Apropos of our ongoing discussion of what religious political engagement should look like amid the culture wars, Conor Williams has made an effort at describing two different faith interacts with American politics. He calls these “ideological religion,” which would be your extreme religious partisan; and “dispositional religion,” which is theologically engaged but less likely to connect specific Christian dogma with a specific political agenda. Conor proposes having leftists recover a faith that is closer to the latter, one that doesn’t prescribe specific policy solutions but “helps identify shared ground.”

Here’s how he stages the two options:

The first option looks to religion for substantial political content. Call it “Ideological Religion.” People who approach politics in this way troll their sacred texts, papal encyclicals, past sermons, and other religious documents in search of specific policy preferences. They try, in other words, to build the content of their political convictions from the content of their faith tradition. What, they ask, does the Pope tell us about how to treat criminals? What does the Bible teach about homosexuality? Or our relationship to the environment? Or eating shellfish? Or growing facial hair? Ideological Religion reduces a faith tradition to an encyclopedia of moral information—to find out how to govern, we need only dig up the (purportedly obvious) right positions and bring them to our public arguments. Problem(s) solved, neat and clean!

The second option takes religion as a stance for approaching the world. Call it “Dispositional Religion” (an ugly term that I’d happily replace—suggestions?). Instead of looking to their faith for crisp ideological positions, people who approach politics in this way ask a different set of questions: How should a person of faith understand urban poverty? Or God’s Creation? Or the facts of human sexuality? They do not expect that religion provides specific and conclusive solutions to political problems, but they shape their attitude towards human social life in reference to their faith.

Right away, I’m not sure this distinction works. Despite the dichotomy Conor sets up between them, it seems the “ideological” Christian and the “dispositional” Christian understand their faith in much the same way: as “shaping their attitude toward human social life.” Both derive “substantial political content” from their faith, but neither thinks the Bible offers “specific policy preferences.” The key difference has nothing to do with how ideological they are or how much they politicize their Christianity; it is about is how they determine the content of their faith. If I understand Conor correctly, the people in the first category are more likely to place the Bible at the center of their faith. He obviously has a dim view of their intellect, but a “strong view of scripture” doesn’t automatically make someone an ideology-addled cretin. Almost all Christians, even most textualists, accept the need for exegesis, synthesis, and theological application. When he’s talking about the religious right’s “theological rigidity,” it seems the real distinction Conor seems to be making is between people who hold have a high regard for traditional or literal scriptural interpretation, and those who are more open to revising their doctrine based on experience, scientific evidence, and evolving social mores. But I think it’s a mistake to label all textualism “ideological” and perhaps an even bigger one to imagine that less theologically rigid Christians are less likely to see their faith as prescribing specific political content.

Throughout Conor’s second section, “Theological Respectability,” he continues making what feels like a distinction without a difference between “ideological” and “dispositional” believers. He clearly favors less scripturally rigid liberal theology, which is fine, but I think his positive markers of a “dispositional” (i.e., liberal) believer are equally descriptive of most conservative Christians I have ever known (a large number). He assumes, for example, that a Biblical inerrantist would disagree with him that God’s will is ultimately beyond human understanding, or that “faith does not solve political questions,” or that Christian faith can lead to more than one political position. I’m pretty sure even Al Mohler would sign onto all that.

So while Conor is right to sense two rough “styles” of political Christianity in the U.S., I don’t think it’s so easy to assign the negative attributes to one and the positive ones to the other. Calling the conservatives ideological, anti-intellectual bigots doesn’t refute them or persuade anyone who isn’t already convinced. But since Conor focuses more on the positive attributes of “dispositional” religion, I want to give most of my attention to that. You should read his whole post, but here’s some longer quotes to give as accurate an idea as I can of what he’s talking about:

Religious polarization isn’t just dangerous to political movements—it can be even more threatening to religious institutions. You don’t need to read J.S. Mill or Alexis de Tocqueville to know that it’s exceedingly risky for a religion to ally itself to a particular political position. At its best, faith can provide us with a stable ground to rely upon when transient, earthly matters fail us. If, however, our religion implicates itself in a political cause, it links its credibility to the most transient of moorings. If we tie parts of our faith to particular political content, we risk polarizing and sundering that which ought to be safe from human meddling. ….

Dispositional Religion helps identify shared ground. For instance, though Christians may disagree about what their faith dictates regarding premarital sex, euthanasia, state-sponsored violence, interreligious dialogue, foreign aid, and much more—they can all agree that they are called to compassion for the world’s weak, poor, sick, and hungry. Though their faith does not provide simple policy solutions, it demands that they be disposed towards ministering to the needy. Leftists (and conservatives, for that matter) can appeal to a broad array of believers if they take a less ideological approach. It goes without saying, I hope, that broader is better when it comes to democratic elections.

Conor has described, all but word-for-word, the position of the evangelical “post-culture warrior.” Step back from deep alliances with political platforms, broaden the horizon, and open up spaces of Christian agreement that can transcend the narrow trenches of politics. As I confessed in this somewhat inarticulate post, I beat that drum for a while, partly as a weapon against the religious right. I don’t think it’s entirely misguided; especially in specific religious communities, say conservative evangelicals and their straying children, it might do something to bridge the generational divide over the culture wars. There are some cynical ways to interpret it—for example, as a coded way for liberal Christians to disarm the religious right and claim the nonpartisan high ground for themselves. But that’s not completely fair; most people advancing this view seem genuinely to hope for some kind of restored unity and think explicit religious partisanship is to blame for destroying it.

What I question is the plausibility of the politically-aloof theology they propose in its place. The only way to make theology apolitical is to erase its content and separate it from the church; a theology that could do little more than direct you toward a “subset of possible answers” in politics, but was mostly about “identify[ing] shared common ground,” would have to be alienated and spectral. Get even rudimentarily specific about the existence of its god or the truth of its propositions and you open the door to fundamental philosophical presuppositions that cannot help but affect politics. Even the most denuded version of the Christian gospel—“God wants people to love each other”—can’t escape being political. No doubt aware of this, Conor admits that actual Christians may “ultimately conclude that their faith compels them to take a particular position.” What he doesn’t say is that this faith will also inevitably place them in conflict with believers who take the opposite position, even if they are humble enough to accept that Christians can reasonably disagree. Nothing about accepting your own fallibility and the impossibility of perfect religious answers keeps faith from providing clear convictions about specific policy choices and motivating you to fight for them.

The vision of a separation between religious and political life is the same one I challenged in Andrew Sullivan’s big Newsweek essay, and the one I understand Jonathan Merritt to be advocating in his new book. The simple truth is that if faith plays a role in someone’s life to the point they can be said to be theologically engaged, it shapes their fundamental beliefs about society, and in turn exerts a strong influence on which of the two political “sides” they support. They don’t have to be extremely zealous, hostile, or partisan about these positions, but in real life, people make decisions from the options available. Thus, the political expressions of America’s divergent Christianities sort reliably along the divide of the two-party spectrum. These are not just different flavors of the same thing; they are fundamentally different views of what the Christian faith is. They are in a very real sense reading different bibles, and political “common ground” between them would almost entirely rhetorical. Which suggests to me that these yearnings for a theology weak enough to unify them, whether it’s coming from liberals like Andrew and Conor or evangelicals like Merritt, will amount to about as much as Americans Elect. Even if such a thing were possible, there’s just not a ton of people interested in it.

Because this is already long, I’ll try to wrap it up quickly with what I would advise liberal Christians to pursue instead of “dispositional” religion. Christian liberals will never “reinvigorate their side’s treatment of religion” by running after the illusion of theologically vacant, apolitical faith; for most people, there is nothing energizing or motivational about that kind of faith. American Christians are at an impasse that mirrors our larger cultural impasse, one that can only be argued out and finally (or gradually) won in the church and in U.S. politics. The deepest, most controversial issues can’t be suppressed and avoided and negotiated away. What is best for both sides is not a kum-bah-yah common-ground fest, but a better conflict. Liberal Christians, rather than a retreat into featureless theology that they imagine can be separated from politics, need better political theology, something they actually have a pretty great history of in America. If the Christian left is serious about making religious arguments in politics, they need to stop calling for a change of venue and get to work engaging the right on its own turf. Likewise, rather than the crazed partisan hacks at the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, the Christian right needs more people like Matt Lee Anderson—people who can deal with real-world facts, argue intelligently, stand up for their theological convictions in the political arena. This would be the opposite of blind partisanship and polemical vitriol, but would still be a conflict, even a bitter one. It would be a fair, honest fight—the kind democracy was built for.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

0 Responses to The Illusory Promise of Apolitical Theology

  1. […] Sessions sees the problem in this. Of course a religious believer, surveying the world around them, is going to take the […]

  2. He’s barking up the right tree but the language is rough. I think working with the bounded-set vs. center-set group identity theories produces better results. Ultimately bounded-set and center-set are not mutually exclusive as they work out in a narrative but rather work in a dynamic relationship. Center-set approaches will yield a list of bounded-set applications that will get codified or traditionalized in time. The center-set values will, however, continue to critique their bounded-set oral or written traditions to flex for new situations and/or corruptions over time.

    Look at how Jesus uses a center-set approach to critique the law in the Sermon on the Mount or the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. Look at how the council in Jerusalem uses a center-set critique to re-evaluate the circumcision tradition in Acts 15.

    It’s present on my mind because I just worked through some of this last week. See my blog post. Skim some of the sections that don’t apply http://paulvanderklay.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/my-case-for-a-holy-hypocrisy/

    These dynamics work both within religions and within politics and between them, partly because religions and politics are quite similar. pvk

  3. […] Patrol blog on Dispositional vs. ideological religion, in terms of how religion and politics should relate.  […]

  4. […] to come on this, but for now enjoy this piece by David Sessions over at […]

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