A Brief Anabaptist Comment on Liberal Democracy

A friend recently posted a link on Facebook to a clip of James K. A. Smith talking about his new book, Awaiting the King, and asking the question, “How should Christians respond to liberalism?” Smith, a good Reformed thinker, advocates an open posture, suggesting: “I don’t think that we can just treat liberalism as the enemy of faith, for this reason: it’s a legacy of faith.”

It seems to me that Smith is a glass-half-full person when it comes to liberalism, and that this is the basic difference between Reformed and Anabaptist perspectives on church and state. His accent on Oliver O’Donovan’s comment that liberal democracy is the prodigal son of Christianity (if we grant that point — I’m not sure I do) is that it is still the son. I maintain that we cannot ignore the fact that it is at best a prodigal, and think that a thoughtful Christian posture of cooperative dissidence is preferable to what Smith proposes. I guess the rub is that my Anabaptist sensibilities don’t like the idea of starting by saying something intended to be even a potentially theologically positive point about the secular order, liberal democracy or not.

While I try not to be too much like John Howard Yoder (for reasons I hope are obvious), I find myself sympathetic to Yoder’s dis-ease about the co-opting of a Christian theological agenda by a governing power. I’m convinced that the qualitative difference between the ordering of the Kingdom and that of any other human political order makes a wedding of the two an unfaithful effort, even if well-intentioned. My inclination to be cooperatively dissident with respect to government means that I am willing to obey civil authority, within the limits of my theological convictions and in view of the lesser ordering that civil government affords. But my Kingdom ethic is not encompassed by this cooperation.

Reformed thinkers and Anabaptists ought to end up very close to one another in where they see Christians engaging civil authorities, albeit possibly for different reasons. But maybe that’s exactly the point … and the blessing.

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