I just got back from Houston where I gave a Land Center for Civic Engagement lecture at the Houston campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was a short but meaningful visit. It was also fun spending time with John Wilsey, my gracious host for the day. Check out John’s recently released American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. It is a wonderful introduction to this important topic.
I also got to spend some time over dinner with Phillip Luke Sinitiere, author of the just released Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity. I hope I can convince Phil to do an Author’s Corner interview on this book.
On Monday morning I had the privileged of chatting with Stefana Laing about her forthcoming book on the early church and historiography. Stephana teaches theology and church history at several campuses in the Houston in area and also works as the Southwestern-Houston seminary librarian.
My luncheon lecture focused on the ways in which Christians should engage public life and how the study of history might help us in this pursuit. I began by talking about how the Founding Fathers understood citizenship. In the eighteenth-century citizenship was not only something to be enjoyed. Individual liberties and freedoms were always balanced with obligations, duties, and responsibilities. A successful democracy needs citizens–people willing to work on behalf of the common good in a way that incorporates all of their neighbors, even those with whom they disagree. Much of my discussion here drew on the ideas of Mary Ann Glendon, Parker Palmer, and Christopher Lasch.
I then noted a few ways in which Christians, at least recently, have tried to tackle the question of civic engagement. I mentioned the Christian Right approach to engaging the culture through politics, American Conservative writer Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” and University of Virginia theologian Charles Mathewes “theology of public life.” (I also threw some James Davison Hunter in the mix for good measure).
I concluded by turning to the importance of history. As I argued in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, the study of history can prepare us for a life of civic engagement by teaching us wisdom, empathy, humility, and love for the subjects we study. The study of history educates us (leads us outward) and makes us stronger Christians and better democratic citizens.
It was a vibrant question and answer session (the first three students to ask a question received a signed copy of Why Study History?) and I had some great conversations following the talk with administrators, professors, seminary students, and a local Baptist pastor. I hope my short visit was useful to these future members of the clergy as they prepare for ministry in a culture that is woefully divided over cultural and political issues.