By C. Andrew Doyle
The 2016 U.S. election revealed that Christians are divided about what it means to be a citizen in God’s kingdom and a citizen of the empire.
Similar to Christian formation, civic formation in America has eroded. Voting percentages are down, there is a malaise among citizens toward their government, and hopelessness pervades political conversation. This malaise is a symptom of the overall crisis of citizenship formation that has taken root in most nations around the world. The church has all but abandoned the conversation about Christian citizenship altogether. When apathy becomes the modus operandi of citizenship, and especially Christian citizenship, then we are in trouble. In the vacuum left by a retreating church, the nature of citizenship is being defined by other, less charitable voices.
Very few of the congregations in my diocese speak about voting or the duty of citizenship. Few speak about the importance of being a Christian citizen. Citizenship formation in my tradition is silent at worst, or merely preached from the pulpit, which is not helpful. The church has offered little teaching on the topic of Christian citizenship, so that her people bring their secular politics into their congregations totally unexamined.
I found clergy and lay leadership underprepared for the difficult conversations that emerged in the 2016 political environment. For example, there was widespread confusion about the separation of church and state. Somehow, we started to believe that separation of church and state meant we should not talk politics or religion with friends and family or at church. This is poor advice. Just because we don’t do these conversations very well doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them. We should be able to speak with skill and nuance about politics and religion. And, if we can’t, in the immortal words of Napoleon Dynamite, “We need to get some skillz.”
I would argue that schools, political parties and the corporations that control the media have largely defined what is meant by citizenship. In this way, unchurched people have defined the terms of Christian citizenship for those inside our faith communities. The notion of Christian citizenship fell prey to the wider forces of principalities. The end result was that some Christians found themselves parroting their political party’s agenda as Christianity. Others left the church from an inability to speak honestly about their opinions within a Christian framework or to have their opinions heard.
Some parishioners came up for air following the election and were confused about the inner congregational conflict. I heard from many that their priest or their church friends weren’t who they thought they were. Members’ families were divided. One group in a Spanish-speaking congregation explained that as a family they talk about everything, but they were struggling because they could not talk about the election.
Elsewhere, many parishioners thought that it was the work of Christians to be good Americans and support the nation-state without question. It wasn’t that people didn’t want to talk, they didn’t want the church to ask critical questions about their government. This sentiment is commonly expressed when a president from your preferred party is in office. It is the rare Christian citizen indeed who manifests the same critical eye toward the government regardless of presidents and parties holding office. It is a rare Christian citizen who sees the issues defined first from the Christian perspective and then as a citizen of the nation.
All of this reveals that what must be plumbed is not only what it means to be a Christian citizen, but what does that citizenship look like within the wider geography of local and global relationships and what does it look like as a theological concept over and against the powers of this world?
A vacated Christian citizenship means the loss of a critical voice within the wider political discourse. In the U.S. there is more at work here than simply a disagreement between red and blue states. There is a deep work of manipulation underway by the powers that be to manipulate local and global forces toward greater inequality, and income disparity, through wage theft, lack of access to health care, and the reining in of freedoms. Assumptions that Christian citizenship is equal to an American civil religion are over. The church no longer has the luxury of believing that Christian citizenship is synonymous with American citizenship—as if it ever were. The same is true for Christians in every nation.
Outsiders cannot define the work of virtuous citizenship for the Christian. The outsiders who promote a false understanding of the division between church and state in order to manipulate Christians into supporting their unchristian agenda include but are not limited to politicians, campaign managers, political commentators and the media. Christianity is not practiced alone.
Christianity is not an individual sport. It must be practiced among people in relationship. A practiced Christian citizenship affects various levels of community, in relationship to goods and services, and as part of the wider economy. It cannot be practiced in the church only. Christian citizenship must be lived out in the world, supported by the church.
I wrote Citizen to be a guide for conversation and for listening, for thoughtful action, reflection and prayer; brought forth from God’s imagination and generative within the community, polis/city, nation-state and global contexts in which Christians make their home. I hope that my book will offer an engaged, virtuous, habit-forming Christian citizenship that is convivial in manner and works towards a common good.
Excerpted from Citizen: Faithful Discipleship in a Partisan World by C. Andrew Doyle, ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas; it is used with permission from Church Publishing.