Acton Commentary

The Legalism of Political Christianity


The favorite targets of lampoon and derision from progressive Christians are the icons of the Religious Right: the late Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the like. A standard characterization of their flaws highlights their overemphasis on political power as a means toward the alignment of society with the Christian vision. But if this critique of the politicization of the faith applies to the Religious Right, then it applies equally as well to the Religious Left.

What is shared in what we might call the “legalistic impulse” of much of both conservative and progressive political Christianity is the priority of the role of the government in determining the course of our social life. Both versions of political Christianity, to one extent or another, subsume the Church under the State as a kind of activist lobby (albeit of a special religious character). In this brand of legalism, fidelity to the Christian faith is defined in political terms.

Political Legalism

It is in this sense that we can understand the calls of Jim Wallis for the government to coercively redistribute wealth as a means of better realizing God’s kingdom here on earth as exhibiting a legalistic impulse. Wallis and David Gushee of Mercer University have gone so far as to say that faithful Christians cannot in good conscience be involved in the limited-government Tea Party movements.

At the national level we see this kind progressive ideology advocated by groups like Sojourners and the National Council of Churches. But a similar progressive political agenda crystallizes on the global stage in the contemporary mainline ecumenical movement. Groups like the World Council of Churches (WCC), Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and the newly-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), have for the last two decades and more pursued an increasingly ideological political agenda. When the WCRC was formed earlier this year at a council in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the stated rationale for the merger was the commitment to “economic” and “environmental” justice.

Perhaps the most explicit (and egregious) example of this legalistic perspective appears in the Accra Confession, a document that raises a radical critique of “neoliberal” globalization and the corresponding environmental degradation to an article of the Reformed Christian’s faith, a response to a status confessionis. In confessing against “the oppression of the global economic system,” the Accra statement and the broader ecumenical movement it represents stand for a position definitive for the faithful Christian that privileges opposition to climate change, privatization, genetically-modified foods, and the neoliberal empire headed by the United States.

In this the progressive legalists have fully embraced the elevation of works over doctrine. There is here an historical irony. For at its genesis the modern ecumenical movement saw the doctrinal matters as those which were the most divisive and the most likely to foment conflict. It was with the Life and Work movement, engaged on social and political issues, rather than Faith and Order, focused on doctrine, that Christians of a variety of denominations and confessional commitments were thought to be able to work substantively together.

But nowadays the elevation of praxis over doctrina in progressive ideology means that it is not strictly teaching or doctrine that divides, but rather practical political agendas. We see this as the Accra Confession claims to be such not as “a classical doctrinal confession,” but rather as a “faith commitment” and “common witness.” We see it too in the statements of “communion” between denominations with as doctrinally divergent views of the Eucharist as the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). “Communion” in this sense can refer only to the shared social vision and political agenda, rather than to any historically or traditionally understood doctrinal agreement. Such ecumenical unity is not on the basis of “doctrinal confession” but rather ideological and practical political platforms.

The Heresy of Legalism

By defining unity in terms of a specific political vision, these progressive legalists have imported an alien element into the church. Progressive social activists are fond of citing the example of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood for the faith against the incursion of the Nazis into the life of the church. But Bonhoeffer himself, when he addressed the question of the church’s confession, did not hesitate to characterize the imposition of a worldly ideology onto the church as a kind of “legalism.” In a stunning rhetorical move, when Bonhoeffer addresses “The Church and the Jewish Question,” he accuses the German Christians who would exclude baptized Jews from the church and ministry of Pharasaical legalism.

In this essay, Bonhoeffer describes Judaism not as “a racial concept but a religious one.” He then goes on to describe the “Judaizers” of the German church as those German Christians who let “membership of the people of God, of the church of Christ, be determined by the observance of a divine law” rather than the Gospel. He points concretely to the claim for divine status of the legal requirement of “racial unity of the members of the community.” Thus German-Christian legalism becomes in Bonhoeffer’s polemic usage a Jewish-Christian type.

While progressive Christian political activists lobby government to realize God’s kingdom of shalom here on earth, they are compelled to anathematize those within the church who disagree. As Paul Ramsey, the Princeton ethicist, similarly concluded of the ecumenical movement in 1967, “This identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable comes close to the original and New Testament meaning of heresy.” From this perspective we can say that the Accra Confession is quite literally a heretical confession, in that it sets up a foreign and worldly paradigm as determinative of Gospel fidelity.

The Need for Principled Distinctions

It is quite true that there are temptations to improperly politicize the Gospel from both conservative and progressive ideologies. But traditionally there have been institutional strictures and distinctions that prevent, or at least provide obstacles to, the cooption of the institutional church by political interests, whether from the Left or the Right. And these are precisely the kinds of distinctions that must be demolished when attempting to galvanize the church politically.

In an article in the January issue of Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw relates his journey away from a position that sought active political engagement by the institutional church. He writes of his encounter with the evangelical figure Carl Henry in 1967, at a time when Mouw “had often felt alienated from evangelicalism because of what I saw as its failure to properly address issues raised by the civil rights struggle and the war in Southeast Asia. As a corrective, I wanted the church, as church, to acknowledge its obligation to speak to such matters.”

Mouw tells how Henry corresponded with him as an editor on suggestions to revise a piece Mouw was seeking to publish. As Mouw writes, Henry’s suggestions ended up with Mouw “saying that the church can say ‘no’ to things that are happening in the economic and political realms, without mentioning anything about the church legitimately endorsing specific remedial policies or practices.” Mouw’s agreement at the time to the changes was grudging, for as he says, “There were times, I was convinced, that the church could rightly say a bold ‘yes’ to specific policy-like solutions. I now see that youthful conviction as misguided. Henry was right, and I was wrong.” Thus, writes Mouw of Henry, “A constant theme in his writings was that the church as such has neither the competence nor the authority to address political or economic specifics.”

If we are to recover from the legalistic impulse of the Religious Left and Right, it will be in no small part because we have reinvigorated principled distinctions, such as the difference between clear moral imperatives and prudential judgments. This “de-politicization” of the church would mean that we largely relegate political and economic questions to the realm of vigorous yet respectful debate and disagreement. It would also mean that when the church does speak institutionally to matters of social import, it does so with a clear voice, as one “crying out in the wilderness” (John 1:23).

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Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty (www.acton.org) in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is author of Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness (Christian’s Library Press, 2010).