The Church Is Always Political. Always.


The church is always political. Always.

The state is always religious. Always.

In a fitting finale to his Cultural Liturgies series, James Smith points out in Awaiting The King what seems obvious once he’s said it, namely that: “citizens are not just thinkers or believers, but lovers.”  

The political institutions we live within are not simply seeking to shape our thinking, but to capture our hearts with a vision of the good life which they inculcate.  So in that sense they are rival cults; competing centres of worship to the church.

This means of course, that there can never be separation of church and state, as if separation were merely a spatial reality.  No, for as Smith says, politics is a project, not simply a realm in which different stuff happens to what happens in church.   Laws that the state puts in place are what Smith calls “social nudges” that make us certain kinds of people with certain kinds of values.   We are nudged towards practices that we enact, that in turn shape our loves, all of which feeds back into the vision of the good life we wish our state to promote.

Which is why, of course, the marriage debate was so hotly contested in Australia in 2017.  Whether either the religious leaders or the political leaders could articulate this or not, is not the point. The debate was about liturgy; about speaking and enacting a vision of the good life in our society that will, over time, “trump” all other visions of the good life.  Whoever could “nudge” the strongest would win the hearts and minds – and therefore the practices – of the culture.

The best minds on both sides of the debate saw this.  And this is why the religious freedoms matters to be discussed in 2018 will also be hotly debated. Which, in a sense, is why the church must double down on promoting a vision of the good life around the biblical sexual ethic, not just selling it as right thinking, but showcasing it as good practice; indeed the only practice that will truly lead to human flourishing.

That this ought also be true of the church’s rival view of money, power, forgiveness and ideas about personal significance should go without saying.  Yet insofar as the church has often failed to counter the public secular narratives in these areas, (indeed has often simply baptised them, or failed to offer anything radically different), simply means the church has work to do, ground to make up.

Hence the next thirty years for the church should be interesting, especially in terms of the political sexual ethic.  If the state is seeking to socially “nudge” its citizens in a certain direction, then the pushback by the church must be a stronger “nudge”, otherwise the next generation of Christians will think, act and love no differently to the world when it comes to sex.  Its loves will have been formed in a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” direction, so to speak.

So, pastors and church leaders, how content are you to allow the state to “nudge” and “nurdle” your people towards a vision of the good sex life, the good money life, the good self-actualised life, that has very little to do with the gospel and very much to do with the late modern age of authenticity and autonomy?  You’re not in the business of creating worshippers, but in the business of redirecting worshippers towards something worthy of their worship.

If you’ve got no answer to that, or if you’re scrambling around in your head for what that redirection might look like, then you’ve lost half the battle already.  Time to kill off that sound and light show and double down on wooing the hearts of your people with a “sound and vision” of the good life that trumps the culture’s.

So if politics is a religious project and religion is a political project then the reality is we’re headed for a showdown.  But truth is we always were.  We always are in showdown territory. Smith quotes the eminently quotable Peter Leithart at this point:

So long as the Church preaches the gospel and functions as a properly “political” reality…the kings of the earth have a problem on their hands…as soon as the church appears, it becomes clear to any alert politician that worldly politics is not the only game in town.  The introduction of the church into any city means that the city has a challenger within its walls.

The only proof that the church is being faithful to her king – a king whose kingdom is not of this world – is when the church is viewed as being a problem that politics must solve.  That politics must domesticate and turn towards its own vision of the good life by fair means or foul.

A city within a city smacks of rebellion.  And rebellions must either be put down by increased legal oversight, or watered down by drawing away its affections with other gaudy, but lesser affections. Say hello to what 2018 and beyond will bring us in our increasingly hardening secular space.

A city within a city smacks of a sector of society that does not play by the rules. Unless of course, like the mainline and liberals in terms of sexuality you already play by the earthly city’s rules. Unless of course, like all too many evangelicals in terms of power plays and a sheer love of control and impressiveness, you already play by the earthly city’s rules.

Of course the reason that the state and the church are competing with each other, are indeed on the same trajectory, is that both view their vision of the good life as ultimate visions.  This is why the sexual revolution, fought out by the state on behalf of its citizens, will take no prisoners.  It’s a zero sum game, and its most ardent advocates understand this.

Faced with the loss of transcendence, Charles Taylor’s famed “immanent frame” in which we are sealed off – buffered – from outside spiritual influences, the state seeks ultimate fulfilment within the immanent frame.  That’s what the public square such a hotly contested space. Simply put, there isn’t room for two ultimate visions of the good life.

Once upon a time we naively thought that the state was merely seeking a penultimate vision.  The state would keep the streets free of garbage, maintain the peace and foster the creation and flourishing of institutions where ultimate visions could be hammered out by its citizens.

This is not the case.  Smith says that our political institutions are “incubators of love-shaping practices, not merely governing us, but forming what we love.”  It wants its citizens to swear allegiance to what it loves.  Smith nails it with these words:

We are most prone to absolutise the temporal when our ultimate conviction is that there is no eternal…a secularised culture is not devoid of religious fervour; it just finds new outlets.

Which is exactly why the church is political.  Because it too wants its citizens to swear ultimate allegiance to what it loves, in fact the church’s central tenet is that its members are citizens of an eternal heavenly country (Phil 3:20).   The decline of the Christian narrative in the political institutions means, as Smith says, that liberal democracies are living on the borrowed capital of a transcendent framework they no longer adhere to. Smith says that contrary to the cheap and cheerful dismissal of Christendom by the funky young post-evangelicals:

Christianity is a missional endeavour that labours in the hope that our political institutions can be bent, if ever so slightly, towards the coming kingdom of love.

In other words, if the church also aims to “nudge” society towards a set of loves, and this set of loves is in direct competition to those the political institutions are nudging towards, then something has to give in this nudging battle.  Both church and political institutions are mission organisations with mission visions and values and a set of missionaries to put their plans into action, all with missionary zeal.

This explains why this recent article in The Conversation by Australian commentator Hugh Mackay is overtly simplistic.  Mackay laments the loss of social capital in Australia (borrowing heavily from the likes of Robert Puttnam), and he makes some pertinent points about how rampant individualism is the problem.  The only problem is that such rampant individualism is seen as the solution to our culture’s malaise by so many, especially in matters of sex and identity.  Deep autonomy is the gospel of our political institutions. The likes of progressive journals such as The Conversation, can hardly lament this deep autonomy in one area of life and champion it on the other.  Yet they do. What are they not seeing?

Mackay makes this optimistic call:

That’s how we build a better society – by responding to bad behaviour with good behaviour; by responding to ugliness with beauty; by responding to treachery with integrity; by responding to lies with truth.

If the last year in Australia has taught us anything it’s that that ship would appear to have sailed.  There is increasingly no common understanding, no common transcendent view, of what is bad and good; what is ugly or what is beautiful; what is treachery or integrity; and especially, in this era of fake news accusations from both sides of the culture wars, what is lies and what is truth.

As political liberalism uses up the shrinking pile of borrowed capital from the Christian formative practices, becoming increasingly bad, ugly, treacherous and dishonest in the process, yet increasingly grasping at an ultimate vision because “this” is all there is, the church as an alternate polis, must offer what Mackay desires; a city of refuge for spiritual refugees whose citizenship in the earthly city has not delivered the good life that it promised.