keep themselves uninvolved in American politics: many did not even vote. In black churches, too, at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, religious leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. faced some criticism for calling for the church to engage in direct political action (I need to verify this fact).

It seems today that there is a growing trend within the world of white, North American evangelical Christianity (including the Mennonite Church) that sees our faith and theology as having necessary political consequences. We argue and preach that good Christian theology means caring about ecological justice, international relations, human rights, hunger, AIDS, economic inequality, and other issues beyond the Religious Right’s bugbears of abortion and “the homosexual agenda”. We say that followers of Jesus cannot fail to care about political matters outside of the church. I have made a habit of reciting: “All theology is politics and all politics is theology.”

What is and ought to be the relationship between Christianity and politics, between church and state, now that the secularist vision of the Radical Reformers has taken its current form in “Western” nations?

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