I Feel Like Donald Trump Might
Why? Because after I (Trump?) endorsed David Sessions’ (i.e. Mitt Romney) work in my last post, Sessions has responded by calling me out as a wrongheaded so-and-so, etc, etc. (as Romney might consider doing re: the whole birtherism thing). That’s how you wanna play, Sessions? FINE.
League readers! Don’t ever read David Sessions’ stuff! Ever! Go flame his comment sections!
Kidding, of course. He’s a smart guy, and my original post was very much a first cut at something that had been bothering me for some time. His response is well worth a read. Here’s a sample:
So while Conor is right to sense two rough “styles” of political Christianity in the U.S., I don’t think it’s so easy to assign the negative attributes to one and the positive ones to the other. Calling the conservatives ideological, anti-intellectual bigots doesn’t refute them or persuade anyone who isn’t already convinced.
What I question is the plausibility of the politically-aloof theology they propose in its place. The only way to make theology apolitical is to erase its content and separate it from the church; a theology that could do little more than direct you toward a “subset of possible answers” in politics, but was mostly about “identify[ing] shared common ground,” would have to be alienated and spectral. Get even rudimentarily specific about the existence of its god or the truth of its propositions and you open the door to fundamental philosophical presuppositions that cannot help but affect politics.
First, a quick textual clarification. Sessions critically misses the distinction I’m drawing when he writes:
Both [Ideological and Dispositional Religion] derive “substantial political content” from their faith, but neither thinks the Bible offers “specific policy preferences.”
But in the very passage Sessions cites from my post, I explicitly distinguish the two on grounds of specificity [emphasis added]:
[Ideological Believers] troll their sacred texts, papal encyclicals, past sermons, and other religious documents in search of specific policy preferences …[Dispositional Believers] do not expect that religion provides specific and conclusive solutions to political problems, but they shape their attitude towards human social life in reference to their faith.
One more time: Ideological Believers find specific political projects grounded in their faith. Dispositional Believers do not. That’s the crux of my argument.
That brings us to the second point I’d like to clarify. Sessions argues that I’m pushing leftists towards “apolitical theology.” This is not my intention. Indeed, the only way to read my endorsement of dispositional religion as apolitical is to treat religious conviction as politically determined, rather than the opposite. If it seems apolitical to insist that (paraphrasing the last paragraph of my original post) Christians prioritize compassion over revenge, pride over love, and hatred over peace, that’s because we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of churches as something we choose after we’ve chosen a set of political convictions. If, however, we insist that our religious convictions are primary and that we faithful Dispositional Believers argue over the ways that they translate into politics, then Dispositional Religion is thoroughly political. To use Sessions’ own language, the thick outlines of a Christian disposition are more than “rudimentarily specific about the existence of [God]” and thus they obviously “open the door to fundamental philosophical presuppositions that cannot help but affect politics.”
But “affecting politics” is not the same thing as providing “specific and conclusive solutions to political problems.” The Dispositional approach isn’t amorphous—it’s simply humble. Reinhold Niebuhr’s was such a faith—he believed that Christianity called believers to political engagement, but argued that they should never mistake their convictions for God’s Truth (or His Will). Let me close with an illustrative (and devastatingly beautiful) passage from Niebuhr’s Irony of American History.
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.