Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Definition of America

I've struggled mightily with this new-found Christian ideal of lawsuits. We've seen many controversial episodes recently, some ongoing, where Christian groups, individuals, or organizations sue the government, in one form or another, in the name of religious freedom. I've been unsettled by all of this.

It strikes me as wrong.

This has nothing to do with the particular merits of any one claim. I happen to appreciate some and others draw out an improperly equivalent anger. I have no problem agreeing that a Catholic hospital should be allowed to use theology in it's decision-making. At the same time, I think the complexities of reproductive care and contraception prove the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame foolish at best, ignorant at worst.

However, the real struggle I have is with the implication that any of these lawsuits are faith-based in nature. Certainly the issues discussed are matters of faith and practice. I also believe the participants are motivated by faith. Still, it seems like the suits themselves, the struggles and the manner with which these struggles are engaged, lack any grounding in faith.

Well, that's not true. It is a sort of faith that has wrapped up its own belief within the definition of America. By America, I am speaking of the United States. Often we forget that America applies to a pretty large land mass, stretching from Greenland to Chile, with an awfully diverse mix of people. Still, to most of the world, in colloquial shorthand, if nothing else, the US is America.

For many of my tribe - the American Evangelical - our understanding of America is indistinguishable tied to faith. Really, America brings this on herself. This union of faith and civics stems from the mythic and religious language characterizing the history of this country (or at least the European history of this country). From the Puritan "City on a Hill" to the Mormon New Israel, there has been a real understanding for many that the United States has somehow assumed the role of God's chosen people and carries with it an inherent righteousness beyond all other nations.

This is more than simply American exceptionalism; it is a civil religion. One in which the flag and the cross are interchangeable symbols of identity. Soldiers become martyrs, and freedom is the highest ideal. This is a painful union because flags and soldiers and freedom are not evil concepts; they're not wrong. They are simply not Christian. Unfortunately, attempts to illustrate the necessary separation of faith and patriotism involves a critique, not of the things themselves, but of what they represent to some people. This distinction, however, is often lost - and the resulting pain is truly regrettable.

But it is the truth. No nation can be a Christian nation - even if that nation adopts the symbols, practices, or morality of Christianity. That's ultimately what these battles are about - they're struggles over the moral definition of America.

Some are under the belief that these are and should be identical; for others, the civic morality should be influenced by Christian morality; for still others there should be careful consideration to intentionally preclude Christianity from impacting civic morality.

That's the struggle. And it seems the civic leaders, in the legislature, the White House, and the Supreme Court are just as engaged in the struggle - with no firm or evident lines drawn.

Regardless, the machinations of the civic process should not be the concern of Christians. We should be acting without regard to those systems. Christianity - life in the way of Jesus - has always been (even before Jesus) a lived critique of the systems around us.

We can and do, even as Christians, disagree about which laws are just and unjust and which are worth obeying and which require considered disobedience. If Hobby Lobby wants to make what I consider ill-informed and poorly-reasoned decisions based on the faith of their owners, wonderful. If the Catholic Church wants to make similar decisions for their schools and hospitals, great. We, as Christians, should not expect or even fight for, the acceptance of those ideals from the civic government under which we live. It just doesn't make any sense.

Now, there is certainly a case to be made that various Christian morals can be supported by non-religious reasoning. I don't have a problem with advocacy along those lines at all. Personally, I can't think of a single thing I do strictly because "God said so." I tend to have firm, real world rationale for just about everything.

I am not saying Christians can't and shouldn't be involved in shaping civic morality - simply that we should not be doing it by appealing to our faith or religious freedom.

Religious freedom is the freedom to practice one's religion without being harmed or hindered. This does not include the right to participate in society with the same unmolested religious practice. When civic morality differs from religious morality, there is still freedom of religion, just not freedom of participation. That's not guaranteed - nor should it be.

Christians participate in civic society as much as as the society allows and as much as their own faith practices allow. Amish communities are exempt from a lot of the taxes and responsibilities of other citizens, but in exchange they've given up many of the benefits as well - sometimes the privilege of being involved in civic society. The separation is not all by choice.

Religious organizations and individuals are free to act on their faith in their own communities. The idea that this freedom must be extended to the public economic, social, and cultural spheres is pretty antithetical to the idea of a nation. No nation can afford to have competing life narratives at play among decision makers.

As much as we make of the differences between Republican and Democrats (or Libertarians and Socialists for that matter) they are all simply divergent voices in the midst of the unified national narrative. Certainly there could be a religious party alongside, with its own unique perspective on how we define America (that happens in a lot of countries). We avoid that here because religion is still an undercurrent of the grand narrative.

It's simply not a Christian undercurrent.

The American narrative, our civil religion, the machinations of government - none of them are conducive to actual Christian participation. This is what's borne out in the lawsuits that so trouble me.

Christians do not demand rights. We have none. That is the very definition of Christian freedom. When Paul speaks of being slaves to Christ, he equates that with freedom. We have a way of life particular to us, peculiar as it may be. That way of life gives us freedom - not freedom to do as we please, but freedom from the alternative narratives in the world.

Yes, that does sometimes mean suffering. We must live with the consequences of our actions. What it means to live as Christ in the midst of a world that thinks and lives differently is sometimes suffering. But again, as Paul says, it is not really suffering if we genuinely believe the Christian way is the right way to live in the world. Often, though, it seems our modern, American, Christian desire is to live a comfortable life and also go to heaven when it's over. That's much more the embodiment of the American civil religion than it is anything to do with Christ.

So how then do Christians have any influence on the world? Well, it's through example - through loving action. I truly mourned when the Catholic Church used claims of rights and constitutional arguments concerning its schools and hospitals. A Christian response would be to continue living out their faith (on this particular issue - the evils of birth control - I don't even agree with the stance). But I guarantee you, if the Catholic Church had been willing to close all its schools and hospitals over this stance, the public would have reacted and the civic morality would have been sufficiently changed. It would not have been a power move, but one of humility. All the good, positive, loving action generated from Catholic schools and hospitals would have overwhelmed what is, in reality, a much smaller controversy.

When Christian stand up for their principles and no one notices, it's simply because they haven't been making a positive enough impact to be missed.

This is a real problem for public, for-profit companies. The ways the markets work, if one company shuts down because of moral or religious reasons, some other, less morally constricted company will take their place. The Hobby Lobby suit was an attempt to participate in civic society without cowing to civic morality. That's wanting to have your cake and eat it, too.

Yes, it would be wonderful if that were possible, but it would require the civic morality to match the morality of the business owner. That's the real struggle - not for religious freedom or Christian expression or any of that - it is a fight for the definition of America.

If the system is Christian, then Christians should be able to participate in it. If it is American, then Christians have to choose where their allegiance lies.

I'd like to say this is a new problems, but it really isn't. It's simply a new, more overt twist on an old problem. Since government first began using Christianity to advance its own causes (way back in good, old Roman times), the faith itself has been altered and amended and sacrificed to please the civic morality - the needs of the State. Yes, the civic morality has equally been altered and amended and sacrificed at times as well - it is a mutual symbiosis. But the underlying relationship has been to advance the cause of civil society under the mantle of Christianity.

There's been an almost 2,000 year old lie that the two can be one.

Many are only now realizing that this is not true (although many have always known so and been silenced as radicals). Civil society has realized it doesn't need Christianity any longer - its interests can be advanced just as well and just as fervently with the civil religion - a story of social, economic, and military success - a story of personal freedom and hard work.

Christians react to this in many different ways. Some are simply so attached to the civil religion that they'll go along with the change and notice no real difference in life. Some cling to the notion that the two - civil society and Christian faith - must be connected and are necessarily by divine right, whether reality plays out this way or not. I humbly offer an alternative:

Recognize that civil society and Christian faith are not of the same kind, that they cannot be united simply by virtue of their existential purpose and also by the underlying principles of their individual narratives.

Live in the way of Christ. Be willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary (including everything we might call a "right") in order to live the transformative love we know can change the world. But leave God to do the changing. We can only make choices for ourselves and our lives - to live in the way of the cross - we can't force anything else to change, no by lawsuits or hard work or manipulation. We can only love and let that mystical, unexplainable transformation take place in the way of Christ.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Well said, Ryan.