"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, June 1, 2018

Christian Politics: Is There Any Such Thing?

As someone who grew up in and remains a citizen of Her Britannic Majesty's Canadian Dominion, I watch many things in these United States with puzzlement, sometimes with horror, but never with boredom. I developed a fascination with politics when I was quite young, and recall the summer of 1984 as being something of an awakening, with the Reagan re-election here, and the Tories elected to a landslide majority in Ottawa just weeks before that. I was hooked for years after that on federal politics in both countries, along with following Thatcher in Britain closely.

Given, inter alia, the so-called legal system in this country, with its massive rates of incarceration and bloody capital punishment (if prisoners survive that far and are not shot by police beforehand), as well as the racket which is health insurance and medical care, it has always puzzled me that both Britain and Canada are held up as more "secular" countries, while the United States is somehow more "Christian."  Part of that seems to me to be nothing more than the volubility of certain politicians and Christian leaders alike here more loudly proclaiming some version of "faith," often in defense of "family values." (I learned long ago from Stanley Hauerwas that the gospel sharply relativizes the value of families, and ever since have never trusted a word from anyone who utters the phrase "family values.") Too often, it seems, Christianity in the US is a handmaid of advanced capitalism, militarism, and the inescapable imperialism that this country has always practiced even while fatuously pretending otherwise.

But Christianity cannot be reduced to those dubious "values," and it is the salutary reminder of this crucial fact which I take to be the central virtue of a new book authored by Matthew Bowman: Christian: The Politics of a Word in America (Harvard UP, 2018), 320pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Religious diversity has long been a defining feature of the United States. But what may be even more remarkable than the sheer range of faiths is the diversity of political visions embedded in those religious traditions. Matthew Bowman delves into the ongoing struggle over the potent word “Christian,” not merely to settle theological disputes but to discover its centrality to American politics.
As Christian: The Politics of a Word in America shows, for many American Christians, concepts like liberty and equality are rooted in the transcendent claims about human nature that Christianity offers. Democracy, equality under the law, and other basic principles of American government are seen as depending on the Christian faith’s sustenance and support. Yet despite this presumed consensus, differing Christian beliefs have led to dispute and disagreement about what American society and government should look like. While many white American Protestants associate Christianity with Western Euro-American civilization, individual liberty, and an affirmation of capitalism, other American Christians have long rejected those assumptions. They maintain that Christian principles demand political programs as wide-ranging as economic communalism, international cooperation, racial egalitarianism, and social justice.
The varieties of American Christian experience speak to an essentially contested concept of political rights and wrongs. Though diverse Christian faiths espouse political visions, Christian politics defy clear definition, Bowman writes. Rather, they can be seen as a rich and varied collection of beliefs about the interrelationships of divinity, human nature, and civic life that engage and divide the nation’s Christian communities and politics alike.

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