Trump and the Specter of Christian Withdrawal

Jonathan Tran on James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology.

James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. Baker Publishing Group, 2017, 256pp., $23

The Trump presidency provides a kind of Rorschach test for American Christians, raising the question: what good can one realistically expect from politics? There are those who read the Trump presidency’s various calamities (there seem to be many) as indicative of politics in general–the recent administration’s level of calamity relative to other administrations a difference of degree, not kind. Trump may rank dead last among American presidents, but it’s not like the bar has been consistently high. Politics even at its best, according to this line of thought, is akin to arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Rather than expecting politics to achieve goods like justice, these Christians see the broken nature of politics as demonstrating this world, despite our best efforts, incapable of genuine justice. For them the failures remind us to seek life elsewhere. Worried that Christians who too readily participate in earthly politics have taken their eyes off the prize, these Christians espouse withdrawal, worried that practices like voting or lobbying only further encourage moribund activity.

Trump’s orange inkblot presidency evokes for a second group something quite different, the surprising discovery of a value for American democracy. These Christians did not anticipate just how much they love America, or at least the idea of it, until Trump’s brand of politics threatened to take it all away, and they now regret how much they had taken for granted. Rather than Trump’s presidency inducing hopelessness, they have found themselves in its wake more committed than ever. For them the Trump presidency unwittingly serves as a reminder that politics matter, and that democracy, with its grand ambitions and wondrous achievements, is something worth preserving. Prior to Trump, this group of Christians had wearied of America’s political stagnation and decadence. President Trump has helped them see things anew, enabled them to appreciate the very thing he himself cannot, or will not. What for them previously looked like decadence turned out to be important traditions carefully hewn over generations, and what was mistakenly viewed as stagnant was actually the slow cultivation of democracy. The first group is possessed of cynics, the second repossessed by recovering skeptics. The first group of Christians looks for God beyond politics; the second group has discovered God in politics.

Moving somewhere between the withdrawers and the newly committed is James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. With this delightful book Smith enters the fray of these hotly contested issues. Smith’s particular approach is unique not only because it comes at a time when American Christians are particularly sensitive about their politics, and for good reason, but also because it admirably embodies those sensitivities. Trump’s presidency and the questions it raises about the kinds of expectations Christians can and should have for politics, especially given something as stark our current political moment, prove especially illuminating for understanding the stakes Awaiting the King raises. Trump gives Christians in America reasons to give up on American politics, or affirm their having given up in the first place, and hence withdraw to what they see as greener pastures. In others Trump has elicited a new vigilance. These are two very different kinds of responses, yet Smith attempts to chart a course between these positions, and if at times he wavers, Smith can be forgiven his vacillations given the ambiguity of our times. Trump’s presidency might not have been the immediate context of Smith’s writing Awaiting the King, but it certainly is the context in which we receive it.

Making Sense of Awaiting the King

Awaiting the King brings to completion Smith’s already successful multivolume series “Cultural Liturgies,” of which Desiring the Kingdom appeared in 2009 and Imagining the Kingdom in 2013. The earlier titles beautifully synthesize a number of theologies into an account of Christian faithfulness that places moral formation at the fore of religious concern. In this third installment, Smith turns to politics. Evident throughout, Smith has drunk deeply at the wells of two seemingly opposing streams of thought on the question of Christianity and politics: the Anabaptist “sectarian fideism” of Stanley Hauerwas, “America’s best theologian,” according to TIME magazine, and the deliberate theocracy of the venerable Oxford don Oliver O’Donovan–two hugely influential theologians whose projects are often read against each another. From Hauerwas and his ilk, Smith has learned to be careful about identifying and avoiding the deforming habits of liberal democracy and its twin, modern capitalism. From O’Donovan, Smith learned that one cannot be so cautious that one misses God’s authorship of what is best in those late modern formations. One gathers that Smith believes himself unable or unwilling to choose between these two streams of thought, that for him they can together be blended into a broader theological vision.

Earlier in the series Smith had seemed to commit himself to a Hauerwasian trajectory. From Hauerwas, Christians in America have learned to talk about the church as a process of social formation whereby Christians become particular kinds of moral agents, inclined toward certain ethical options rather than others. Hauerwas speaks of the church’s ethics not in terms of a set of alternative political positions (say, pro-life versus pro-choice on abortion) but the church as itself an alternative politics, or what he calls “the church-as-polis.” Smith’s emphasis on cultural liturgies, liturgy being first a church form, can be read as echoing Hauerwas’ deep influence on American theology. So much so that by the time Smith gets to the present volume on political theory, the presence of O’Donovan comes as a surprise, and not only because O’Donovan’s theology is too exotically British (O’Donovan after all hails from a tradition called “the Church of England”) to figure otherwise. And yet it is from O’Donovan rather than Hauerwas that Awaiting the King gets its big ideas.

Specifically, Smith follows O’Donovan in refusing to oppose Christianity to secular political orders. Smith, like O’Donovan before him, seeks to trace democratic liberalism—as the reigning spirit of our politics, including founding democratic concepts like justice—both to its theological and ecclesial roots and its enduring conveyance of God’s grace. He writes, with characteristic lucidity, “The upshot of this analysis and genealogy is to encourage a posture of critical, selective affirmation regarding Christian participation in the liberal state, even if we must also be wary of how the institutions of late modern liberalism can sometimes deform us. Christians stepping into a liberal public square should have a vague sense of familiarity, like someone walking into a long-lost cousin’s home and seeing family photos that are familiar, family routines that were your own, and smelling meals emanating from the kitchen that remind you of home. While the politics of the liberal state is still earthly city politics, it is nonetheless a configuration of the earthly city that bears the mark of an encounter with the gospel in deep and significant ways. It is not wholly other to the politics of the ekklēsia; to the contrary, it might be more like the church-as-polis than we realize.” Rather than political withdrawal, Smith espouses engagement, advocating that one make use of the discontent that might otherwise lead to quietude in order to chasten the manner in which one engages. Smith completes the thought: “with careful discernment, we can cautiously affirm and selectively participate in some of its institutions and rhythms, even if we also labor and hope for its continued ‘conversion’—which, given the dynamics of late modern liberalism, would be akin to the prodigal returning home.”

One way to account for Smith’s hard turn to O’Donovan is to consider the specter of withdrawal evoked by the Trump presidency and to read that specter into Hauerwas’ thought. While the idea of political withdrawal is as old as Christianity, its contemporary face takes the form of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, a book propelled to fame when celebrated New York Times columnist David Brooks described it as “already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” Smith and Dreher share an interesting public history, dating back to a rather unfortunate blogosphere interaction. Smith got things going by discounting The Benedict Option as part of what he called “The New Alarmism” (the heading stating, as if to put not too fine a point on it, “how some Christians are stoking fear rather than hope”). Responding, Dreher indecorously aired some of Smith’s dirty laundry. No doubt many found the dustup unnecessary, if not also a little entertaining, but perhaps something important was going on. What if Awaiting the King represents a new trend among American Christians? Is Awaiting the King a Trump-induced allergic reaction to the withdrawal narrative found in The Benedict Option? Is Dreher overplaying his hand and unwittingly making believers out of Christians hitherto skeptical of American politics?

A theoretical map locating Smith in relation to Dreher and both in relation to Hauerwas, on the one hand, and O’Donovan, on the other, will flesh out the suggestion. Whereas Dreher espouses that which Smith labels “alarmist,” Hauerwas champions separateness but not withdrawal. Hauerwas is famous for the adage, “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.” By that Hauerwas is trying to make the point that Christianity’s moral vision, its political theology if you will, cannot be, as some mistakenly believe it is, primarily determined by the ethical needs of the world, like its many injustices. Rather its fidelity is directed to the impetus of its own life, faithfulness to the God described in the Bible as the one who raised Israel and Jesus from the dead. Such fidelity can be found in and enabled by the communal life of the Christian church, a sacramental body of believers politically gathered around the resurrected body of Christ. In turn, God’s Spirit, Hauerwas believes, quickens new possibilities among those gathered as church (i.e., those gathered around Christ’s risen body), possibilities that include ethical ones like addressing worldly injustice. Those possibilities begin with and go out from church, and precisely because they begin with the church, the natural order of its ethical mandate is, first, to be the church and, second, to serve the world. When the church is the church, when it is properly animated by the risen body around which it gathers, then it will simply look different from the world, allowing the world “to know” there are other options on offer. Hauerwas understands that difference to be ethically significant.

So, for example, when fourth-century Christians fled to rather than from hot zones of disease in order to offer “hospitality” to the poor and sick, they showed themselves to be ethically separable from a wider world that would unjustly abandon the poor to their fates. By these kinds of ethical actions did Christians separate themselves from the crowd. The occurrence of such hospitality, which eventuated in what we today call “hospitals,” did not generate spontaneously but rather ensued as those who understood themselves to be following Christ the Great Physician tried to mimic his ways. Regular worship of the resurrected Christ allowed these Christians to believe that their ethical actions, no matter how counterintuitive or dangerous, participated in the life of God and hence took on ultimate meaning.

Even though Hauerwas’s vision emphasizes the life of the church, it does not espouse the church’s withdrawal, for it could not without relinquishing the critical proximity the church needs in order to serve and influence the world. Hauerwas’ work is best described as a theology of witness, where the political stakes have to do with the church as a distinct but not sequestered type of politics. Withdrawal gives all of that up. Because the drift of Dreher’s Benedict Option is less witness, less about serving and influencing the world, and more about protecting Christianity’s own moral integrity, it then makes withdrawal, insofar as it is a principled and strategic retreat, a live option for Christianity. Indeed, it has to since it sees the status of Christianity within the world as unidirectional and threatened, the world’s viciousness threatening Christianity’s moral righteousness, withdrawal the sole option if virtue is to survive. Hence, the Benedict option. To be sure, Dreher’s book has its own contributions to make, too often obscured when Dreher’s interesting ambivalences are shrouded in shrill certainties, just not especially helpful ones when situated among the thickets of these questions. Because Hauerwas starts with the more basically orthodox position that the church already shares in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, which makes its dangerous hospitality quite intuitive, protecting Christianity never crosses his mind.

Dreher’s book virtually makes no mention of Hauerwas (much less O’Donovan), leading one to surmise that Dreher either did not read his work or simply chose not to pay it any heed. Whatever happened, Dreher gives no indication of having learned from Hauerwas, including the ways Hauerwas’ project benefited from years of criticism over accusations of sectarianism. The point remains: whereas for Dreher the Trumps of the world are an indication of its viciousness, for Hauerwas they are an occasion for Christian witness, as is evidenced by Hauerwas’ engagements with politics, including one with the present author.

The difference between Hauerwas and Dreher is instructive for understanding Smith’s Awaiting the King. Unlike Dreher, Hauerwas allows Smith not to give up on the world, and unlike Hauerwas, O’Donovan allows him a more direct path into its political workings. And while there is an undeniable charm to Dreher’s many provocations, they do not lend themselves to the kind of subtlety that grants these important distinctions, making it seem that we are left with but two options, withdrawal or falling in love again.

And Back Again

Smith concludes the book by worrying out loud about the recent Christian tendency of affirming creaturely existence at the cost of undervaluing creation’s eternal destiny, favoring this life to the life to come. Smith thinks that without proper perspective, the goods of worldly politics will take on lives of their own, like Frankenstein’s monster. In the language of St. Augustine, whose political theology Smith takes as his ultimate point of departure, without the eternal city, the earthly city, including its pursuits of goods like justice, becomes everything. Part of the rhetorical benefit of “the city of God” is its ability to put earthly politics in its proper place. Without that perspective Christians will consistently confuse relative goods, like justice, with the absolute good that is God, the beginning and end of justice.

The issue returns full circle the question of what good Christians are permitted and encouraged to pursue within the realm of public life, the question raised here initially by the Rorschach test of Trump’s presidency. Take, for example, the matter of justice regarding healthcare allocation and access, one of the most pressing and persistent issues confronting the modern world, effecting hundreds of millions of individuals daily. Recall President Trump’s willful ignorance in claiming the matter easily solvable, his claim that he would do so in a matter of days. A more serious approach would begin by asking what can be expected, what realistically can be achieved. Does Christian participation in political processes entail pushing for the appointment of government officials able to end the decades-long impasse on healthcare? What about the so-called “medical industrial complex,” the extraordinarily powerful political lobby that continues to resist such efforts no matter how imminently reasonable? Globally does it mean getting the World Trade Organization (WTO) to pay closer attention to local healthcare concerns when regulating trade between economically stressed nations? What do we do with the mounting evidence that the WTO was set up precisely to block such considerations?

When examining these protracted realities, one begins to come to understand the existence of every manner of pessimism that despairs over the effects of late capitalism and its institutionalized and figurative powers. What can be hoped for, and what does Christian participation entail and constrain? As much as Smith wants to lean in the direction of O’Donovan, at the end of the day he still wonders whether doing so comes too close to making the end of Christianity something like a more just world. The question is not whether Christians want too much for the world; they should want justice endlessly as an earthly expression of God’s justice. In seeking after justice they cannot, however, afford to tie their ends too closely to its earthly realization. Doing so is equivalent to tying one’s fate to the election of good presidents.

Jonathan Tran is Associate Professor of Religion (Theology and Ethics) at Baylor University, where he also serves as Faculty Steward of the Honors Residential College. His research focuses primarily on political theology, linguistic philosophy and contemporary ethics. This summer he is writing the forthcoming book Yellow Christianity: An Intervention on White and Black.

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