Culture At Large

Church and State on Jan. 20: An Advent Reflection

Nathan Bierma

I get a kick out of complaints about President-elect Barack Obama inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inaugural. Critics say Mr. Purpose-Driven is too Conservative-Driven on gay marriage and abortion--in other words: He's not inclusive enough, let's exclude him! It's a variation of the old joke: "If there's one thing I won't tolerate, it's intolerance!"

But there's something more serious that bothers me about Warren giving an invocation at the inaugural--or, for that matter, Rev. Joseph Lowery giving the benediction, or any pastor doing anything liturgical at any civic event. To me it's a worrisome flirtation--if only that--between church and state. I wince whenever the church gets too cozy with political power, and whenever American political power seems to be implicitly recognizing a national religion (which the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids, since that would violate religious freedom.)

I know the whole thing will just be a ceremonial exercise, with most distinctively Christian content necessarily extracted in favor of vague pluralistic platitudes, and so it all won't really mean anything. That only makes it worse. Watered-down ceremonial religion not only takes the teeth out of the disruptive Christian message but also allows the government to exploit religion for its own pageantry (and, in the case of the U.S., to continue the ruse that the country was founded as a Christian nation, when the real religion the Founding Fathers followed was Enlightenment deism).

Judge Snyder on The Simpsons once memorably tried to issue a restraining order between science and religion. I'm not asking for that kind of an order for politics and religion. I know that would be impossible. And it wouldn't be advisable; the church is not supposed to piously retreat from the real world, especially not from the world of political power. Instead, we should be getting in the government's face, priding ourselves in being a thorn in its side as we clamor for justice. There just doesn't seem to be anything thorny about ceremonial religion. (Nor is an inauguration the ideal time for a courageous prophetic rant.) N.T. Wright jokes that the best way to keep the church irrelevant in Britain is to keep it officially aligned with the throne. I think he's half-serious, and I think he's probably right.

All this comes out of an eschatological dissonance I've been living with this Advent. I profess that the only hope--political or otherwise--for our broken world is the reign of Christ. "The government will be upon his shoulders." I'm also a passionate Obama supporter, and a believer that he represents real political change. Yet I think the only hope I'm allowed to put in his presidency is non-eschatological--that is, one that ultimately despairs of the reign of any worldly ruler and ultimately rejects all worldly emperors and bows only to one King. (I could try to let Obama's own Christianity, or the doctrine of common grace, fudge that distinction, but I'm not eager to.)

So even though I will be proudly wearing my Obama button on Inauguration Day, I'll try to remember that there is only one kind of true Change We Can Believe In, and that it comes only through Christ.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, North America