What Do We Desire? The Future of Faith and Citizenship

Serene Jones

Faith and politics: there’s no hotter topic in North America today. Surf cable television, navigate through YouTube—these windows into our public life quickly showcase politicians, car mechanics, and grade-school teachers all weighing in on the matter with great passion and commonsense smarts.

For a Christian theologian like myself, this fomenting sense that “God-matters” really matter to so many is exciting. Not since the 1960s have we seen such intellectual seriousness about faith. But it’s clearly not an easy endeavor. Opinions are strong, stakes are high, and our disagreements generate gale-force intensities. Inevitably, these conflicts speak to what we value most—our deepest desires and most enduring commitments.

Out of these conflicts, I believe, are paradoxes worth nurturing. They reflect the unique promise of wrestling with religion and politics on American soil. We believe, for instance, in keeping church and state separate while also mobilizing passions around the injection of religion into politics—that’s good. We don’t see a contradiction between being people of the Bible and promoters of the Enlightenment— that’s a strength. We are the most religious people in the West while also being insistently secular and avidly technological—a rather amazing combination. We are a country marked by a bone-deep diversity that also values a strong universalizing vision of the public good—a combination worthy of praise.

Other conflicts, however, are more confusing and less noble, many of which rage not between different religions or between religious and secular persons but within the world of North American Christianity itself. As a theologian, I am often called to sit on panels or weigh in on debates between church folks over hot-button issues—we know the list well— and in the middle of such discussions I find myself wondering what it is we are arguing about. On the surface it seems we are fighting about the issue at hand—whether same-sex couples should be married, what state and federal laws on abortion should be, how long troop withdrawal from Iraq should take—but underneath the arguments lie murkier matters worth paying closer attention to.

What is “faith” and how does it relate to “citizenship”—not just at an easily calculated, artificial-level but at a soul-deep, everyday-life level? How do we get beneath the surface scuffles to a richer theological discussion about what we believe God desires for our lives—a central question if “faith” is prepared to take up its calling to be publicly wise.

Staying alert to these questions ought to allow us to identify more sharply what we do agree on—theologically—and discuss more meaningfully where we don’t agree—again, theologically.

In the years ahead, many of these partisan battles will intensify in the media and in local churches, the majority of which claim a core relation to that quintessential North American Protestant heritage—the Reformed theological tradition. It is interesting and ironic that despite our divisions, most Protestants, left or right, actually share a tradition of Calvinist habits of thought or faith—which means we share a lot with respect to the core doctrines that shape us. What does the Reformed tradition have to say about the relation between faith and citizenship? Can it mend some of our divisions? Can it reorient the debate?

Beyond the Self-Dividing Self

When North American church folks talk about faith and politics, we make several common mistakes that confuse matters to no end. One is a tendency to look inside ourselves and divide our interior worlds into a segmented list of roles we play in daily life, two of which are the “faith-self” and the “citizen-self.” We then announce, in very pious terms, that our faith-self be given priority. The game goes something like this: I first list my parts—I am mother, teacher, dog-walker, Okie, Christian, Democrat, block-watch member, eBay-shoes buyer, U.S. taxpayer, cancer survivor, hot-sauce lover, writer, and so on. I then say to myself, in order to be faithful, I need to distinguish each one from the other and then prioritize them—making the Christian part come first, the mother part second, with Democrat following as a distant third, and so on until the eBay part (I hope!) settles into last place.

This view of things—an identity politics version of piety—doesn’t make much psychological sense if you consider how we actually make decisions. We can’t compartmentalize ourselves into various “roles” that get stacked up in order of importance. When I step into the voting booth, I don’t suddenly stop being a mom who’s worried about the gas bill. When I pray, I don’t somehow magically turn off the Democrat part of myself or shut down that small corner of my brain that likes spiked black heels. There is just one messy me—a hodge-podge mix of all these things, carrying on the many tasks that constitute my daily life, grappling with it all as it unfolds, often in a rather chaotic swirl of half-baked plans and partially actualized possibilities.

When I pray, I don’t somehow magically turn off the Democrat part of myself or shut down that small corner of my brain that likes spiked black heels.

This view doesn’t make sense from a theological perspective either—particularly a Reformed one. Calvinist accounts of “faith” have long insisted that belief is never simply about propositional claims or discretely measurable liturgical actions. Rather, it lives in dispositions formed in us by our traditions, our faith practices, our communal interactions. These deep dispositions don’t just go away when we step into another “sphere” or put on another “hat.” They ground and orient all parts of us, even our unconscious life and our bodily postures.

Providential Politics

In Reformed theology, the doctrine of Providence is one place where we reflect on these matters. It’s a popular mistake to assume that Providence simply means God is in control of everything and has our lives all plotted out, and that those uncanny surprises to us are the prearranged orchestrations of a puppeteer-creator. No, Providence teaches us something much more existentially complex than this childlike view. It tells us God is God of the whole of our existence—every nook and cranny of it. As far as our imaginations can reach and our actions can stretch, there we find God dwelling with us, in fullness. God is not just God of our morning prayers but of our evening baths, our ten o’clock snacks, and our midnight television watching. To use a popular Reformed image, faith lives in the marrow of our being.

Similarly, we need to expand what we mean by “political.” When the great political philosophers of the West, the Greeks, imagined the realm of the “political,” they didn’t think only in terms of voting booths, war rooms, or legislative sessions. The term politics comes from polis, which means the city—the public realm, the place of our collective lives. To do politics was to reflect upon and determine the shape of our shared existence and the nature of our ongoing interactions. Talking politics means telling the story of our life together—a story that includes an account of our greatest frustrations and failures as well as our grandest aspirations and hopes.

Thus, in the United States, we would do well to broaden our understanding of “politics.” Though it should certainly include the usual suspects of the political rough-and-tumble—campaigns, red-flag issues, governmental structures and processes—our collective lives include much more, things we like to think of as “private” but which profoundly determine how we live together. I mean the stores we shop in, the houses we buy or rent, the TV docudramas we watch, and the music that fills our iPods: these are all spaces in which we collectively abide. Similarly, our “political” relationships are not just those we have with elected officials or co-warriors wearing our political party hats and fighting as Reds or Blues. They also include our interactions with our children and our lovers, with the person next door, the woman who runs the cash register at the garden store, or the teenager who delivers the paper. Insofar as each of these is part of our shared life, they are all deeply political relations.

So, just as faith permeates all, politics infuses everything. Here we have two realms that not only cannot be separated; each of them appears to include within its scope the whole of existence.

When faith and citizenship are viewed like this, it shifts the terms we use for imagining faithful citizenship. We are made aware of the swirling mix of both faith and citizenship in all dimensions of our everyday, collective lives. We don’t ask, “What does my faith say to my political views?” Rather, “How does faith dispose us toward collective life?” and, “How do the actual contours of our public lives shape the character of our piety?”

Viewed this way, Christian faith looks a lot less different from Islamic faith than many today would expect. The conventional outlook asks us to look at a Muslim and a Christian and to identify a fundamental difference between them. Right off, what we profess to see is that the Muslim believes that her faith should determine all aspects of her political life and that the line between her faith-practices and her political actions is nonexistent—whereas the Christian understands the limits of her faith, and because she is living in secular democracy, she is willing to cede certain aspects of her religious life to claims made upon her as a citizen. Summed up, the difference is: Islam doesn’t draw a line, Christianity does.

My Christian dispositions of heart and head are what lead me to embrace the central features of the democratic political system in which I live.

This strikes me as a completely wrong-headed account of our differences. If we approach this Christian-Muslim issue from a Reformed Christian perspective, then my relation to my role as citizen is as thoroughly saturated with my faith commitments as hers. My Christian dispositions of heart and head—the faith-gestures that fill my interior world—are what lead me to embrace the central features of the democratic political system in which I live. The space I cede to the “secular” I cede on religious grounds; the line I draw between what I do in church and what I do in a multi-tradition public sphere is a thoroughly faith-inflected line. The limits I put on God-talk, I do for God-reasons. From head to toe, my political instincts are as religious as hers are.

Once I admit this, I can enter discussions with her about religion and international affairs without adopting a condescending Western attitude toward Islam that pits her views against my more secular, open-society position. Instead, I can engage her in a conversation about politics that allows me to identify the theological commitments that fund my politics, just as I continue to listen to hers. Even though this posture doesn’t ensure that we will reach consensus or avoid sharp conflicts between us, it does keep the conversation from veering off track in its early stages simply because one side is deemed more “religious” than the other when it comes to the nature of political life.

What Happened to Theology?

This view of faith and politics is also helpful, I believe, because it shifts the way we carry on our intra-faith conversation in the United States. It strikes me as odd that these faith-centered debates are some of the toughest places around to get a good, old-fashioned theological discussion going. More than once, I have been in forums where liberal and conservative Calvinists go at each other without ever attempting to identify, thoughtfully, the core faith-claims that infuse their politics.

On the evangelical side, it is often assumed that if you cite a Bible verse or if you say “I believe it with all my heart,” then you have made a faith-grounded claim about a crucial social issue. However, if you lift up the tablecloth, there’s no theology underneath it. By theology, I mean hard, sustained thinking about who God is in our midst and who and what we are called to be in response to God’s gracious invitation to faithful community. I mean, as well, reflection not just about the grand political practices of life but the small, everyday ones. When I’m in such political discussions, and no theological reflection is taking place, I want to shout across the table: I know we disagree on school prayer, but what I don’t know is how you’d actually argue against separation of church and state on faith grounds. Tell me! I know you agree with Bush on the Middle East, but please, give me a faith-grounded defense of the U.S. military presence in Iraq! Defend torture on Christian grounds! The death penalty—marshal a doctrinal defense of it! I’m then eager to follow up with perhaps the hardest question of all: explain to me how these faith-answers (if you have them) connect with the faith-politics of your everyday interactions with neighbors, children, friends, and so on. It’s hard to imagine a question more important to Christians than this. Why are we not demanding that it be asked—as a political question—day in and out?

I must confess that this theological lacuna is not just a problem on the right, however. Although it takes a different form, I find a version of it alive and thriving among my fellow UCC congregants (myself included) who squirm at the mere thought of publicly articulating the religious grounds for their liberal politics. Such arguments aren’t hard to muster. Giving a theological defense of liberalism is one of the oldest games going in North America—but we’ve been spooked into believing that religiously neutered political discourse is the safest form of public speech about the things that matter most. The problem with this is obvious. It cuts off political visions from their lifeblood and inspiration, which were originally grounded in faith.

Four Reformed Arguments

What would such a Reformed-theological argument for liberal democracy look like? Here’s a quick overview—arguments that make for good conversations with both Muslims and evangelicals alike:

1. When I look at the world around me and reflect on the best way to organize our social life, it seems clear that certain processes work better than others. Because I have been shaped in a Reformed, Augustinian tradition that takes seriously the universality of sin —the inevitability that everyone falls prey to the distortions of pride and the destructive power of our acquisitive passions—I think it’s best that we have a political decision-making system that spreads power around broadly, making sure no one sinner has too much of it. A system of checks and balances ensures that no privileged set of “corruptions” is left unchallenged. We need systems of tolerance and constraint on religious discourse because no realm is more prone to the excesses of pride and distortions of sin than unbridled religion.

2. Because I have been shaped in a Western faith tradition that views the world and all its creatures as God’s beloved creations, I am inclined to see many of the differences I encounter in other people—different cultures, races, tastes, thought-patterns, dreams, delights, and worries—not as threats but as glorious goods, as part of God’s grand quotidian, an all-encompassing creation in which multitudinous realities coexist and interrelate. The hope is: the more voices involved in any event, the more wisdom there is to spread around and share—hence the necessity of representational democracy and public education. That human beings (along with the broader created world) should be honored and respected is the core of this worldview—hence the urgency of constitutional protections of basic human rights.

3. Because I believe that God calls the world into forms of faithful living that are structured and bounded, I take very seriously the need to legislate and enforce public laws that bridle sin and enable diversity to flourish. Because I am vividly aware of my obligations to care for others, I heartily support citizens’ duties such as paying taxes and judicial service. Similarly, my strong sense that the epistemic limits of my finitude and my inevitable sinfulness, as well as my recognition of the splendor of created difference, means a sturdy appreciation for the value of open-mindedness and humility as publicly institutionalized values.

4. My tradition also cultivates in me a disposition to hope, an insistent predilection for the future. If time belongs to God, then the future remains the space of new possibility. Each instance —not just of our own personal lives but also our collective political lives—is bordered by an awaiting moment in which God promises to be present and creative, to forgive the harms that haunt us by allowing us always to repent and begin again. Because this hope is grounded in an open-eyed assessment of sin and finitude, it is not falsely optimistic but earthy and pragmatic. It prompts me, as a citizen, to accept responsibility for our collective social processes, rejecting cynicism and indifference. I am, alas, called to participate because God is still participating. I am called to speak, as well, because “God is still speaking.”

Let it be a desire for God that enlightens the faith-filled politics of our daily interactions.

Market-driven Desires

Much of what I say here could be found in the pages of Niebuhr’s political and theological writings, Barth’s famous radio sessions, or John Calvin’s Commentaries and Letters, the origin of so much of the modern West’s political imagination. However, these antecedents don’t touch upon a distinctively new challenge to our priorities in communal life—the fevers of consumerism and consumption, the commodification of human desire into the logic of capital, and the problem these pose to public life. This trend seems to me to challenge Calvinist traditions in ways unique to our present day.

The Reformed tradition has long recognized the realm of our interior desires as a place where—to use the old but helpful image—the devil does battle with the Divine. We are called to love God—to desire God’s ways, to yearn for the blessed flourishing that God promises us. Faith is the context in which that desire is cultivated. The market also lives by virtue of its power to form and manipulate our desires, to make us want the things that it makes. In the West, if capitalism is going to grow and prosper, the market needs consumers whose passions are attached to its products. Not all cravings inspired by the market are bad: we want beauty in our lives, we desire comfort and safety and a sense of honest well-being in our homes and community, and it is often only through the market that these goods come to us. But the excesses of the market cannot be underestimated. When covetousness supersedes the fulfillment of our basic needs, then desire becomes corrupted. We must ask ourselves: Is our desire for beauty a faithful impulse if it requires sweatshops in Thailand and self-starving teenagers in our school systems? Is our need for security faithful if it leads to supporting legislation that justifies torture? Is our need for a sense of well-being faithful if it’s tied to patterns of addiction that deliver false, quick-fix satisfactions?

I conclude with these comments about market desires because they bring me back to an earlier point. Faith-actions involve our whole being just as politics and citizenship include not just the grand issues but also the practices of the everyday. It may well be that in the years ahead, the most controversial and doggedly exciting realm of political contestation will be the decisions we make as consumers—the forms of life we choose. Here the Reformed tradition has much to teach us. For Calvin, it was finally the glory of God and God’s wondrous beauty that compelled him to live in the fullness of that glory and beauty. And it’s here right now if we allow ourselves to move forward into lives of faithful service and abundant joy in the communities around us. Let it be a desire for God—a desire that is neither consumeristic nor passive but vibrant and verdantly good—that enlightens the faith-filled politics of our daily interactions. 

By imploring our God, our faith, our world, our nation, our neighbor, and our deepest selves—what visions will draw us into the future? What language and hopes will unite us? What cultural particularities will enrich us, and what resilient, stubborn faithfulness will compel us? Are these political questions or faith-based queries? In many of the old models, they are neither, but in a world of American Idols and car bombs and a dazzling, dancing market of consumer desires, it’s hard to imagine questions more radical—and more faithful. 

Serene Jones, who earned M.Div and Ph.D degrees at Yale, is Titus Street Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. She is the author of Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000) and other books. She is ordained in both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ.