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Saturday, September 25, 2004

Christian abstainers.

Here's an interesting election-year option for Christians: Abstain. Orthodox priest John Harvey writes in his September 10 Commonweal column that he won't be voting for George W. Bush — or John Kerry! Evangelical historian Mark Noll writes in the September 14 Christian Century that he too won't be voting for either candidate.

Harvey's essay isn't on-line — which is a pity, because it takes up the complex issue of what Christians who oppose abortion comprehensively should do when they also oppose President Bush's manifestly unjust economic policies and immoral conduct of the war in Iraq. He says he won't mourn a Bush defeat, but won't celebrate a Kerry victory, either.

Noll's essay is even more interesting because he identifies a series of key political commitments that he believes arise from his gospel commitments. (He doesn't believe they depend on Christian theology for their rational appeal, however, which makes them available to scrutiny by non-Christian voters.) His political commmitments cut against the grain of both parties, although — church-going Democrat that I am — I can't help but think that the New Democrats come out ahead overall. Noll's essay should be on-line next week — update 9.27.04: on-line now! — when it will be very interesting to compare to some of the other Christian political statements released this year. (I'm thinking especially of the lists released by the National Council of Churches and Sojourners, but there's a very long list of religious voters' guides at Harvard's Pluralism Project Web site.)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 25 September 2004 at 9:50 PM

Previous: When even Unitarian Universalism is too religious.
Next: Sound of silence.

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2 comments:

Jeff Wilson:

September 27, 2004 05:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

Mark Noll was the special guest at my American Protestant Thought class at Duke on Wednesday. We've just finished working through his hefty "America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Lincoln," which argues that American Protestantism became unique through 1) its acceptance of common sense reasoning, 2) its union with republican political commitments, and 3) its Biblical literalism. He finishes by showing how these forces helped lead to the Civil War, where two separate American Protestantisms lost the ability to convince each other theologically and had to settle their disputes with blood, which had dire consequences for the future development of American religious thought. Thought-provoking stuff.

Mark passed around his article in Christianity Today and we talked about it for awhile. He's a very thoughtful guy, a good scholar, but I don't think I agree with a lot of his positions. He advocates bringing an evangelical perspective to to the study of American religious history, which to me is tantamount to saying he wants to quit doing solid historical work and start looking for the imaginary influences of Providence. His theology, and thus political views, are deeply tainted by nostalgia, a feeling that makes him believe that Jonathan Edwards was the greatest theologian and everything since has been a steady slide into declension. In other words, Mark is a modern-day Jeremiah (as was Edwards), but like many doom-saying prophets, he makes the mistake of believing that the past could be otherwise than it was and that we can somehow return to a time and state that we only dimly understand through the hopes and dreams and misunderstandings of the present. The mass of his important scholarly work means that his opinions carry a sort of weight, but I think that he's already further behind the times than he realizes. In my opinion, those who seek America's essential identity in the 19th century Anglo-Protestant culture will be left behind to muddle about impotently in their nostalgia--left behind by the ever-rising tide of religious and cultural pluralism that defines the contemporary and future American perspective. His Alhstrom-esque Puritan-derived view of American history is fatally narrow, even if his understanding of the particular stream he focuses on is deep.

Mark seems to be treading dangerously close to the Stanley Hauerwas school of thought (much discussed at Duke, naturally), which I perceive to be among the least realistic understandings of Christianity to ever gain a wide audience. Church history has largely been the history of the deployment of power for the last 1700 or so years, which makes any attempt to imagine a "church against culture" a total imaginative fiction in my mind. Hauerwas's Christianity has never existed as an option for large numbers of people and never will.

The truth is, you can't sit on the sidelines and imagine that you're being a responsible citizen in a (semi?) democratic state. If John Kerry and George Bush both fail to meet your standards (and which of them fully meets every single preference of anyone anywhere in the country?) then you need to choose the one who fits best, because it is a vote against the one who fits worst. If he feels disenfranchised as a latter-day evangelical with a taste for the Social Gospel, imagine how I feel, an unrepentant liberal who has never seen a candidate that closely reflected my views ever elected anywhere during my lifetime. Yet I know that things could be worse, much worse, so I vote to keep the hounds at bay for now.

Mark said he may write in the name of his department head for president, so he will be voting. He's given up on the big race and is focusing his attention on more local elections and issues that will also be on the November ballot. I guess I'd write in the name of his department head too if I thought he had a chance to beat Bush.

Philocrites:

September 28, 2004 02:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

Mark Noll's essay, "None of the Above," is now on-line.



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