(RNS) — “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.” This is a helpful and handy adage from the poet William Blake. It’s also a deeply moral summons to particularity in the doing of attempted good, a call to specificity. Go granular or go home, he might say, because “Generalized Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite. And flatterer.”
Generalization, in politics and religion, might work in accruing cred, coin, clicks and book sales, but particularity is where the righteousness — the heavy moral lifting — is.
In recent weeks, as elected officials who once tweeted “Back the Blue!” now target federal law enforcement while also tweeting Bible verses, my mind has turned to some of the public arrangements that make this publicly abusive behavior possible. There are of course political parties, donors, voters, but there are other institutions just as essential (if not more so) to successfully winning and wielding office. I refer here to churches. It’s time to think and speak more specifically about the behaviors they normalize.
After Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene publicly called upon her Republican colleagues to embrace Christian nationalism as their core value, Religion News Service reached out to more than 50 congressional Republicans for comment. Only two responded. This got me wondering over three related questions.
Where were they radicalized?
Where were they catechized?
Where were they baptized?
I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to ask the churches that claim (or once claimed) abusive elected officials as members what they owe both the public in terms of public safety and those members themselves in terms of moral clarity.
In my context, both of my United States Senators (Marsha Blackburn of Christ Presbyterian Church and Bill Hagerty of St. George’s Episcopal) have used their government Twitter accounts to suggest that Attorney General Merrick Garland and our FBI are corrupt. When efforts to reach them and ask them to delete, retract and apologize for these incitements to violence fail, is it appropriate to request that their churches offer a public statement condemning, or at least distancing themselves from, these abusive behaviors? I think so.
I think church organizations that house repeatedly abusive public figures, especially those who’ve been accorded public trust, are responsible for answering the question of where their witness stops and the abuser’s begins. Otherwise, their organization merely serves as free political capital for bad faith actors. And if Christian nationalism is a violation of the core values of the churches themselves, they owe it to their congregants, including their famous ones, to say so loud and clear.
We’ve been here before. In Germany, the Barmen Declaration (1934) addressed the Führer Principle as heresy (as well as terror). In South Africa, the Belhar Confession (1982) addressed white supremacist ideology as sin. And more recently, the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church issued an Episcopal Statement (2017) that invites “people who are committed to justice and righteousness, equality and truth” to help them in the effort “to thwart what are clearly demonic acts (of the Trump administration).”
These aren’t instances of churches suddenly becoming political. These are instances of communities of baptism demonstrating moral courage, making their witness clear in the face of state violence. Church organizations in America owe it to the American public to hold their publicly abusive congregants to standards of baseline moral seriousness, especially in our season of insurrection, whispers of civil war, and the strategic erosion of every form of common, public good.
In the case of Marjorie Taylor Greene, we have an elected official who spreads myriad forms of disinformation and who was also baptized at North Point Community Church in 2011. Most interestingly, North Point pastor Andy Stanley has been outspoken concerning Christian nationalism and polarization (see his recent talks on religion and politics, including “Nothing Divides Like Politics”). If baptism is to have meaning as a moral or communal commitment, I think North Point would be right to draw a line between what its public witness is, and is meant to be, and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s violent antics.
This isn’t to say that North Point has a Marjorie Taylor Greene problem. I mean to say that Greene, like Blackburn and Hagerty and other elected officials partnering with the Big Lie, have a church problem. They’ve been encouraged to believe they are part of a moral community. But if, in fact, they’ve been given, by their churches, a free pass to terrorize, I’d argue they have yet to be properly catechized. Like their constituents, they have been very poorly served.
“Are not Religion & Politics the Same Thing?” That’s Blake again, challenging, as poets and prophets do, the reigning dichotomies. In our discourse, there’s something of a firewall between “faith” and “politics” that makes it hard to remember that Mitch McConnell’s a Southern Baptist and Al Gore’s a Christian. It’s easy to fall for these divisions. It’s also the case that these divisions often obscure the threats, as well as the righteous possibilities, in front of us.
Sometimes the free-for-all that is Twitter can focus a conversation and facilitate insights that are easy to miss when we try to confine public behavior (and public abuse) to particular lanes in our understanding. Here’s special ed advocate and educator Anna Caudill weighing in on the question of whether or not churches need to speak up on famous, insurrectionist congregants: “Is it that difficult for a tax-exempt corporation to distance itself from the publicly destructive behavior of a member bent on dismantling our system of government?”
Is it that difficult for a tax-exempt corporation to distance itself from the publicly destructive behavior of a member bent on dismantling our system of government?
— Anna Caudill (@AnnaCaudill4) August 18, 2022
That is an amazing way of framing the story. It’s also rhetorically unassailable. An American church organization is an arrangement within and in relation to other arrangements that make up cities, states and the whole of American culture. In the heady days ahead, we need to think harder and perhaps speak more candidly about what we’re abiding — what we’re normalizing — in these arrangements. We become what we normalize.
(David Dark is the author of several books, including The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land. He teaches at the Tennessee Prison for Women and Belmont University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)