I’m filing this in the politics category because of the conference’s main theme this year: “The Christian Faith, the Life of the Mind, and the Public Square.” This meant that, while a bunch of Christian Ph.D.s were getting together to discuss what they’ve been writing about, they would go ahead and talk about politics. Actually, the keynote addresses were the only thing really on topic, because the scores of papers read during breakout sessions did not have to relate to the theme in any way. In any event, I went out of curiosity. I managed to make it all the way through my M.Div. program without knowing this conference existed, and its stated goal at least makes it a rather significant forum for scholarly interaction. So I registered. After arriving, I knew it was going to be an interesting experience, for there were very few peers in sight. The language of the syllabus, in fact, put the lowest level of attendee at Ph.D. student. Now, I plan to pursue a terminal degree some time down the road, but for now I humbly walk among those who have merely mastered divinity. So, the handful of under-forty’s there were in a Ph.D. program somwhere and presenting a paper at the conference. This all puzzled me, as I would have thought that the attendance of other graduate students–prospective Ph.D.s (you have to talk in these terms or the guild members don’t get it)–would be good PR for the future of the conference. Anyway, I learned a lot about how this little world of scholarship works. I’m sad to say that there is far too much hobnobbery going on, but all in all I enjoyed it (despite the confusion of virtually everyone as to who I was and why I was there).
Now, on to the political part. Bill Frist spoke the first night in an autobiographical sort of way. He has a reputation as an ethical politician, and I’m sure he’s done some fine things, but his talk struck me as pretty self-appreciative and not altogether poingant in reference to the topic. The next night we had Jim Wallace of Sojourners, which was pretty interesting. He was engaging, and his agenda made him even more interesting. Basically, he is a Christian political activist. His talk began with the statement that there is very good news: the religious right is coming to an end. If that is true, I agree that it’s good news. The gist of the rest of his speech, though, was that Christians must force the hand of politics on issues of importance, like global poverty. He referenced Wilberforce and King and basically said that individuals and then communities of faith can and must force public policy. This forced me to ask him in the question session what it looks like for people of faith to engage the system without being just another religious right. He didn’t answer the question in my view, and I don’t think he can. The issues are different, but the fundamental working assumption is not. Both the religious right and communities lobbying for more important issues assume that the system can be made to work–there is a committment to secular representative democracy and an expectation that it is indeed the best way to address these issues of more or less importance. Although I suspect there were some at the conference who would not espouse this perspective, it struck me as the unquestioned truism of the weekend–not what I had hoped for when Christian faith (at Lipscomb University no less!) and the public square converse at this point in history.
Well, it got even more interesting the following morning at a “town hall meeting” designed to “promote Wallis’ project.” Interesting in the first place because virtually all of those Ph.D.s were either gone already or somewhere else; in the second place becuase there was a pannel of mostly non-CofC social ministry leaders from the Nashville area combined with a few CofC theologians–one of whom is an advisor to Obama. They tried to talk through some of the points Wallace made, and to everyone’s credit, the discussion was poingnant and flowed well from person to person. By the end, however, I was absolutely writhing inside. The first point discussed was whether or not, as Wallace claimed, the system is broken. There was pretty general agreement that it is, but there were really no comments made to the effect that it could not be fixed with a little Christian additive, or at least made to serve the agendas each speaker represented. From time to time hopeful comments were made in reference to the upcoming “millenials,” who have a more active social conscienece about the “big issues” like global poverty than the generation represented by the pannel. That’s right; the pannel was the forty-and-over-crowd deigning to talk about the upcoming generation but not to invite them to the table. The variety of comments made about millenials ranged in insightfulness, but even the least relevant ones hinted at the giant elephant in the room that I was dying to point out.
So when question time rolled around my hand shot up at record speed. Naturally, no one seemed all that enlightened by my comment, but this is what I said, roughly. I think the discussion is fundamentally flawed because we are asking the wrong question. It doesn’t matter whether the system is broken or not–that’s not the question we need to ask–because even if, in the best case senario, it can be made to work, the real question is whether or not the millenials have any interest in using it. It’s irrelevant whether or not the system is broken and irrelevant whether or not the MLKs of the world can change the political winds and thus change public policy, because my peers are done with the system. They are going to find other outlets for their social conscience–Kiva and Facebook apps and whatever else–and they are going to do it very much despite the system. So my plea is for those with wisdom and experience who can think outside the box to do so, or we will find ourselves addressing the big issues in a sort of ad hoc patchwork of projects with no big picture.
The first response to this was short and sweet, from an ACU OT prof.: “I wish you were right, but I think you are wrong. You can’t make the system go away becuase you want it to.” The other response was something about the inevitability of politics, to which I responsded quickly–since the moderator was going to move on–that I intentionally didn’t say anything about politics, since they are inevitable when people work together, even social activism groups. And I don’t think the system is going to go away–you can fill the offices–but the hearts and resources of my peers are going to be elsewhere. It strikes me that most people hear that prediction in terms of its implications for the government. As I speak it, though, I don’t particularly care about how dramatically the government is or is not affected–it’s not as though I “wish it” to go away. It can stay if it likes. My point is that if we are a gathering of Christians with a social agenda, we ought to recognize that even the secular millenials’ way of engaging very similar agendas does not expect the government to get things done. We believers, before any, should be taking the initiative, leading the way, in creatively tackling the issues that the bureaucratic machinery leaves unresolved. Forget whether it’s broken; take note of what is working.
As for whether or not such a position has a place at a conference that assumes faith and the public square belong together in a complimentary relationship, those who do not recognize how very political my posture is do not have eyes to see. The politics of the church is a truly alternative politics, but that does not mean that the political powerbrokers get to define politics in a self-referential way.