Spent the day today at the main campus of my institution, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Fort Worth. As some of you know, while I am an elected faculty member at Southwestern Seminary, I teach full time at Southwestern’s campus in Houston: the J. Dalton Havard School of Theological Studies. As a result, I don’t get to the main campus of SWBTS in Fort Worth very much, but I always enjoy being on campus and seeing good friends the few times I am there during the academic year.
Recently, I was named Associate Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. It’s going to be a lot of fun working with Evan Lenow, an ethicist and the director of the Land Center as well as Trey Dimsdale, a PhD student in ethics as well as a fellow Associate Director. Together, we plan to implement the mission of the Land Center, which is (in partnership with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention) “to awaken, inform, energize, equip, and mobilize Christians to be the catalysts for the Biblically–based transformation of their families, churches, communities, and the nation.”
What on earth can I bring to the table, especially since I am not an ethicist (is it that obvious?). I will attempt to bring historical perspective to issues related to American identity and Christian engagement with culture in the public square, as well as religious freedom and the historic Baptist role in articulating and defending it.
I had the pleasure of giving a lecture today at a lunch hosted by the Land Center in the beautiful Naylor Student Center dining room today. My lecture was entitled “American Exceptionalism and Cultural Engagement.” I drew a distinction between closed and open exceptionalism, and attempted to define a model for an open exceptionalist engagement with the culture that draws on the work of Justin Martyr (d. 165) and W. E. B. Du Bois (d. 1963).
In his First Apology, Justin wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Roman Senate, pleading for justice for the persecuted community of Christians. He eloquently distinguished the Christian churches from the Roman state, while simultaneously situating the churches within the Roman state. Justin said that no one was more loyal to Rome than the Christians, but they would not render to Caesar those things which belonged to God alone.
Du Bois, in his Dusk of Dawn (1940), differentiated and retrieved the Christian ethic from Americanism, which, he wrote, leads ultimately to white supremacy. In doing so, Du Bois showed how nationalism and white supremacy were a betrayal of the Christian conception of justice articulated in the gospels and summed up in the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you.
Justin and Du Bois were both members of persecuted minorities. Both disspelled rumours about Christians; both advocated for human dignity and justice; both called on the leaders of their societies to respect and protect their people. Justin is an example of how Christians can see themselves as both distinct from, and a part of, the nation. Du Bois is an example of how Christians can employ the prophetic voice to call the nation back to its stated principles. Both of these figures present us with a model for cultural engagement that is true to the best ethical and political traditions of American ideals on the one hand, and consistent with the teachings of Christ on the other.
This open exceptionalist model is unlike the closed exceptionalism which idealizes and idolizes the nation by asserting that America can do no wrong. America is made up of Americans, who are flawed human beings prone to selfishness and hubris. At the same time, Americans hold out those ideals of equality, justice, individual freedom, and human dignity based on the imago Dei–ideals on which the American republic was founded. America is not God’s chosen nation. America is not morally regenerate. But America is a nation that, historically, is never content with the status quo of human flourishing–Americans, as a uniquely self-examining people, continually look for ways to expand human flourishing, albeit imperfectly and by fits and starts.
Christian people have a special responsibility, as articulated in the New Testament, to demonstrate loyalty to the nation and to be a preserving agent of culture. They do this by 1) submitting to God, 2) submitting to civic leaders, 3) contending for truth and justice by their actions and their words, and 4) confronting injustice with boldness tempered by patience and love when it is manifested in the culture. In these actions, Christians are consistent with the highest ideals of the American republic and the sublime teachings entailed in the gospel of Christ.