Daniel Vestal on Religion & Politics
In an op-ed to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,[Hat tip: Melissa Rogers] Daniel Vestal, a former pastor and currently Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (the larger of the two break-away denominations from the Southern Baptist Convention; I belong to the smaller, more “liberal” of the two break-away groups, the Alliance of Baptists) used the occasion of Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death (Vestal called it the “homegoing” of a brother in Christ) to give a brief outline of a “third way” in U.S. society between rampant secularism and hedonistic individualism, and the Christian nationalism of the Religious Right that Falwell represented. In part, Vestal said:
It seems that we are caught between two horns of a cultural dilemma:
On the one hand is the pervasiveness of a secularist, materialistic and hedonistic society. On the other hand are highly offended people of faith who would seek to impose narrow and strict interpretations of faith on everyone.
I deplore the loss of respect for human life, the decline of private and public morality, the diminishing of personal responsibility and the general permissiveness in our society. On the other hand, I am not comfortable with those who equate Christian faith with only one political perspective, seem blind to racial and economic injustices and allow little room for dissent and disagreement. I also am grieved by the growing polarization in our society, divisive rhetoric and a general “mean- spiritedness” in civil conversation.
Perhaps many of us are seeking a third way, a radical way. We desire to hold our Christian faith close to our hearts, but we also desire to have genuine friendship and dialogue with people of other faiths to build a human community. We desire to be involved in political decision making from our faith perspective, but we don’t believe that any one party has a corner on the truth. We do believe that the story and truth of Scripture come from God, but we want to preserve the freedom of conscience that allows for different interpretations.
In contrast to seeking a “moral majority,” which seems to have the connotation of partisan power, it seems that as followers of Christ we should seek to be bold witnesses, humble servants, compassionate ministers in our society. Of course this will mean engagement in the political process and public advocacy as well as prayer and worship, but not in a way that so clearly identifies the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ with partisan politics.
Given a larger forum than a newspaper op-ed, much more could be said and doubtless should. But in this brief space, Daniel Vestal, with whom I have not always agreed, speaks my mind. The gospel is not merely private; it has public dimensions which are inevitably political. But it should never be politicized in any partisan sense–as if Christians could only belong to one political party or as if there could be religious tests for public office. The institutions of church and state must be separate–precisely so that the church is free to offer a prophetic word to the state or other Powers. Democratic societies are sought not because the gospel is to prop up democracy, nor because the church cannot live in many different forms of government (it can and has), but because democracy is a relative, limited, penultimate good. We seek a pluralistic society where all faiths and persons without faith are equal citizens as relative goods this side of the Rule of God–these things lead to the peace of the earthly polis–itself a good thing. We do not seek a “Christian nation” (a major theological error–the redeemed citizens of the Rule of God come out from among all nations, tongues, cultures) but a relatively just and peaceful and sustainable society as we bear witness to the greater justice, peace, and perfect sustainability of the New/Renewed Heavens and Earth.
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