In 1996 Neuhaus wrote an article titled Against Christian Politics
that was published in “First Things.” It is quite lengthy but, I think, worth thinking about still, 23 years later. From the piece:
In recent American history, [the religionizing of politics and politicizing of religion]started on the left in the aftermath of the mainline churches’ moral euphoria in having been so very right about the early civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the years that followed, that euphoria inflated the moral certitude of those churches, and their bureaucracies were soon pronouncing God’s definite opinion on almost every question in public dispute.
That could not last very long, and it didn’t. After a while the members of those churches turned a deaf ear to their leaders, and then began drifting away, leaving mainline Protestantism in a spiral of decline that has yet to hit bottom.
Of course the more publicly potent religionizing of politics is today on the right of the ideological spectrum…. The conflation of Christian faith with a specific political agenda inevitably leads to the distortion of faith. The equally inevitable failure to achieve something worthy of being called “Christian politics” produces a crisis in which people will feel forced to choose between their politics and their faith. Devotion to “God and country” is a fine thing, but when the two are given equal standing “country” will always fall far short of what people hope for and they will then find themselves faced with the prospect of “God or country.”
….A very long time ago, when Christians were a persecuted minority of maybe fifty thousand in the great empire of Rome, an anonymous writer explained to a pagan named Diognetus the way it is with this peculiar people. Until Our Lord returns in glory, Christians do well to embrace the second century “Letter to Diognetus” as their vade mecum:
For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are ‘in the flesh,’ but they do not live ‘according to the flesh.’ They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.
…Christian political engagement is an endlessly difficult subject. Our Lord said to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, but he did not accommodate us by spelling out the details. Over two thousand years, Christians have again and again thought they got the mix just right, only to have it blow up in their faces—and, not so incidentally, in the faces of others. We’re always having to go back to the drawing board, which is to say, to first things. Even when, especially when, we are most intensely engaged in the battle, first things must be kept first in mind. It is not easy but it is imperative. It profits us nothing if we win all the political battles while losing our own souls.
….Christians are commanded to love their neighbors, and politics is one way—by no means the most important way—of doing that. In a democracy, everybody is asked to accept a measure of political responsibility, and most do. For some it is their life’s work, as in “vocation.” Like everything worth doing, it is worth doing well. And, for those who are called to do it, even when they frequently fail, it is also worth doing poorly. Christians engaged in politics, we may hope, will bring to the task the gifts of personal integrity and devotion to the common good. But that does not make their engagement “Christian politics.” It is still just politics. A Christian engineer who builds a really good bridge has not built a “Christian bridge.” The merit of the project depends upon qualities pertinent to the “bridgeness” of the thing, although we may believe that those qualities are well served by the Christian conviction and integrity of the builder.