The other night I was at an evangelical liberal arts college in New England talking about the relationship between the decline of the humanities, evangelical anti-intellectualism, and the recent challenges to American democracy. During the Q&A a student asked me if there was a form of Christianity that offered an approach to public life that avoided an approach to nationalism and citizenship that bordered on idolatry.
While thoughtful Christians on this issue can be found in nearly all varieties of Christian faith, I told the student that I thought our best hope on this front may be found in Anabaptism and Catholic social teaching as embodied most fully in Pope Francis. (Full disclosure: I teach at a college with Anabaptist roots and I was raised Catholic).
I thought about this again today when I was chatting briefly with a new faculty member at Messiah College. She said that her Mennonite (Anabaptist) pastor, a former student of mine, credited me, “a Presbyterian,” with helping him stay connected to his Mennonite upbringing while he was in college. (For the record, I am not “Presbyterian.”). At first I was flattered. And then I wondered if Messiah’s Anabaptist roots have had more influence on me than I am ready to admit.
I thought about all of this yet again last night as a I read David Swartz’s recent post at The Anxious Bench: “Hey White Evangelicals, Welcome to Anabaptism.” Swartz invites evangelicals who have doubts about Christian nationalism, and bristle at the way their fellow evangelicals have used politics as means of changing the world, to consider the Anabaptist faith. Here is a taste:
After centuries of relying on sky-high Amish birthrates for church growth, Anabaptism has exploded in just several months. The surprising converts include a lot of conservative white evangelicals who are not known for their pacifism, simple living, or belief in the separation of church and state. Nonetheless, many are suddenly preaching the limits of partisan politics.
There are many reasons why white evangelicals find this crop of candidates so unappealing. Those who identity with the Republican Party cite Clinton’s pro-choice stance and her dishonesty on the email scandal. Critics of Trump cite his serial philandering, his xenophobia, his sexist language, his hyper superpatriotism, and his general lack of discipline. Tommy Kidd has asked, “Are evangelicals just errand boys for the Republican Party?” With Trump at the helm, perhaps less so.
Not having a good candidate is not new for most Anabaptists, who found themselves the target of every civic authority in the sixteenth century. Even today, certain sensibilities place Anabaptists outside conventional political discourse and behavior.
First, American political discourse tends to conflate the purposes of the nation with those of Christian faith. Republicans and Democrats alike entice Christians to follow a common script of nationalism. Each nurtures a strong attachment to the nation and willingness to use a strong state to press its Christian agenda: the populist Right in support of the military, sexual morality, and consumerism—and the populist Left in support of social justice, tolerance, and, again, consumerism. Each side trumpets a script of American exceptionalism. (If you think the Republicans are more egregious offenders, check out this year’s Democratic National Convention.) It can be a powerful and useful script because national loyalty sometimes binds very diverse peoples together.
But the vocabulary of nationalism we hear in the Republican and Democratic parties—and then echoed in Christian groups—typically shades toward idolatry. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says that the temptation for Christian liberals is to say that the purpose of politics is to straightforwardly bring the kingdom of God to Earth. For conservatives the temptation is messianic and apocalyptic. It’s the temptation to say Americans did have a covenant with God, a literal covenant beginning with the Founding, and that we are, like Israel in the Old Testament, falling away from it and will be punished. In the end, each side essentially practices different versions of an idolatrous civil religion.
Second, both sides practice realpolitik to accomplish their goals. Anything goes in the attempt to win. Parties enforce platforms, leaving little room for dissent, and they coerce adherents into following culture war scripts. They encourage the demonization of the enemy. In his recent book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter writes, “The politicization of everything is an indirect measure of . . . the competition among factions to dominate others on their own terms. Our times amply demonstrate that it is far easier to force one’s will on others through legal and political means or to threaten to do so than it is to persuade them or negotiate compromise with them.” Donald Trump, who called his opponent “the devil,” applies cutting language to persons in poor, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities.
Read the entire piece here.