Peter Leithart on Political Theology

Here is an interview Peter Leithart did with the Society for the Advancement of Eccelsial Theology.  I have not heard of this particular group before. However, the interview is very helpful. Dr. Leithart makes the simple point that the entire Christian life is political because we serve a King and live in a Kingdom that is not of this world. I especially enjoyed the phrase “Christians never have limited political capital.”  I have reprinted the interview in full below.  It can be difficult in places, but I think you can get the main point. 

1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?
PL:  I have addressed church-state questions in many of my books, though obliquely rather than directly.  I have explored those themes in various books – The Kingdom and the Power, Against Christianity, and more recently my historical study, Defending Constantine, where I address church-state relations more directly.

But I am convinced that political concerns are inherent in theology.  Political theology is not some specialized branch of theology, but a dimension of all theology.  Politics is not simply about passing this legislation or electing that candidate.  Politics addresses questions about the distribution of power, and more broadly questions about the shape and future of a group.  Theology cannot help but address those questions, and do it all the time.  The Bible certainly deals with political questions like this.

So, even when I am not doing political theology, I am doing political theology.  Let me given a couple of examples of what I mean.  Ecclesiology has been a major focus of my work, and, as I see it, that bumps directly up against political questions.  The intimate connection between ecclesiology and politics has been obscured in modernity because the church has been marginalized and has allowed itself to be transformed into a sociologically invisible and politically innocuous religious group.  Scripture, by contrast, treats the church as a political entity in itself, each individual congregation as an outpost of the heavenly empire of a heavenly Emperor.   That means that the church and its claims about Jesus, sin, and salvation are political claims, necessarily.  I’ve also written a lot on sacramental theology, and I have had the same concerns in view.  Sacraments ritualize and represent the kind of community that the church is and aspires to be, and that again means that the sacraments inevitably have a political dimension.  I think in fact that the eclipse of sacramental consciousness and sacramental theology is one of the great political tragedies of the past several centuries of church history.  The Eucharist has been privatized and individualized, and that means it lacks the political edge – as the table of the kurios, the Lord – that it has in the New Testament.  How many wars among Christian nations would have been avoided if our sense of community had been shaped by being table fellows with one another?

2.  Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers.  Do you agree or disagree?
PL:  Yes, I think that is fairly obvious.  An individual believer might be a judge who sentences someone to prison or to death; the church as an institution can never do that. As always, though, the devil is in the details.  I don’t take that distinction to imply that the church as an institution has only an “indirect” political role, that it can never intervene in political affairs as the church.  Over the centuries, the church as an institution, or representatives of the church, have addressed political issues directly, without overstepping the bounds of churchly authority.  Ambrose rebukes Theodosius and denies him communion because of a rash and bloody military episode. During the middle ages, the church disciplined nobles who defied the truce and peace of God. I think it’s entirely proper for the church to speak as church to political injustices.

3.  Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

PL:  Negative first.  When I address political or social questions, I am nearly always responding to the various forms of secularism to which the church has succumbed in the modern era.  That can take all kinds of forms – in Presbyterianism, it’s the “spirituality of the church”; in Lutheran and some Reformed circles it takes the form of law/gospel schemes; in Catholic theology, and it seems increasingly in Protestantism, it takes the form of natural law theory.  Each of these ends up treating the political sphere as to some degree an autonomous sphere, a religion-free zone that the church is not allowed to address.  Or, if the church or Christians address issues in this secular political sphere, we have to translate into generic terms and categories.  Biblical political claims like “Jesus is Lord” and biblical political demands like “Kiss the Son” (addressed to rebellious rulers in Psalm 2) are ruled out.

Positively, I am an advocate of Christendom.  That doesn’t mean that I believe that Western Christian civilization was perfect.  It wasn’t even close to perfect.  A lot of evil was done in the name of Jesus.  But I advocate Christendom as a principle, goal, and program.  Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings.  That’s what the church is supposed to tell rulers, as it calls them to submit to the Lord Jesus, both in their personal lives and in their political conduct.  Whether or not we believe that they’ll listen, we have to call them to “kiss the Son,” or we are being unfaithful to the gospel.  The good news is the good news of God’s reign – of God’s reign, the good news that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, and that He, not Caesar or Stalin or Jupiter, rules the earth.  If we are calling rulers to trust and obey Jesus, then we are in principle advocating Christendom – the rule of Christ over the nations.

4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?
PL:  The first thing I’d want to emphasize is that Christians are engaged in political action just by being part of the church.  Worship is the leading political activity of Christians.  In worship, we sing Psalms that call on God to judge the wicked and defend the oppressed, and God hears our Psalms; we pray for rulers to rule in righteousness; we hear the word of God that lays out our alternative way of life, and we sit at the table where we who are many are formed into one body, an alternative Christian polis, by sharing in the one loaf.  The problem is that in many churches those things don’t happen.  Churches don’t sing Psalms, and especially don’t sing the hard Psalms that call on God to judge the wicked.  More churches are having weekly Eucharist, but in evangelicalism that is still more the exception than the rule.  The first political agenda for American Christians is to get worship more into line with Scriptural requirements.
In saying this, I’m questioning the premise of the question: Christians never have limited political capital.  We worship the King; we can appeal to Him; He hears us and acts on our behalf.  We have more political capital than anybody, but we often don’t act as if we believed that.

The second thing I’d emphasize is that America has a limited place in God’s plan.  Everyone agrees with that in principle, I suppose, but the notion that America is a “redeemer nation” dies hard.  The US is a great place to live, and has achieved a great deal of good.  But we need to have a more modest idea of America.  We need to make sure that we are not in any way confusing Americanism or patriotism with the gospel.

The third thing I’d emphasize is that, beyond voting and staying informed about political issues, politics is a calling.  Not every Christian is called into political activism, and certainly not every Christian is called to hold political office.  Some are, and they need prayer and support and encouragement from other believers, because our political system is corrupt and corrupting.

The modern world has made an idol of politics and power, and Christians who throw themselves into activism are sometimes unwittingly buying into that idolatry.  We cannot act as if political action can “save America,” which the rhetoric of the religious right has often suggested.  We need to find ways to cut the roots of statist idolatry, rather than nibbling at its fruit.

5.  How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?
[[ed. note:  see above.]]

6.  How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?  Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?
PL:  All Scripture is breathed of God, and is useful for training the man of God for every good work.  Thus far Paul (paraphrased).  If political action is a good work, and it is, then all Scripture is relevant.  Deuteronomy and Proverbs are two of the most relevant, I think.  We can make the point Christologically too: All Scripture is about Christ; we are in Christ; therefore, all Scripture is about our responsibilities as the body of Christ.

Proverbs largely consists of Solomon’s instruction to his son, the prince.  It is political theology through and through, a biblical “mirror of magistrates.”  Deuteronomy, like the other books of the Pentateuch, also has a lot to tell us about political ethics.  I recently wrote an essay on the strategy of bombing civilian targets, which has been used by the US since World War II.  Deuteronomy 20, I think, addresses that strategy quite directly when it prohibits Israel from waging war against fruit trees.  Scripture does not permit total war.  Even hot topics like the Pentateuch’s treatment of slavery provide political wisdom for us.  In ancient Israel, enslavement of fellow Israelites served a dual purpose in crimes against property: restitution and rehabilitation.  An Israelite who could not, for instance, pay back what he stole would become a slave of his victim for six years.  During that time, he would be working off the value of what he stole, but if his master was conscientious, he would also be learning skills that would perhaps help him live a productive life in the future.  If someone is caught embezzling, why not make him work without pay for the victim, or with low pay, for a designated period, so that he can both pay back what he owes and also get back on his feet?  That would be far preferable to imprisonment.

Obviously, in interpreting any part of Scripture, we need to take the historical and, more importantly, the redemptive-historical context into account.  Deuteronomy instructs Israel to have no pity on Canaanites as they take the land; it gives instruction on herem warfare.  That is not a prescription for modern states to engage in genocide.  So, Deuteronomy has to be taken in the light of the whole Bible, and especially in the light of what Jesus did.  But, we need to do the work, think through the implications, figure out how to apply all of Scripture to our political situation.

7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?
PL:  I do think that the mix of these three postures varies depending on the political circumstances, and depending on the person involved.   And Scripture indicates that men and women can work faithfully even under the worst of rulers – think of Obadiah during the days of Ahab.  In thinking through this, my thoughts again gravitate to ecclesiological issues.  Daniel was able to serve, but also maintain a critical distance, because he was a member of another community, of Israel.  It seems that Christians today have difficulty maintaining that complex stance, or doing that complicated dance, because we don’t have an alternative home.  When Christians enter political life deeply conscious of the fact that they are members of the church, Christians first and foremost, that gives them a place to stand when they critique and when they serve.

8.  If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics.  This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work.  But am I doing the right thing?  Should I be bolder?”  How would you respond?  Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?
PL:  As I’ve said, I don’t think political questions are avoidable.  Since the Bible addresses political concerns so frequently, we can’t avoid politics without avoiding the Bible.  Since the church is a polis, we cannot avoid being political without avoiding Christian faith itself.

I imagine that the question is more particular, though: Should a pastor preach against Obamacare?  Should he address the budget deficit in a sermon?  Here, as the scholastics said, distinguo: Some issues are so blatantly unjust and unbiblical that a pastor shouldn’t sidestep them.  I’m thinking of abortion for instance; this is a massive, global, organized, well-funded movement to slaughter the most defenseless members of the human race.  It’s hard to imagine something more hideous, and a pastor who turns a blind eye is not being faithful.  Sodomy is another example.  Sodomy is sinful, but in itself, it is no more a cutting-edge issue than adultery.  But of course in our time sodomy has been pushed to the forefront by homosexual activist groups.  Both abortion and the widespread acceptance and promotion of sodomy are symptoms of deep moral and spiritual decay in our culture, and I find no reasons for avoiding them.  I can imagine situations when a pastor should take a stand against a particular ruler – as Bonhoeffer did – or oppose particular governmental actions – the prosecution of an unjust war, for example.  And I can also imagine times when it would be appropriate for an entire denomination to declare its opposition to some policy or program.  But those have to be chosen with care.  Preaching is not punditry.

On a host of other issues, pastors can and should preach more generally.  Instead of addressing specific budget proposals, a pastor can point to biblical patterns of prudence, modest of desires and wants, avoidance of debt, etc.  Instead of addressing the specifics of Obamacare (which few understand, even those who voted for it!), a pastor should address more general questions about the proper role of government, the place of individual or family responsibility, the role of the church in providing care for its members, etc.

9.  What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology?  The best book?
PL:  The best essay is an old essay by John Milbank, “An Essay Against Secular Order.”  One of William Cavanaugh’s essays on the post-Reformation “religious” wars would also be on my short list.

On political theology directly, I’ve not read a better book ever than Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of Nations.  [Ed. note:  See our interview with O’Donovan.] He attempts to reconstruct political categories from Scripture, from the ground up.  He rethinks the basic concepts of political theory from Scripture, in very illuminating ways.  I also believe that the reconstructionsts, especially R.J. Rushdoony, have some profoundly important things to say about politics, especially in Politics of Guilt and Pity and Foundations of Social Order.  But I’d also encourage a young pastor to recognize that all of theology is infused with political concerns, and to think about the political import of theology as a whole, and the political import of pastoral labors – marriage counseling, preaching, vocational guidance, pastoral oversight.  Those are all significant political activities, provided we recognize that politics is much bigger than we typically think