Is two kingdom thinking gaining momentum? From sources as diverse as Front Porch Republic and the New York Times, by men affiliated with denominations as diverse as the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Free Church, we get two angles critical of a too-close relationship between church and state.
From Front Porch Republic is an article about the West Point cadet who resigned in protest against that institution’s religiosity. Andrew Bacevich, a Catholic, reflects on that decision, and wonders if the church is not better off when it is more distinct from the state:
Yet beyond the military realm, the ongoing debate that Mikey is promoting raises questions that call for especially serious reflection. It’s we believers who are not soldiers who ought to reflect. After all, when agents of the state promote religiosity, their primary interest is not necessarily saving souls. Throughout history, states have employed religion to advance their own purposes, which they routinely insist coincide with God’s own. Religion thereby becomes an adjunct of state power. Gott Mit Uns, as it were.
Whenever they have deemed it expedient to do so, U. S. political leaders have adhered to this practice. Especially in times of war or national emergency, they have unhesitatingly appropriated religion, enlisting God on America’s side. To cite just one recent example, in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush, himself a believer, deployed God to provide a moral rationale for his Global War on Terrorism.
More often than not, American church leaders (to include the hierarchy of my own Catholic Church) have endorsed the proposition that America’s purposes align with the Almighty’s. When doing so, they validate the reassuring pairing of “God and Country,” as if implying a partnership of equals. In fact, what all too often ensues is “Religion Subordinated to State,” an unequal and even exploitive arrangement that serves chiefly to facilitate the exercise of power unconstrained by moral considerations.
If Blacevich is correct, he suggests an irony in which the church is actually weakened by alliance with the state because it tends to lose its capacity to make appropriate moral judgments about state action. Given the inability of the Christian Right to engage in moral reflection on military engagement, he may have a point.
Then, writing on The of Decline of Evangelical America, in the New York Times, Evangelical Free pastor John S. Dickerson sees evangelicalism on the wane and proposes a partial remedy:
We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility. The core evangelical belief is that love and forgiveness are freely available to all who trust in Jesus Christ. …Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the “good news” we are called to proclaim.
I believe the cultural backlash against evangelical Christianity has less to do with our views — many observant Muslims and Jews, for example, also view homosexual sex as wrong, while Catholics have been at the vanguard of the movement to protect the lives of the unborn — and more to do with our posture. The Scripture calls us “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), but American evangelicals have not acted with the humility and homesickness of aliens.
Dickerson suggests that when the church embraces a political agenda of (by implication) the Christian Right, it tends to emit hostility and get the same in return. When the inevitable rhetoric-enhanced shouting match ensues, it’s harder for the unbelieving “opponent” to hear the gospel.
Of course, it’s one thing to criticize politicization of the church and another to embrace two kingdom thinking, but it does tend to create an environment open to the two kingdom solution.