Sep 29, 2014

'Resident Aliens' and the complications of polarization

In polarized and polarizing America, there's a deep division on the question of the relationship of religion and politics (among other things). A Pew poll released last week reports that this particular polarization has now reached a point of equilibrium: 49 percent of Americans say religious groups should be speaking out about social and political questions; 48 percent say they shouldn't.

The scale would appear to be tipping. The study found "a growing share of the American public wants religion to play a role in U.S. politics."

This is expressed in a number of ways: There's a growing majority concerned about religion's decline influence in America, for example. These's also a growing minority who want churches to endorse political candidates (which is not allowed for churches claiming exemption from taxes).

Many people have the very strong sense that America is now composed of these these two sides.

But the sides, as expressed in that polarization, in that poll, are probably not as unified as they appear.

People who want religion to influence politics often differ widely on what that means. People who want religion separate from politics are not all the same either.

An example of the diversity of both ideas can be found in a collection of short essays published in the Christian Century the same day the Pew poll was released. The essays are written by Christian theologians and pastors, many from mainline Protestant churches, reflecting on the 25th anniversary of Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.

The book expressed an anabaptist vision of the church as separate from and, importantly, aligned against earthly systems and worldly powers. Christians are those who belong to a different kingdom, according to Resident Aliens. Hauerwas and Willimon said that Christians had wrongly been working to synthesize Christianity and this-worldly power, replacing the faith of Jesus Christ with a counterfeit, with Christendom.

"The church, as those called out by God, embodies a social alternative," they wrote. "The decline of the old, Constantinian synthesis between the the church and the world means that we American Christians are at last free to be faithful in a way that makes being a Christian today an exciting adventure."

Resident Aliens has been widely influential among white progressive Christians as the mainline churches have transformed over the last 60 years from the quasi-establishment religion of a WASP-run country to lonely outposts of a modified social gospel. It has been influential too among younger evangelicals disgruntled at the ways in which their parents, as they saw it, traded the real power of Christ for wisps of political influence.

Resident Aliens has had its critics, too.

Some of those critics have written in the Christian Century about how they think Resident Aliens fell short, missed the point, or, worse, misconstrued the point 25 years ago.

Three examples:

Miguel De La Torre:
As one who once actually was a resident alien, I wonder if Hauerwas and Willimon have any clue as to what it means to occupy that space. They do violence to real resident aliens like myself when they appropriate our social location without recognizing how the foreign Constantinian Christian culture from which they feel alienated is specifically constructed to privilege the particularity of their race, class, and gender. They romanticize 'not belonging' to a dominant culture that historically and continuously revolves around them.
Jennifer M. McBride:
Although attuned to the need for a Christian witness against racism -- multiple anecdotes in the book center on race -- their framework lacks an analysis of white privilege that is necessary for faithful living in the U.S. context. It is disingenuous for white Protestants to deem ourselves alien to a culture and society we benefit from and have created. Certainly, the call to think of ourselves as resident aliens is normative: we should be resident aliens in that we should not participate in the destructive forces of American society even if, at present, we foster and maintain them. But their use of the term is also descriptive -- as Christians, we are resident aliens -- and this description is profoundly self-deceptive.
Nancy Bedford:
The book's central metaphors of 'colony' and 'resident aliens' have a number of problematic resonances. To speak of a colony is by definition to envision a group of people involved in a colonial endeavor. Given Christianity's complicity with colonialism in much of its history, 'life in the Christian colony' is probably not the best way to envision the decolonial way of life that Jesus puts before us.
These three critiques are similar. They each claim that Christians should be more political and more engaged in public matters. In a sense, they could represent that polarized position that the Pew poll reports so starkly. They are part of the 49 percent that think religious organizations need to be more bold, speaking out about social and political questions.

Hauerwas and Willimon, likewise, could be said to be part of the almost half of Americans who want religious groups to be less involved, less vocal, and less political.

Yet this doesn't seem exactly right.

Hauerwas and Willimon, for their part, insist that they're not suggesting complete withdrawal from society, where Christians disengage from the public discourse and religion and state are entirely separate. Rather, they say, Christians should engage the public square on public matters wholeheartedly --bringing the world their unique message about being called out of this-worldly systems.

As Hauerwas and Willimon write in response to their 25th anniversary critics:
We thought Resident Aliens was an assertion that Jesus Christ is still the most interesting thing that the church has to say or to do in the world, the truth about us and God. God's peculiar answer to what's wrong with the world is a crucified Jew who lived briefly, died violently, rose unexpectedly, and even now makes life more difficult and out of our control -- but so much more interesting than flaccid sociological analysis.
To the question, "should religion play a role in U.S. politics?," this is not a straightforward answer.

De La Torre, McBride, and Bedford, in the same way, cannot be put down for a simple yes or no.

They each claim that the church should be more political, in some ways. De La Torre calls it a "praxis of transformation." At the same time, the more important point that each makes is that Resident Aliens doesn't reject synthesis of of Christ's message and political power structures as completely as it imagines. Hauerwas and Willimon are complicit. The argument is they have not gone far enough in separating their religion from politics.

The church should be in some sense less political at the same time that it is, in other ways and other cases, more.

In this argument, are Hauerwas and Willimon part of the 48 percent who want don't want religion to play a role in politics and De La Torre, McBride, and Bedford part of the 49 percent who want the opposite? Or is it the other way? Hauerwas and Williman are part of the 49 percent and De La Torre, McBride and Bedford the 48?

Yes.

Perhaps all involved would agree with Hauerwas and Willimon's point that the basic issue of the debate is challenging definitions, disputing the terms.

"We reject the idea," they wrote, "that North American Christians can let the world define what counts as politics and meaningful social change."

There really is polarization happening in America. It includes a deep division on this question of religions' role in political discourse. There have been cultural shifts on this question specifically among Christians, in the last 25 years. That shift has included people who think American should be the Christian country it once was and people who think it should be the Christian country it never was but could be. It has included people who think Christianity can't have anything to do with the character a country. It has included people who are adamant supporters of of a pluralist public sphere, those who see politics as a public space for the battle-to-the-death of irreconcilable worldviews, and those who think that set-up is the problem. It includes people whose religion is politics. It includes people whose politics are religious critiques of contemporary culture.

It includes anabaptists and those who have argued with their ecclessiology for 25 years, and a lot of other groups too.

This debate about Resident Aliens in Christian Century just happened to be published on the same day as the poll. There are other debates about religion and politics, other sites where the terms and the relationship between those terms are being contested. This is one example, though, of how the sides in the polarization are not as clear as they might be.

The sorting that happens in polarization produces apparent equalibriums -- 49 percent vs 48 -- but it's not as neat and ordered as that looks. Each "side," on closer inspection, is its own nest of debates and disputes, movements, pressures, and countervailing reactions.