The Civic Church

What is the role of the church in a society?

That’s the question that I’ve been trying to answer for a few years.  I think blogger Michael Kruse came up with the best answer.  Before I get to Michael’s quote, let’s look at opinion piece by David Brooks that Kruse comments on.  Brooks offer his own critique of President Obama’s second inaugural address. Here’s the crucial points:

I am not a liberal like Obama, so I was struck by what he left out in his tour through American history. I, too, would celebrate Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, but I’d also mention Wall Street, State Street, Menlo Park and Silicon Valley. I’d emphasize that America has prospered because we have a decentralizing genius.

When Europeans nationalized their religions, we decentralized and produced a great flowering of entrepreneurial denominations. When Europe organized state universities, our diverse communities organized private universities. When Europeans invested in national welfare states, American localities invested in human capital.

America’s greatest innovations and commercial blessings were unforeseen by those at the national headquarters. They emerged, bottom up, from tinkerers and business outsiders who could never have attracted the attention of a president or some public-private investment commission…

I also think Obama misunderstands this moment. The Progressive Era, New Deal and Great Society laws were enacted when America was still a young and growing nation…We are no longer that nation…

Obama made his case beautifully. He came across as a prudent, nonpopulist progressive. But I’m not sure he rescrambled the debate. We still have one party that talks the language of government and one that talks the language of the market. We have no party that is comfortable with civil society, no party that understands the ways government and the market can both crush and nurture community, no party with new ideas about how these things might blend together. But at least the debate is started. Maybe that new wind will come.

Kruse then goes on to explain his own view of American society in response to a comment on the post:

Brooks is writing an op ed, not a thesis, so of course he can’t build a detailed case for his characterization of Obama. He made reference to Obama’s case for collective action. I suspect his take, like mine, is from an accretion of observation not a definitive statement.

Politics is how we govern those aspects of our lives that are truly the domain of government. Therein is the rub. Which things are in that domain? Progressives tend to see government as the hub of a wheel with other institutions of society radiating out from the center. Virtually all aspects of life are extensions of government’s agenda.

I subscribe to something akin to subsidiarity. At the center of concentric circles are the individual and the family. That circle is surrounded by extended family, neighbors, and friends. The next circle includes voluntary organizations like church, neighborhood associations, business, local schools, and such. Beyond that are city and regional government, as well as other intermediate-sized institutions. Eventually we reach the outer rim with federal government (some might include international organizations beyond that.) Each ring will have roles which only institutions in those rings can play but they exist in a subsidiary … i.e., supportive … role to the rings closer to the center.

No, Obama is not a totalitarian. Neither are most progressives. Presently, too much of conservatism is an effort to create a market society, not just a market economy. My perception is that, conversely, progressives want to subsume all institutions of society into political society, not just a political government. (Emphasis mine)

In America today, the Church is seen either in service to politics or to the market.  Conservative Christians tend to see the church as part of a market society, while progressives see the church as part of the political society.  The church is either in service to a sort of consumerism or it’s in service to the centralizing power of the welfare state.

Of course, I don’t subscribe to either view of the church in society.  But these are the two main “parties” that Christians have to choose from.

But maybe there is a third way.  What if there is a civic church?  Not a market church or political church, but a church engaged in society as Brooks and Kruse describe: one that can discern how the market and government can both inspire and oppress people.  One that sees the church as a part of the society along with clubs and businesses.  In fact, they will acknowledge that these other groups intersect with the church and not simply keep them outside of the church’s front doors.

The sad thing is that there really isn’t anyone calling for a more civic church.  We need to find ways that the church can participate, not in service to the government or the market, but for the whole of society, influencing all the different spheres in a society.


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