Pluralism as an Art

I will finish Ch. 1 by saying that the core of my argument is that the relationship between religion (Christianity in my case) and the state is defined by two hard edges. I used the imagery of a frame around a piece of art. They are two different notions of the separation of church and state. Depending on who you are talking to, these two notions can get confused quite easily. The first is that the state should not define a religion for its citizens. This is what the Puritans had in mind. The second is that a particular religion should not control the coercive power of government. This is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind in his famous “wall of separation.”  I think that those are good boundaries. But if I can extend the “art” analogy a bit further. The frame is important, but it is the space in between that is beautiful and can get a bit messy.

There is a lot of mention of scholars and a few definitions in chapter one. I had to lay some groundwork for the conversation. You can skip to the last two pages of the chapter to get a summary of the main ideas.

I want to say that apart from these two boundaries, there is a lot of room for art–that we need to “blur” the lines between the church and the state a bit more when we are inside the two boundaries; this might be a little controversial, but I don’t think so. There has been some talk about the idea of “principled pluralism.” At its best it is an appreciation of  the value of  diversity that makes up most democracies. And I am trying to say that when you have diversity you need art–its never as clean as you want it to be.  That’s why Ch. 1 is titled “Independence and the Art of Pluralism.” Because the church and state should be kept independent as the frame the edge of the boundaries around the public square–but the blur of pluralism on the canvas is the art.


Spiritual or Religious? (Ch. 1 Cont.)

There is a lot of conversation right now about the rise of the “Nones.” This is the group that doesn’t want to identify with any formal religious label. But, maybe surprisingly, many of the “Nones” value spirituality. This makes sense to me. Religion seems to carry negative baggage with it (violence done in the name of religion, rigidness in belief, etc…). Spirituality seems to be more positive–or at least more personal.

In Chapter 1 I try to make a more positive distinction between spirituality and religion: the spiritual is a set of internal beliefs and practices that bring personal meaning and significance. Two people can consider themselves spiritual, but not share any of those beliefs or practices. Religion differs in this way: two people who call themselves a member of a particular religion (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.) will share some common beliefs and practices. This sharing puts a community of people in relationship with one another and in relationship to those that do not share those same commitments.

As a publice phenomenon, then, religion becomes a part of the conversation of social organization.

This is what the book is about. What kind of role should religion play in the conversations around social organization? And because Christianity is my particular religious tradition I limit the conversation to Christianity. We have a history between Christianity and Democracy in the West (and something very unique in America with the disestablishment clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution).

My argument is that Democracy will be stronger (Ch. 3) and Christianity will be more faithful (Ch. 4) if we keep the First Amendment, but allow religious persons to bring religious reasons and religious motivation into the public conversation.  Why privilege the community of secular people in defining the conversation in the public square?

Christians Should Stay Silent for a Season

“Christians should remain silent for a season, until we can learn how to talk about politics in a non-Nietzschean manner.”–James Davison Hunter To Change the World

Its time to talk about Ch. 1 “Independence and the Art of Pluralism.” Its probably the most difficult chapter to read (not the best idea to start difficult) but the book gets easier.

James Hunter is a Christian Sociologist at the University of Virginia. His quote above laments the reality that Christians often trade the ethic of Jesus for a stake in power politics and that often obscures the good news of the gospel behind political party platforms.  This is true.

I just had a conversation last night after I spoke at a church about “finding hope” in the current political climate. The person asked what “evangelical” meant, so I was giving a broad definition of what an evangelical was (see pg. 29), and the person replied, “oh, I thought that evangelical meant supporters of Trump.” So Hunter is right in his diagnosis: the church in America (and evangelicalism in particular) is no different than the world in its attempts to control the moral future through power (political power), and thus ironically, has lost its moral influence.  So Hunter recommends “staying silent for a season” until we can learn to talk about politics differently. After the Election is my attempt to talk about politics differently.

Why is Ch. 1 more difficult than some of the others? In this chapter I’m trying to put some boundaries around the conversation. So I give a survey of some of the relevant scholars in the conversation that I want to place the book in. If you want to skip it, you can start on pg. 25 and get a summary.

Jesus is ok, but I’m not sure about Christianity (Introduction Cont.)

“In studying thousands of outsiders’ impressions, it is clear that Christians are primarily perceived for what they stand against. We have become famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for.” This was the finding of the Barna Research Group’s survey of millennials’ perceptions of Christianity recorded in unChristian in 2018.

These findings resonated with my experience as a campus minister. When I would chat with people about faith, religion, Jesus, and Christianity at Stanford University, the most common perception is that Christians were against “most stuff.” They viewed Christianity as a religious tradition negatively. But when the topic of Jesus came up, they were more positive.

One of the other findings of the Barna Research Group was that people thought that Christians were “too political.”  After the Election is my wondering out-loud if the negative perception of Christianity was related to Evangelicals’ involvement in politics? And if this was the case, what was it about Jesus that people were finding interesting? So the book is the exploration of those questions.

Did we (as Christians) get something wrong (we did)? Did we get something right, but in the wrong way (we did)? Did we get something right (we did)?

I say in the “Preface” that I identify as an Evangelical; sometimes this is a hard label to carry in our culture and there have been efforts to abandon it altogether. But this is my faith home; I have a few criticisms in the book…some theological and some just common sense, but it is as an internal critique–to help shape what I think is a move toward a more faithful reflection of following Jesus in our public life.

Secularism: A Simple Subtraction Story

The introduction was inspired by reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular AgeIts a thick book (776 pgs.), the kind you read in a Ph.D. program (or if you are a little nerdy like me).

It seems like we have instincts about what is secular and what is sacred, but secularism took this distinction farther. Here are Richard Rorty’s words that best capture secularism: “[democracy will produce a society] in which political action conducted in the name of religious belief is treated as a ladder up which our ancestors climbed, but one that should now be thrown away.” (Ref. “Religion in the Public Square”). Taylor calls this a “simple subtraction story.” (Personal Note: I had a chance to meet and chat with Richard Rorty for lunch at Stanford’s faculty club in the early 2000s. I found him to be a very thoughtful, feisty, and kind person).

When I read more of Rorty, I wanted to say, “Why think that?” Especially when religion in general, and Christianity in particular has produced some great exemplary moral figures in history and contributed to the common good in society. Also, because it seems like spirituality is very resilient in our human experience.

Taylor hinted at and I agree that it seems like we are going through another shift in culture. And I think that this shift might be a good time to re-work how we think about religion in our political conversations.  That’s the theme of the book.

Here is an illustration of the shift from secularism to post-secularism that I describe on pg. 7. It is an episode of Scooby Doo that has a real ghost. When I was a kid Scooby Doo was a modern secular story, give us enough time and we will figure this mystery out. This episode left the mystery.


Friendship & the Foreward

I want to say a word about friendship. The foreward to After the Election is written by my friend Scotty McLennan. Our paths crossed when I was a newly minted campus leader for Cru at Stanford University and he was appointed Dean for Religious Life. Scotty is both a lawyer and an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church. He would describe himself as a progressive or liberal Christian and wrote his book, Jesus Was a Liberal in 2009. We see Christianity and some of its social implications differently, but during our time working together we sat on panels together, lectured in classes together, and worked on several projects together. Through all this we became good friends.

We would meet fairly regularly to talk about faith, Stanford football, our families, and questions that we had. One of the things that I appreciated about Scotty the most was his commitment as the dean to create religious & interfaith conversations based on an authentic expression of each religious tradition. He didn’t try to wash out some of the important distinctions of each tradition to make the conversation easier. He thought that these kind of conversations would produce a more authentic faith and would allow Stanford students to grow in their own faith or explore a different religious tradition on their own terms.

The other thing that I appreciated about Scotty was his generosity. He believed the best about people until they gave him reason to believe otherwise. You can see this generosity in the “Foreward” to my book. Sometimes we thought about recording our personal conversations because they were so meaningful to both of us; in the end we decided that this wasn’t a good idea. My own faith is stronger because of these conversations. I appreciate his generous contribution to the book.

We’re Not Supposed to Talk About Faith & Politics–A Preview

Religion, Money, & Politics…Things we are not supposed to talk about. Except, every two years there is some kind of election which raises the specter of the possibility of finding out that someone you care about thinks differently than you do. Add religion to that conversation and it could be combustible. Since I am religious (Christian) I will often here quips like, “well…you can’t legislate your morality.” I think that sayings like this are the residue of secularism. It is aimed at religious people to make sure that Thomas Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation” remains firmly in tact & to protect the public square from “religious influence.” Because religious influence will be bad.

In the book I am trying to say a few things: The first thing is that I think that “secularism” as an overarching philosophy may be dying. People are remarkably and resiliently spiritual. It was a somewhat vacant ideology anyway based on a promissory note of time. Just give us “non-religious” people enough time to figure out how to solve all the “wicked problems” and religion will fade into the sunset. The second thing that I think is that postmodernity might be dying a natural death. It was a deconstructive project and you can only deconstruct for so long…then you have to start putting things back together into a coherent whole. So I think that there is an opportunity right now to talk about the intersection of religion and politics and renegotiate their relationship in our American context.

I wanted the posture of the book to be hopeful; which seems counter-intuitive given our current political climate. But hope is one of the cardinal virtues of the Christian faith: “Now these three remain: faith, hope, love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13.13).

About the Book

Bonnie and I were chatting about my bookand she suggested creating a space for conversation for people who might be reading it. I’ve had this blog for a while and its mostly been static since I finished my exams when I was working on my Ph.D. You can still find book summaries–they are mostly books related to the field of Christian Ethics in some way–in the section 70 Books in 70 Days (I have a few to add); but I’ll activate the blog again to start working through the book.



Beginnings: The idea for this book began while  I was studying for my Ph.D. in Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary.  I wanted to do some research on the positive role that the Christian church can play in a pluralistic public square. So here it is, a “few” years later.

It can be “academic” in some places, so the idea of the blog is to make those places more accessible and to have a place for conversation about it.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

By James Cone (2011)


In The Cross and the Lynching Tree James Cone argues that the white church—especially the Evangelical white church—has failed to make the connection between the Roman cross and the lynching tree of the American South. This is a “defect in the conscience of white Christians and…why African Americans have needed to trust and cultivate their own theological imagination” (32). The cross and the lynching tree were the most barbaric forms of execution and cruelty” in their day; both images were used to “strike terror” in the subject community and keep people passive and in their place.

Between 1880 and 1940 nearly 5,000 black men and women were lynched in “Christian America.”   Cone maintains that the North won the Civil War, but the South maintained a strong hold on the culture wars that were defining black men and women as less than whites: “unfit for governing and therefore incapable of political and social equality.” Three examples of this culture war are the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866, the failed efforts to pass anti-lynching laws in the Senate, and Dwight Moody’s segregated revivals. Cone argues that Christianity in America suffers from a fractured social imagination because we have to reconcile a Jesus that suffers for us and with us on the cross and a Jesus that allowed lynchings.

The challenge of the contemporary church is to wrestle with these contradictions and their consequences today. He uses four historical examples to shape a way forward: (1) Reinhold Niebuhr’s failure to address race despite his proximity to the largest collection of blacks in America in 1920’s Harlem, (2) Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in the Civil Rights Movement that came on the heels of the “lynching era,” (3) W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, and the black artist’s movement to de-colonize Christ, and (4) Ida B. Wells and the Womanist movement—recovering the black woman’s voice in our theological imagination. For Cone, understanding these important figures and influential movements is a step toward confronting and overcoming the tragedy of “the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy” (166).

Cone concludes with a cautious hope: that the “beauty [blacks and whites as brothers and sisters] is more enduring than our brutality” (166). To find this beauty we have to confront our racist history (through repentance and restoration), find again the voice of the victims, recover the message of justice and liberation in the good news of the gospel, and stop sanitizing or over-spiritualizing a Savior crucified on a Roman cross.

One of my favorite quotes

“One has to be a little mad, kind of crazy, to find salvation in the cross, victory in defeat, and life in death. This is why the meaning of the cross is intensely debated today, especially by secular and religious intellectuals who reject the absurd idea that a shameful, despicable death could “reveal” anything.” (25)

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race

Author: Willie Jennings

Willie Jennings tells the story of the diseased (fractured) social imagination of Christianity in the West that continues to be impotent in its ability to address the challenges of racial conflict. Instead of the creative bringing together and appreciation of difference, Jennings argues that Christianity has contributed to and sometimes created separation, segregation, and racism. His argument is that “race” is a modern invention of the Western world that is oriented around the color and external features of a people–with European “whiteness” as the plum line for “normal.” Jennings maintains that Christianity contributed to (created) “race” as a way to classify and subjugate difference as Western peoples explored and experienced new worlds; and the consequences of the classification and commodification of bodies run deep through the social imagination of the West.

To make his argument, Jennings tells the story of four people: (1) Gobes Eanes de Azurara (or Zurara), Prince Henry of Portugal’s royal chronicler (1444). The Royal chronicler is the authoritative voice for the ruling family, and thus for the Portuguese people; And how [he] interprets events gives those events meaning. The key event: August 8th, 1444—235 slaves were sold in Portugal with a Christian Ceremony that included a tithe of slaves to the Prince. (pg. 15). (2) Jose de Acosta Porres (Jesuit from Spain to Lima Peru in 1572). Acosta was one of the most highly educated priests and brought the desire to “educate” and “civilize” peoples of the new world with the traditions of the old. In his educational efforts he disassociated Christian faith and theology from everything that was sacred to the native people. The Andean people had a word, pachuti, that meant: “World turned upside down.” Jennings argues that: “In effect…[t]heology will indeed become the trigger for the classificatory subjugation of all nonwhite, non-Western peoples.” (3) John William Colenso, an Anglican Bishop/Missionary to Durban at Port Natal, South Africa (1854). Like the Spanish and Portuguese before him, Jennings argues that Colenso continued the trajectory of assessing the possibilities of theological education and Christian formation in terms of the classification of people through their description of body difference (skin color, hair texture, manner of dress, customs, physical ability, etc…) with whiteness assumed as the invisible norm. Jennings states that “Colenso exhibits a pattern of turning away from indigenous theological questions, shunning the necessary intimacy needed for serious grappling with those questions, and drawing indigenous voices into forms of utility not only in Western theological struggles over orthodoxy or heterodoxy, but also in the project of nation building” (150). Finally, (4) Olaudah Equiano, 1745, Nigeria. Equiano was a slave, who landed in England. He became a Christian in England, bought his freedom, educated himself, and wrote a memoir, Interesting Narrative. Jennings argues that Equiano was the first to articulate the formation of a Christian identity in a non-white, colonized body.

Central to Jennings’ thesis—that Christianity in the West was a major contributor to the formation of race—is a theological framework that failed to wrestle with how the church was to fit into the narrative of Israel (supercessionism) and a colonial framework that wedded the progress of nation-states with the Christian formation of the gospel. Native peoples were stripped of their land, stolen, and commodified as “useful” to the white (European) project of progress and expansion. Jennings argues that these two frameworks helped to replace space with race. Where once people were identified by their sacred spaces, those spaces were carved up and redistributed to the colonizing nation. So identity became associated with external features (skin color, strength, hair texture, etc…). Jennings argues that the church in the West still hasn’t come to terms with its contribution to the race problem.

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