Way back on June 7th, Caleb wrote: “Historically the Protestant church has tried to relocate the ground of existence in one of two places: either in a secularized institutional form, usually the state, or in the radically atomized heart of every individual. As a result, the history of the Protestant church is in part one of being manipulated by and put in the service of either state or individual. This has repeatedly led, in simplified terms, to either some form of collectivism or some form of liberalism, each tending towards more radical expression over the course of time.”
I was reminded of this observation, one with which I largely concur as a description of the difficult times in which we find ourselves as Protestants, while reading Russell Hittinger’s essay/review on/of Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers (in First Things, June/July, 2006). The piece is about the Roman Catholic church’s relationship to the state throughout the modern era. It concludes with the following observation:
“In Annum Sacrum, Leo made clear that, as the Church entered the twentieth century, it should no longer place its temporal hopes in the arrenments of the old political order. Once, he said, divine providence raised up a Constantine to deliver the Church from ‘the yoke of the Caesars.’ Today, however, ‘another blessed and heavenly token is offered to our sight — the most Sacred Heart of Jesus, with a cross rising from it and shining forth with dazzling splendor amidst flames of love. In that Sacred heart all our hopes should be placed, and from it the salvation of men is to be confidently besought.’ Leo understood that the Heart had to be affirmed without the political doctrines of nationalism and exceptionalism. He called the dedication ‘the greatest act of my pontificate.’
Hittinger then writes: “Today, it will seem a strange thing to make Jesus’ heart visually subordinate to Christ’s kingship, but once upon a time it was a profound exercise of political theology. It was nothing less than the way to preserve the Catholic imagination from what I have called the third-rail provincialisms of nationalisms and political religions. The human and earthly Jesus of th Heart is also the fully transcendent king.”
I offer this extended quotation to suggest that the difficulties posed by the modern state are not necessarily more pressing on Protestants than they are on Roman Catholics. If Protestants in reaction to the predicament of liberalism made a personal relationship with Jesus the chief expression of Christ’s kingly rule, then Roman Catholics also seem to have made a similar move. I’m not sure where that leaves us, except to say that for modern Christians, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, the options of political theology appear to be remarkably circumscribed. For myself, retaining Christ’s kingship over the church may be the best we can do. It may also be the only thing we can do.