The Church and Political Life: A Loss of Confidence

by Max L. Stackhouse

At the time this article was written, Max L. Stackhouse taught at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He subsequently taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.

The article is adapted for an address the author presented to the Massachusetts Council of Churches. This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 29-August 5, 1981, pp. 766-769. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The vigorous defense of the separation of church and state at the institutional level must be matched by a quest for an integrated view of life at another — and deeper — level. We are in for a longer and more arduous struggle than we have yet recognized, for our vision is tarnished and the message of the ecumenical church unsure without whose mainstays people make decisions according to their own interests — and the interests of the powerful generally prevail.

We face a new political regime in this country -- one that represents, in several respects, a new cluster of political moods with religious overtones.

To those who have hitched their religion to a new militant Americanism, it is a time of rejoicing. We have been saved, some say, from the brink of socialism. At the same time, those who have understood their faith in terms of the New Deal or the more recent liberation movements are plunged into despair. Some think that we are now hovering on the brink of fascism. The fact of the matter is that both of these interpretations base their understandings on a single spectrum derived from the ideologies of the French Revolution. In my opinion this spectrum is incapable of incorporating the dynamics of the present mood, the deeper structures which are decisive for American public life, or the nature of our present peril.

Behind these disputes is a substantive crisis of vast import. It could be called a failure of courage, but that does not grasp the matter at its core. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has called it "the loss of the American consensus," but that may not quite be it either. Religiously, it is better to speak of the loss of an ecumenical, theological confidence and the possession of the body politic by a host of conflicting spirits.

Until quite recently, Americans have debated the issues of public morality in theological terms which they thought had something to do with truth claims. Our forebears believed that deep theological conviction, linked with profound thought and directed toward practical engagement, could serve as the yeast in civilization, as a check against the demonic pretenses of the principalities and powers. This conviction could shape covenanted communities of faith, and thereby influence both the character of persons and the structures of public institutions to upbuild, broaden, awaken and guide the conduct of life. It could never utterly defeat the power of sin or the multiple attacks of satanic powers -- only God could do that; but it could invite us into a deeper relationship with God, serve as a barrier against the most overt forms of inhuman exploitation and provide a vision of God’s righteousness in public affairs.

In large measure, ecumenically oriented and progressive leadership has lost that confidence. Theology has become a matter of private opinion, irrelevant to public issues. Some "conservative" religious forces recognize that something precious has been lost, although their responses to the loss are often constrictive and, in some cases, dangerous. Their relative success and public visibility in contemporary life are based in part on the fact that society, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

And a vacuum it is, as numerous scholars have recognized. Some, in recent decades, have turned to an analysis of "civil religion," which at its best is the awareness that there are universalistic moral sensitivities which have developed out of the American experience. At its worst, "civil religion" is all sail and no rudder. The moral sensitivities are grounded neither in metaphysical nor in institutional realities. The free-floating moral sensibilities can shift in the winds of change or flutter in the breeze of contradictory gusts, especially when the airwaves are filled with baptized chauvinism.

Sound or False Religion?

The ecumenically oriented churches are custodians of a more profound tradition which in principle could discern the spirits and exorcise the demonic conflicts that beset us. In principle, the ecumenical churches hold that the symbols of Scripture and doctrine grasp and convey something of the very being of God. Theology faithful to these symbols, and constantly tested by reason and experience, provides the surest guide to both belief and action -- in public as well as private matters. Further, belief is seen to have a concrete social base in the organized body of believers. It is precisely here that the doubt and lack of confidence of which I speak are often present.

Many persons are not at all sure that this religious tradition or the church itself can or does make much difference in public life today. Some are not even sure that one can tell the difference between sound and false religion. Who among us has not been touched by one or another of the following observations:

• Theology is all abstraction, having very little to do with real life.

• Our religious heritage is so tainted by racism, classism and sexism that we have nothing to learn from it for today.

• Authentic religion is a matter of a pure leap of faith which is utterly beyond reason.

• All doctrine grows out of experience. Our experience so differs from that of other groups in other times that we can only tell our own stories.

• Ethics is a product of social development. Our ethics must change as our society changes.

There are four features of note common to all these statements. First, each is partially true. Second, each casts doubt on whether we as church people have anything fundamental to say. Third, each tends to relativize the basis of all perspectives on faith and morals. Fourth, none of these beliefs leaves space for the possibility that the object of theology, God, can overcome human subjectivity or bias.

Here, I believe, is the core of the issue. Though standing behind the present shifts of mood in the country, it is of much deeper rootage than the new regime or the debates over this or that policy, and it is of much greater consequence for the longer future. The question, simply put, is this: do we have a fundamental rock on which to stand when we attempt, as church people, to address social and political questions? Or is the witness of the church merely the transcendentalized expression of the contemporary Zeitgeist, of social interest or of political-economic preference?

Much of what has preoccupied the ecumenically oriented churches in the past few decades needed immediate and practical attention: for example, the issues of civil rights, war and peace, economic justice, and outreach to less-developed nations.

In many of these efforts we drew on convictions, loyalties and insights built up among the people of God over many generations. The problem is that we seldom replenished these resources in the heat of battle. The bases were used justifiably, but we failed to see that precisely these bases were being eroded in our social and intellectual lives. We failed to see that the deep wells from which we drew were being shut down as a consequence of the shallowness of our theological digging. Unlike the wells from which we get our fossil fuels, however, the resources for theological energy are renewable. That reclamation is the first priority of the church in our day.

Christians have it on very good authority that Christ’s "kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). Christians also know that we are to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s" (Luke 20:25). We are to be "subject to the governing authorities" (Rom. 13:1-4); yet we are to "obey God rather than men" Acts 5:29).

Pulling Against Gravity

This cluster of teachings represents one of the most revolutionary social doctrines ever conceived. It is not a natural thing for people to draw a sharp separation between religion and politics as distinct realms, to demand responsible participation in both and simultaneously to say that the object of one (God) is the criterion for the object of the other (the exercise of power). The natural tendencies are, on the one hand, toward a world-denying spirituality that views religion and politics as absolutely irrelevant to each other, or, on the other hand, toward an accommodationist stance that uses one to "legitimize" the other.

We are always tempted by these "natural," pagan tendencies. However, the Christian view is one which, so to speak, pulls against gravity. This view affirms the reality and necessity of the world of politics, but it demythologizes, deabsolutizes and relativizes its importance. The only "Christian state" is a secular, limited state designed to serve both a specific society and all of humanity under state-transcending principles. That is why the reactionary efforts to cut governmental programs and the radical efforts to protest the power of the "military-industrial complex" can both claim theological rootage. The life of faith, hope and love cannot be established by political powers. That is also why the current distinctions between "totalitarian" and "authoritarian" regimes ring hollow when both mean absolute tyranny.

Yet Christians also know that human beings live under a sovereign reality beyond the control, of any regime. This reality, precisely because of its sovereign character, is at the same time independent of and directly pertinent to every aspect of social and political life. All who are touched by this fundamental insight have a constitutional distrust of the powers of political authority that have led to the institutional "separation of church and state," as well as a simultaneous urge to engage in the life of public policy to transform society toward justice and righteousness and mercy. This tension has led to the ethical quest for a "public theology."

In this regard, the most decisive indicators of social righteousness in society are the structural freedom of religion and the ethical dependence on an ecumenically shaped "public theology." The lived experience of the 20th century supports this contention. Is it not true that where the state has subverted and constricted religion -- as in Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Amin’s Uganda, Pol Pot’s Kampuchea or Park’s Korea -- questions of social righteousness have been subverted by pagan whims? And is it not true that where religion becomes the legitimizer of this or that political- economic system, as in South Africa, in most of Latin America, and, sadly, in much of the United States, the deeper claims of justice and equality are obscured?

Where religion is repressed, freedom of speech is constricted; secret arrest, torture and political imprisonment are unconstrained. Where freedom of religion is allowed but not governed by a public theology, the sharing at the communion rail has little chance of being translated into the sharing of bread and drink with the hungry and thirsty. Where religion is not independent of political alliance or control, people have no forum, no organizational base -- and no fundamental philosophy of life beyond that fed to them by those in control -- from which to challenge oppressors. Where religion is independent of the state but confined to merely "private" questions and not governed by a public theology, social morality becomes merely opportunistic.

The vigorous defense of the separation of church and state at the institutional level must be matched by a quest for an integrated view of life at a deeper level. At this second level, we must always work out for each generation, as best we can, a unified ethical perspective which gives cohesion and vision to the whole. This is true for at least two reasons. First, all profound theologies hold that God is the Lord over societal, economic and political systems and not only over churches and the hearts of persons. Indeed, a theology that does not make clear how the life of faith pertains to the structures of civilization -- including even those coercive ones of political power -- is truncated. A religious ethic that speaks of interpersonal love but never of social justice is unbalanced. A spirituality that speaks of uplifted souls but never of institutional righteousness is lopsided. Thus we are faithful only if we use the freedom resulting from institutional separation of church and state in order to develop, preach and teach an integrated, theologically rooted perspective concerned at each point about "truth." The fact that we have not done so leaves the door open to the presumed integrated perspectives of Eastern spirituality, to fundamentalist absolutisms of multiple stripes, to worldly syncretisms in which every soul worships its own idol, or to the sprinkling of holy water over Leninist slogans. These movements are constitutionally incapable of providing a holistic perspective.

A second reason for pressing in this direction is closely related. Freedom of religion at the institutional level protects nonsense as well as profound moral and spiritual insight. All profoundly religions people are gripped by a vision of reality which is not only beyond the state but beyond the difficult lessons of experience, beyond the realistic analysis of social forces and societal needs, beyond the prudential calculations of common sense, and beyond the fragmented bits of data we get from daily life. That vision of the beyond is the glory of religion; it is also its peril. A touch of madness is often shielded by this transcendent effect as well as by institutional freedom -- a madness which, if not checked, discredits the fundamental insight of faith and destroys community in fanaticism. For this reason, too, we are in desperate need of a public theology.

Behind the Propaganda

The term public theology is not my own but Martin Marty’s. I use the term with several specific things in mind. A public theology is one that takes seriously the importance of systematic reflection on God. It is a disciplined mode of thinking that works, as the older generations used to say, with the "body of divinity." It is less inclined toward the psychology of religion or the sociology of religion than toward the theology of personhood and the theology of society. This way of thinking seeks behind the propaganda of rationalized religiosity or transcendentalized politics for valid efforts to understand the law of God, the purposes of God and the love of God. A public theology is thus focused on what is truly holy as a life-and-death-orienting question that links mind and heart, personal life style and community-building.

A public theology is not only God-centered; it is "logos"-centered, For Christians, this has specific meaning within the church; but it has a meaning beyond the faith community as well. Among other things, it entails an appreciation of logic, knowledge and science. A public "theos-logos" can make its way in the world, for it makes fundamental sense. The "confessionalist" bias of much modern theology ill equips us for this ecumenically open, apologetic task. Yet the only God worth worshiping does not require that we lie, sacrifice critical thinking, or believe nonsense to find salvation for selves or civilizations. We are to have a due respect for reason and for evidence. We are to engage the arguments of the worldly-wise. At this point we have to make a very fundamental choice which can be stated historically. The early church utilized, embraced and transformed Greek and Roman philosophy, the best science (natural and social) of the day. Was that the "fall" of a truly biblical faith, or the providential consolidation of a perspective that preserved Christianity from being merely another cult? A public theology holds to the latter view.

This observation leads to a further point: a public theology is historically alert. This is an extremely difficult principle for Protestants to understand. We have so often thought that we could draw on the Bible and our immediate experiences as our only sources of authority that we have neglected tradition. Most Protestants have a parochial sense of the communion of saints; yet we are unwittingly shaped by what we neglect. In fact we have some 2,000 years of experience by faithful peoples who attempted to apply theological principles to a vast variety of pastoral, social, historical, economic, political and intellectual environments. Awareness of this history firms our, contemporary resolve, makes us aware of the cumulative impact of modest gains, prevents us from making the same blunders as the tradition sometimes made and provides us with undreamed-of resources for addressing problems in the present and the future.

Finally, a public theology will set forth the first principles of social ethics. A public theology will, of course, be engaged in responding to this or that particular issue which preoccupies the body politic. But it will not do so as if it were another interest group, opposition caucus or government in exile. Instead it will focus on cultivating those basic orientations, those touchstones of normative principle, which can edify the people. In my judgment, the "Social Principles" of the United Methodists, the "Statement on Economic Justice" of the Lutheran Church in America, the "Statement on Human Rights" of the United Church of Christ, and the World Council of Churches’ themes of "Justice, Sustainability and Participation" are models of such efforts.

In this regard, a public theology is not "orthopraxis "-oriented; it tells no one how he or she must act on this or that issue. Rather, it informs all as to the basic principles that ought to be taken into account in coming to specific judgments, in interpreting the particularities of human situations and in guiding concerted action. By working at this basic level we equip people to carry out their own ministries in the world and free them to use their consciences in an informed way. A public theology, therefore, must be accessible to the people and filtered through their convictions. It trusts the people of God and the power of the word spoken in truth and love.

Those called to speak of the church and political life in these ways will have to be prepared to swim against the stream. Many within the churches will want to forget all ‘this abstract stuff and get on with the immediate tasks of doing pastoral care or confronting the system. What I propose, however, will provide such folk with both the institutional space and the theoretical grounding to do so discerningly.

I am haunted by the Old Testament statement that "without a vision, the people perish," and by the early Christian contention that "the church is the soul of civilization." I think we are in for a longer and more arduous struggle than we have yet recognized, for our vision is tarnished and the message of the ecumenical church unsure. Without these mainstays, people make decisions according to their own interests -- and the interests of the powerful generally prevail. In view of these facts, the short-term gains and losses scarcely count. It is for these reasons that I believe the ecumenically oriented churches must face the nature of the crisis at its deeper levels and must gird up their minds and souls for the slow, long-term hard work of reconstructing a public theology while vigorously preserving the institutional separation of church and state. Both our mission under Christ and the wellbeing of the body politic require nothing less.