Week 2 of Religion and Politics at Regent University
Prompt: In the early part of the nineteenth-century, most Christians in the United States saw a strong convergence between Christianity and their national values. From a Christian faith perspective, what are the strengths and weaknesses of such a “happy convergence” between Christianity and a national project? How does this contrast, from a faith perspective, with both earlier and later Christian arguments in favor of pluralism?
Numerous strengths are found in the convergence of Christianity and a national project. The ability for a national culture and unified identity to emerge because of commonly held beliefs is of supreme importance to a young nation. Absent a unified structure of belief, the cultural identity of a nation quickly devolves into regional competition and infighting. It was extremely important for the several states to solidify their common purpose as a nation, particularly after the divisions that emerged during the Articles of Confederation. Numerous other reasons enabled the formation of a national identity: geography, economics, heritage. But none were so binding as that found in the pews across American cities.
The nation’s inclusion of religious principles within early structures of government was almost a foregone conclusion by the time the Construction was ratified, and the coercive power of the state, though limited as yet, ensured a religious identity that was practically inseparable from the identity of a citizen.
The first pitfall of the unity between religion and politics is revealed when principles of equality are met with the principles of republican Protestantism. Religious liberty tended to extend only to the majority. While the commonly held beliefs that enabled the formation of American government stemmed from proponents of republican Protestantism, their ability to exclude other Christian sects from public discourse created a dissonance with founding principles that could not last for long.
Ironically, much of the motivation surrounding the establishment of a refuge for religious liberty and pluralism led to the utilization of government to suppress pluralism. As if a single instance of irony was insufficient, the reliance upon government to perpetuate religious ideals, rooted in demands for liberty, later backfired and landed most people of religion back in the same position of fear and distrust toward government, hoping for a reprieve at every turn from the eventual suppression of religious liberty.
Ideals of liberty on a governmental level and Christianity on a personal level are often at odds with each other. The nature of Christianity is exclusive, while religious liberty is egalitarian. As the Bill of Rights is interpreted now, there is no room for a faith which claims exclusive access to right and wrong, especially if that faith attempts to impress itself upon others. The evangelical nature of Christianity, therefore, places an inevitable conflict between principles of liberty and Christ, forcing a difficult choice for the liberty loving Christian. To support principles of egalitarianism and liberty on a governmental level, or to only reserve those principles to the personal realm? Nevertheless, the resistance to making a choice between these two concepts consumes much of the Christian’s time when contemplating the oil and water like intermingling of religion and politics.
Perhaps James Madison was correct in lobbying for a divorce from religious involvement by the government, even with military chaplains, because to risk mixing the two beyond a common acknowledgement concerning the sanctity of life was to risk one or the other institution’s downfall.
Do you think the concept of religious pluralism is naturally at odds with the exclusive claim to Truth which Christ makes? If so, how might a Christian citizen rationalize the support of religious liberty for the sake of avoiding persecution and suppression of one’s own religion, while at the same time allowing false teaching that results from such religious liberty?