President Clinton shocked many Christians last year when he started quoting from and recommending Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter's "Culture of Disbelief." Carter's much-discussed book protests how secular academics, journalists, activists, and arts people are biased against anyone who takes a public position based on religious convictions, seeing them as "dangerous fanatics" who threaten the wall of separation between church and state.
Whether or not the President's comments will make it easier for Christians to express religious convictions in the public square, some Christians have been bravely doing just that for some time. But when they try to reflect on this experience and construct a "public theology" (that is, a systematic understanding of how to relate faith to public issues), they run into a problem. The history of American evangelicalism is littered with many theories of private morality but very few plans for public action explicitly and systematically grounded in Christian principles.
As historian Mark Noll has pointed out, American evangelicals have tended to act first and think later. It is no wonder that most of those doing public theology are outside evangelical circles. Yet one forebear of the evangelical tradition thought long and hard about the world outside the church, and his thinking on this subject is a rich resource for those trying to relate their faith to today's public issues.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) is widely recognized as the greatest theologian this continent has ever produced. As a key figure in the religious life of colonial America, Edwards was a multifaceted thinker whose total catalog of ideas is still being discovered.
Many evangelicals think of Edwards as a stern Puritan preacher of fire and brimstone who portrayed humanity as dangling precariously by a spider's thread over the flames of hell. And while scholars have long recognized that Edwards possessed one of the most creative and powerful intellects on American soil, most have thought he was happy to let the world go to hell—in both senses of that phrase.
But recent research indicates that Jonathan Edwards carefully observed the social and political currents swirling about him and developed an elaborate theory of what it means to be a Christian citizen in civil community.
Of course, we cannot assume Edwards's ideas can be adopted without significant adaptation. After all, Edwards was in favor of supporting churches by taxation. And he was writing and preaching in a society where, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, "Christianity reigns without obstacles, by universal consent." But while Edwards cannot give us a political program for the nineties, his reflections can provide a set of theological perspectives that may help evangelicals relate their faith to today's public arena. The following is a six-point summary of Edwards's public theology.
1. Christians have a responsibility to society beyond the walls of the church. The election of a president who openly supports social policies repugnant to most evangelicals has prompted some Christians to suggest that the church abandon efforts to change society. "Preach the old-fashioned gospel," they cry, "and pray for revival. The church has no business doing anything else."
As a key figure in America's first Great Awakening, Edwards is well known for his leadership of spiritual revivals. But he also insisted that Christians should care about the material and social well-being of those outside the church. God has made us dependent on our non-Christian neighbors for help, he taught; to fail to acknowledge our interdependence "is more suitable for wolves and other beasts of prey, than for human beings." Edwards's convictions on this point stemmed from his belief that we are made in the image of God, who is always reaching out in relationship to others and cares for their bodies as well as their souls. Christians should do the same.
Edwards practiced what he preached. Throughout a seven-year stint on the Massachusetts frontier, for example, the New England theologian fought for the rights of the Native Americans who came to his mission church. He argued that Indian girls should be able to go to school, wrote repeated letters to the Massachusetts Assembly urging the colony to honor its treaty obligations to the Housatonnuks, and spent hours patiently listening to the broken English and sign language of Indian children so he could report accurately to mission officials in Boston and London. He told the officials that his Indian friends did not have enough blankets and food; that some boys had no breeches, and many wore ragged clothes to meetings; and that all the boys were forced to work six days per week. In sermons, he berated New England for having "debauched [the Indians] with strong drink instead of seeking their spiritual welfare."
2. Christians should not hesitate to join forces with non-Christians in the public square to work toward common moral goals. Edwards had no trouble supporting the Massachusetts colony's prosecution of war against the French, because the latter threatened religious and political liberties common to Christians and non-Christians alike. Besides, Edwards argued, Christians have much in common with non-Christians: the same basic sense of good and evil, since God has engraved his moral law on every human conscience; similar appreciation of beauty, both material and moral; the same fundamental religious knowledge (that there is a God, and that he is good); and basic human feelings (pity for the unfortunate and love for family).
Using Edwards's principles, an evangelical could work together with a Muslim to fight pornography in their community. Both see pornography as a moral wrong, threatening the integrity of marriage and family.
An Edwardsian public theology, therefore, must reject the approach of those who, like the historic Anabaptists, choose not to join with those outside the church as equal partners in common work for the community but remain separate from the rest of society in an alternative community intended to stand only as a distant witness to the rest of the culture.
An Edwardsian approach, in contrast, seeks to transform culture from within. Edwards maintained that individual conversion does not produce new human faculties but a new principle by which the old faculties operate. Similarly, his public theology does not call for Christians to create new, separate political communities or shun communities outside the church. Rather, it encourages Christians to work together with like-minded citizens, Christian or not, to transform existing communities according to the God-given principles of conscience.
3. Christians should support their governments but be ready to criticize them publicly when the occasion demands. Edwards believed that government is "a great and important business" that, among other things, prevents "citizens from tearing one another apart." He preached that a Christian should be "greatly concerned for the good of the public community to which he belongs" and willing to "lay out himself...for the good of his country." Edwards did his part when the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent two expeditions off to war in 1745 and 1755. Like a military chaplain, he preached sermons that inspired citizens to fight for God and country. During peacetime, he offered his time and resources to help police the frontier against occasional attacks.
But Edwards also warned that political leaders are prone to abuse their power and encouraged citizens to criticize "the management of public affairs, and the duty of the legislature, and those that are at the head of the administration, thought vastly [their] superiors." More than once he used his pulpit to tell rulers how they ought to behave. One Sunday, when facing local politicians in his congregation who sought his ouster, he boldly advised the congregation that bad politicians seek only "to enrich themselves, or to be great, and to advance themselves on the spoils of others." The good magistrate, however, is not willing to "grind the faces of the poor, and screw their neighbors [for] filthy lucre." Little wonder that these pols conspired with others to fire Edwards some months later.
4. Christians should remember that politics is comparatively unimportant in the long run. The key moments of history, Edwards taught, are not important elections or decisive wars but spiritual awakenings. Therefore, the most important thing Christians can do for the good of their country is to pray for revival. Spiritual transformation brings more positive change to the world than political or social revolution. From God's perspective, "one true Christian, however humble his birth and low his standing; however poor or ignorant or unknown [is more valuable than] many great men of the world, kings and princes, men of great power and policy...that are honored, and make a great fissure...[but] are wicked men and reprobates." God delights to "choose the foolish things of this world to confound the mighty...and things which are not, to bring to nought things which are" ( 1 Cor. 1 27-28). For this reason, Edwards did not hesitate to use a four-year-old girl's piety to recommend revival in a public treatise published in an era when children's and women's testimonies were widely considered unreliable.
5. Christians should beware of national pride. Edwards commended patriotism as a natural and loving response to the needs of one's nation. But, in words reminiscent of Samuel Johnson's remark that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, Edwards warned that patriotism often serves as a mask for self-interest. It is particularly susceptible to self-deception, he argued, because its loyalties extend to a large number of people, making such loyalties appear altruistic. Look at the Romans, he suggested; they considered love for country to be the highest of all virtues, yet they employed their patriotism "for the destruction of the rest of mankind."
Edwards would be wary of contemporary calls to regard America as a Christian nation needing to return to its lost Christian roots. No nation has ever been Christian, he insisted. There has never been a country where the majority of citizens were born-again or even regular churchgoers. Most citizens of so-called Christian countries are not regenerate, and even the regenerate have an abundance of sin. No people has ever been righteous, least of all the colonial New England to which he preached. Edwards condemned eighteenth century New England for its religious hypocrisy, social strife, lack of compassion for the poor, and exploitation of Native Americans.
Edwards would also be critical of those who assume that America's future must be bright because God has favored her with so many blessings. This Northampton prophet acknowledged that New England had been the recipient of unprecedented blessings, both spiritual and political. But, in a move missed by nearly all Edwards scholars, he said that such blessings could be a sign of impending judgment. It is a familiar pattern in history, he observed, for God to pour out spiritual revival just before he unleashes terrible judgment. Revival came to the Jews in Jesus' time, just 40 years before Jerusalem was brutally destroyed. God dealt similarly with Israel's ten lost tribes, the churches of North Africa and the Middle East after the rise of Islam, and the Protestant churches in France after the Reformation.
Therefore, Edwards warned that it is foolish for a people to think its religious and political freedoms will guarantee a happy future. If a society is morally or spiritually corrupt, it will collapse despite having wonderful civil freedoms. Edwards repeated this warning to colonial New England during the French and Indian Wars.
6. Christians should care for the poor. Edwards was sharply critical of those churchgoers who "pretend a great love to men's souls [but] are not compassionate and charitable towards their bodies. "When Boston's liberal preachers Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew were preaching that the poor were undeserving and their poverty was their own fault, Edwards told his congregation they should not be content until poverty was eliminated from their community.
It was not unusual for Puritan preachers to teach charity to the poor. But Edwards was unusually fearless when confronting those he considered negligent. When Northampton built a new church building that placed the poor in the worst seats, Edwards boldly declared that those with the best seats may have no seats at all in heaven. He charged those who used depreciated currency in public collections for the poor with lying to God, like Ananias and Sapphira, who were struck dead for their dishonesty (Acts 5 :1-11). In the 1740s, Edwards established a deacons' fund specifically for the poor and regularly called on wealthier Christians to make "frequent and liberal" contributions.
Edwards taught that charity to the poor is at the heart of biblical theology. Preaching from Matthew 25, he said that God is present in the poor, whom he constitutes as his "receivers. "Since we cannot express our love to God by doing anything to profit him, God wants us to do something profitable for our poor neighbors, to whom he has delegated the task of receiving Christian love. It was no accident, Edwards explained, that Christ chose to be poor and despised when he came to this planet.
Edwards supported a state welfare program. Since all human beings, even true Christians, are naturally selfish, he contended, private—even church—charity is unreliable. Hence, government shows its "wisdom" when it administers a welfare program to assist the deserving poor. Those who are poor because of laziness or prodigality, however, do not merit such assistance.
Biographer Samuel Hopkins, who lived in the Edwards home for six months, said Edwards himself was a stellar example of giving to the poor but usually gave secretly. One time, for example, Edwards heard of a family in another town that had fallen into poverty because the father had become sick. Edwards, who rarely had enough to make ends meet, made arrangements to have the man receive a bundle of money without knowing from whom it came. On his deathbed, Edwards ordered that his funeral be conducted "without pomp and costs " Any money that might have been spent for that purpose was instead to be given to the poor and needy.
One might easily take the legendary "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" and other hellfire-and-damnation-tinged sermons by Jonathan Edwards as Christian cases for thoroughly separating oneself from the secular concerns of the culture. But the popular view of Edwards gives us only half the picture. A more careful examination of Edwards's theology reveals new ways for Christians today to understand how their faith can relate to the public square.
Jonathan Edwards shows us that true faith is deeply private (arising from a transformed heart) but not privatistic (devoid of active concern for society). His public theology is also a reminder that evangelism should never be opposed to social action. Rather, Edwards was convinced that a time of revival is precisely the time when the church needs to show social concern.
Gerald McDermott is a professor of religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. He is the author of "One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards" (Penn State Press).
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