Friday, March 17, 2006

God and Ceasar ...

... an interesting guest column in Christianity Today by the editor of the Christian Century. The Almost Formerly Important: Lessons of the old mainline for the new mainline.
We mainliners had our day in the sun. Remember Prohibition? It was more than an opportunity for cool gangster outfits and Kevin Costner's best movie. The national banning of alcohol by constitutional amendment was a result of Methodist efforts to "spread Scriptural holiness over the land." Oddly familiar, isn't it? Groups like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, led by the great Methodist social prophet Frances Willard, prayed, raised money, and badgered politicians to get their way. The Temperance Union was the forerunner of the cute old ladies of the United Methodist Women (UMW) who, in a church I pastored, often gathered to bake and gossip and pray.

We did then what you do now: We imposed our way on a divided populace by sheer force of electoral muscle and religious rhetoric. Our effort to take America for Christ is now a peculiar cultural artifact, a curiosity gathering dust on the shelf of early 20th-century history. We built triumphant monuments to our importance. At the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., a prime, front-pew seat features a plaque marking where the President of the United States should sit when he attends—not unlike churches in Constantinople that once featured imperial boxes for the emperor to ride his chariot into without having to dismount. But Caesar's seat goes empty these days, even with a Methodist President.

This is not to denigrate monuments from a more triumphant age of mainline Protestantism—many such places still do fine ministry. But church influence on politics is fickle. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," our Lord says. The last people in the world who want to be caught dead pledging allegiance to the wrong Lord ought to be evangelicals.
C. S. Lewis's Screwtape advised his nephew Wormwood: "Once you have made the world an end and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours." We mainliners were once offered the deal you have now—social action in exchange for faithfulness—and we bit hard. We're so far out of political power now that we're remembering the first task of the church is to be the church, not to play chaplain to a political party or nation. It's tempting to trade fidelity for influence, but it's hard to get fidelity back, and influence doesn't satisfy.
And on a slightly different note, a noted European historian says that the Catholic Church is in a position to save civilization [The following is from an Inside the Vatican email news update, so it's not on the web.
Calling upon the Catholic Church to "speak the truth in a time of evil," leading British historian Michael Burleigh has praised the moral and spiritual stands taken by the Church, exhorting it to live up to its teachings and ideals. In an exclusive interview with Inside the Vatican, to appear in its April edition, Burleigh, an authority on modern Europe, speaks at length with ITV contributor William Doino. Burleigh is the author of the newly published Earthly Powers (HarperCollins), and the forthcoming Sacred Causes, a two-volume history of religion and politics, from the French Revolution to the present. A prize-winning historian who has studied Germany for twenty years, he has now turned his attention to the whole of Europe. In his interview, Burleigh highlighted the often-overlooked successes of the Church facing grave dangers, throughout the ages, and expressed admiration for the pontificate of John Paul II, and confidence in his successor, Benedict XVI. Asked, as an historian and cultural observer, what the Church might do now, in order to strengthen its position in the contemporary world, Burleigh recommended a bold, multi-faceted strategy: 1) "The Church should stop apologizing for its past and vigorously defend the Christian heritage;" 2) "The Church should never compromise its core teachings and essential beliefs," 3) "The Holy See should step up its opposition to religious and political extremism a hundredfold;" and 4) "The Church should reach out to Christian intellectuals, and even secular intellectuals, open to the Christian tradition."

In his provocative and thought-provoking interview, Burleigh explains why each one of these goals are not only attainable but necessary; and why it is time for the Church of Rome to act: "No other religious body has the strength, the respect and the authority to influence the world for the better...Civilization can go one way or the other. In order to save it, the Church needs to wage an up-front and vociferous campaign on behalf of human life, truth, decency, moderation, social justice and intellectual integrity."
I'm all for a vigorous defense of everything that he says. Just what this vigorous defense looks like is another thing. I don't know anything about this fellow, and the interview isn't out yet, but I hope it's not just triumphalism. IMO, that's a huge turn off. It may be one of the reasons why there's been such a huge reaction against the authority and teaching of the Church in Europe (and not just there).

1 comment:

assiniboine said...

The Pope was a partisan of C.S. Lewis?! Whatever would poor old Jack say? Mind you, he'd be a lot more pleased with that than with Billy Graham's Wheaton College having purported to appropriate him for themselves. (Can they actually have read him?) And come to think of it, my old friends the De La Salle Brothers -- FRENCH Christian Brothers, not the Irish ones, they are at pains to point out! -- who were actually all Irish by descent, but anglophile to their bootstraps and firm partisans of Sydney-style Roman Catholicism, ie high church Anglicanism with the Pope -- would be right up his alley.