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Lecture explores religion and politics

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On Monday, April 10, Professor of Political Science Doug Casson gave a lecture on the role of religion in politics, specifically regarding the relationship between Christianity and political engagement. The event was sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an organization that aims “to establish and advance at colleges and universities …students and faculty who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord,” according to its web site. Before Casson began, a representative for InterVarsity briefly described the event’s goal of encouraging thoughtful faith and outlined its role in the ongoing Faith Forum series taking place at St. Olaf.

From the onset, Casson acknowledged the troubled, convoluted relationship between religion and politics, and he made clear that he would not entirely resolve the issue. Instead, he sought to shed some light on the topic by outlining the terms of the discussion, debunking simplistic arguments and reviewing the work of renowned theologian H. Richard Niebuhr.

In outlining the terms of the discussion, Casson questioned if we can even talk about an effusive concept like religion without stereotyping and oversimplifying. According to Casson, the word ‘religion’ itself has dubious origins, originating from the Latin word ‘religio’, and employed by 19th century academics to denigrate foreign religions. Based on its checkered past, Casson argued that if we are going to employ the word ‘religion’, we should be careful with its usage. Casson thought Paul Tillich’s definition of religion was worthwhile, that “religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of life.”

According to Casson, another troubled word is ‘politics.’ Definitions of this term have varied wildly, from the ancient Greek definition of “institutions that make possible human happiness,” to the modern Political Science definition, colloquially stated as “who gets what, when and how.” Casson argued that politics involves institutions reliant on social and cultural norms of legitimacy, and the monopolization of force and coercion.

After defining these terms, Casson bemoaned that the current conversation regarding Christianity’s relationship with politics is severely lacking. He argued that political ideologues have reduced the “relationship of religion and politics to partisan hackery.” As such, an injection of nuance and rigor is a welcome development, borne out in Casson’s analysis of Richard Niebuhr’s seminal 1951 work, “Christ and Culture.”

Niebuhr describes five different types of relationships between Christianity and politics. These five categories are situated on a spectrum, with complete opposition to politics on one end, and thorough political engagement on the other. The first extreme is ‘Christ against culture,’ embodied by the Amish and Mennonites and opposed to all forms of political engagement. On the other end of the spectrum, ‘Christ of culture’ believers argue that there is “perfect unity between aspirations of culture/political institutions and Christianity.” While this strand of belief is currently uncommon, it was previously espoused with vigor by Liberal Protestants in Germany during the 19th century. In between these two extremes are several more moderate positions.

The ‘Christ and culture in paradox’ believers fully acknowledge the sinful nature of the world but argue that pragmatic considerations compel Christians to engage in politics and world affairs nonetheless. While Lutherans typically endorse this view, Presbyterians tend towards the ‘Christ as transformer of culture’ position. This view argues that Christians should engage in politics to transform culture, rather than out of mere necessity. Finally, ‘Christ above culture’ proponents assert that all the good of the world is from God and that we must engage in politics to promote and defend this good. Roman Catholics are the most prominent adherents of this view.

After an overview of Niebuhr’s ideas, Casson introduced some examples of Christian responses to current events based on Niebuhr’s framework. He began by discussing possible responses to President Donald Trump’s use of force in Syria, and how these five viewpoints might justify or condemn Trump’s actions. Casson covered a broad swath of hypothetical responses and invited attendants to contribute. Indeed, several audience members offered hypothetical justifications, asked questions and requested clarification.

The event concluded with questions and answers, ranging from how Niebuhr’s theory relates to moral philosophy, to how his theory relates to Scripture. At the request of the moderator, Casson offered his own views on the subject, admitting that he sympathized with the views of ‘Christ against culture,’ but aligned more with the views of ‘Christ and culture in paradox.’

The next Faith Forum, a lecture by Professor of Philosophy Charles Taliaferro, will be held April 24 at 6 p.m. in the Valhalla Room.

carlen1@stolaf.edu