First, those of you who don’t know should understand that Reynolds’ father was a professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee – I was never in one of his classes, but safe to say, the world of religious discourse and conversation is not one unfamiliar to Reynolds.
And of course, he’s a libertarian.
But what interests me about Reynolds’ statement is the fact that he’s undoubtedly not alone. Of course, his sentiments are common among his fellow academics and always have been, but there’s no doubt that this skepticism towards the pronouncements of religious authorities is prevalent outside the academy as well, the culmination of centuries of individualist and democratic impulses given an especially cynical twist by contemporary events, from Jimmy Swaggert’s confessions to Cardinal Law’s lack of them.
And who can blame anyone for feeling this way? Really. The spectacle is astonishing – bishops who tolerated and protected incredibly destructive sin among their own adopting a prophetic mantle in regard to the moral status of military action in Iraq, and having the nerve to say they’re worried about “innocents.”
As I said, who can blame anyone for laughing instead of listening?
It brings up the whole issue of what religious leaders should and shouldn’t be saying about current events and social issues.
The extreme consequence of Reynolds’ stance is the silencing of religious leaders on every matter but the inner workings of the Trinity. The trouble with that, of course, is that Christians believe they have been called to witness to the Gospel, and the Gospel has real-life consequences. Some of those consequences are personal, but some are undeniably social. I think we are long past the illusion that Jesus was a social reformer or political activist, but what we can’t deny is that Jesus called Christians to a stance of compassion and love to all. The first place we are called to live that out is in our one-on-one dealings with others and the choices we make with the treasure we have been given – our time on this earth. But the call is also broader than that – which is why Christians, throughout history, have refused to mind their own business when it came to educating, tending to the sick, ministering to the poor and helping the helpless. The “social justice” talk which Reynolds derides is an extension of that concern. Sometimes it takes a silly, or even malignant turn as Christians catch the totalitarian bug that those who start out wanting to “help” are so susceptible to. It’s a risk those committed to such action must always be aware of and most of the time aren’t.
This is an exceedingly complex question. So much of what Reynolds is about defending – American values, political life and social arrangements – are rooted, at least in part, in religious sensibilities of one sort or another, and would not exist but for the interest that religiously-minded people had in the real world in which they lived. An interest that can, all to quickly, turn to the desire to remake that world into their own version of the Kingdom. It’s a constant, complicated dynamic, and one of which religious leaders should always be aware.
They should also be aware of the very true fact that we are most tempted to meddle in other people’s business when our houses are crumbling around us. That is, you are most likely to lash out at someone else’s faults when you’re bothered by your own. So for churches such as ours, wracked by internal problems, here’s what’s true: We can’t ignore the suffering of the greater world, and we can’t stay silent regarding ways to alleviate that suffering, whether through means of charity or political or social action. But along with that goes deep soul-searching and the call to holiness among ourselves, and, as a part of that, a deep humility towards that same world about which are so concerned. For we are not apart from the world. We are a part of it, and its sins are our sins, too. Our call is not to judge that world, but to bring the love of Christ to that world. Sometimes religious people get those two things mixed up, but believe me, they are not the same thing. To figure this out, look at the saints, especially those immersed in the suffering of the world. Those men and women are not about control. They are about the task of being as vibrant signs of God’s love as they can be – of diminishing themselves so that Christ can live and love the poor through them.
And here’s what true. Forget the “nonbelievers.” If every person who claimed the title of “Christian” were committed to that - no preaching outside the choir would be necessary. As St. Francis said: “Go out and preach the Gospel – use words if you have to.”
So I find Reynolds’ dismissal of the voices of religious leaders understandable, but somewhat discomfiting. Contemporary religious leaders have certainly earned our scorn and have lost most of their credibility. But what seems to be implicit is a desire that voices speaking out of primarily religious sensibilities be silent and leave the task of helping to guide the course of American political and social life to the law professors who have, you know, done such a superior job.