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On Sex and Marriage, “Bridgerton” Stumbles Into Catholic Truth

What is the point of the marriage bed? Can sexual pleasure be intentionally separated from creating new life and still nurture authentic intimacy between spouses? What does making a complete gift of self to one’s spouse mean? These are questions explored in Catholic theology—and in Netflix’s new, popular costume drama Bridgerton. When I sat down to watch Shonda Rhimes’ new show, created by Chris Van Dusen and based on historical fiction by Julia Quinn, I anticipated a Regency-era setting with great ballroom scenes. I wasn’t wrong, but Jane Austen it certainly is not. (In fact, its explicit sexual content is enough to merit caution in whether to view this series at all or to completely avoid it.) What I did not expect was for a soapy TV show—one not marketed for its commitment to traditional sexual morality—to highlight themes of…

Ordinary Time: It’s Not Easy Being Green, But We Need It

The Catholic Church is filled with more treasures than one can discover in a lifetime, and perhaps one of the least appreciated is the liturgical calendar, especially when the days are filled with the all-too-familiar green that represents what we call “Ordinary Time.”  Its distinction confused me when I first entered the Church. Ordinary Time held a connotation of the mundane. I incorrectly understood it as a time to shake off the celebrations of the Incarnation in order to enter into the monotony of the ordinary. The Christmas decorations have been put away, and we return to the plainness of day-to-day life.  Advent was filled with anticipation as we watched, waited, and prayed with all of those so full of expectation at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. Then came Christmas, the great celebration. But now is not the time…

Theological Resistance

Reading the work of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth often feels like intellectual sparring. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, best known in the United States for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, had a very different authorial voice; even at its most unflinchingly prophetic, his work rarely feels as confrontational. Wolf Krötke, a close reader of both theologians, is able to hone in on the brilliant essentials of their work and to prod the reader to reexamine her thoughts about the relationship between us and God in light of their claims—to ask again and again: Is this what I believe? 

Krötke, a pastor in Communist East Germany, shares a foundational intention with his subjects, who were also pastors: to speak intelligently and honestly to the way both scholars and non-scholars think about God. Krötke’s description of his own reliance on Barth and Bonhoeffer to build a “theological resistance” when political resistance was largely futile elegantly echoes his investigations into their troubled efforts to do the same during the rise of fascism. Beginning in 1934, with the Barmen Declaration’s theological argument against the totalizing state, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, came to the conclusion that violent political resistance was sometimes necessary. For his own part, Krötke is unsure about the church’s “appropriation of the violent instruments of our sinful era. War, even a so-called just war...offers no general paradigm for Christian resistance to inhumanity, racism, and genocide.”

Krötke lays out the grand structure of Barth’s thought, from his early work on Paul in Epistle to the Romans (1919) through the thirteen volumes of Church Dogmatics (1932–1967). “Barth liked to say,” Krötke notes, “that the church and theology have the task ‘to begin anew at the beginning’ ‘every hour.’” This is certainly true of Barth’s work: you can’t grasp any point without “beginning anew” by retracing it to its premises.

In Krötke’s account, the main girders of Barth’s thought are these: God is, from the beginning, even before creation, “the God who encounters us in Jesus Christ, and is understood in terms of the history of God’s grace with humanity.” This encounter and its manifestations among us are the “history of a partnership in which the God who is friendly to humans comes among us and makes us capable of being his free partners and of leading lives that deserve to be called truly human.” Finally, “because our fundamental orientation is relationship to God, we realize our freedom most fully by corresponding to the call of God.”

“Because our fundamental orientation is relationship to God, we realize our freedom most fully by corresponding to the call of God.”

Krötke cites critics who think Barth’s view affords too little space and agency to humanity. Yet the encounter with a God who elected to grace us with friendship remains Barth’s starting point. All roads begin there. Readers must decide for themselves whether this sets God in the thick of human living, as Barth believed, or whether, as his critics say, Barth’s account of our encounter with God is too uniform—too dependent on German idealist notions of Spirit working through history, and tone-deaf to the particulars of any real person’s relationship to God. Is it a “take it or leave it” doctrine as Bonhoeffer described it? Or does it allow one to feel embraced in partnership with God?

Having established Barth’s fundamental theological outlook, Krötke goes on to explain Barth’s ideas about the nature of sin, the relationship between Christianity and other faiths (including atheism and the covenant with Israel), the importance of our flawed efforts at reconciliation (with God and other people), the role of pastoral care in enabling encounter with God (and the role of exegesis in understanding it), and, most importantly, the nature of the divine-human “partnership” granted by grace—what Barth called “the sum of the Gospel.” 

Krötke begins his section on Bonhoeffer by noting that he, too, anchored his work in the encounter between the human person and God. “Faith is God’s gift,” Krötke explains, “whereas religion is always a relationship to God shaped by humans.” Bonhoeffer’s realism can help us see the manifold relationships among people, God, faith, and religious institutions. In this he differs from Barth, who held that all people are “fated” to have religion. This idea of “Fatedness,” Bonhoeffer believed, denies the freedom through which people come to God. In Krötke’s fine summation, “Humans as distinguished from their religion are God’s beloved creatures whose freedom for encountering God contains far more possibilities than any particular form of religious behavior.” 

Bonhoeffer held to the Augustinian idea that, in the encounter with God, we discover new possibilities of experience we could not otherwise have imagined. And who is this God? Not a deus ex machina who saves us in time of need, and not only the weak and crucified Jesus, but the God discarded from modern life: “God is for the world only by stepping back from it and in this way giving it time and opportunity to be itself.” Bonhoeffer wrote of the “madness” of the invisible God, yet “God’s mystery sets humans free to allow God to come to them.” God is encountered in prayer and meditation on Scripture, and Krötke offers an eloquent chapter-length analysis of Bonhoeffer’s moving Prayerbook of the Bible: Introduction to the Psalms. The potency of this God, close by when we can do nothing, became more important as the efforts to stop Hitler failed and Bonhoeffer, condemned to prison, could do nothing more. “Sharing” in this God’s suffering in a godless world is a source of guidance and consolation. It is how we identify “ourselves generously and selflessly with the whole community and the suffering of our fellow human beings.”

Krötke’s discussion of these ideas prods the reader into a dialogue with Bonhoeffer on the role of divine and human suffering, God’s mystery and invisibility, and Jesus’s visibility (“Bonhoeffer’s God is the God who becomes nothing other than human”). While the German Christians who followed Hitler believed God manifested himself in German history, Bonhoeffer held that God manifests himself only in and through Jesus Christ. Yet Krötke also remarks on Bonhoeffer’s “openness to other religions,” which “like his understanding of religionlessness, arises from his faith in God in Christ.” Our many religions and varieties of faith are part of human living, where God meets us. 

Krötke’s penultimate chapter on Bonhoeffer explores his political work, the “first concentrated effort in the German theological world...to frame the question of state order in terms of Christology.” Bonhoeffer held that the Incarnation and Resurrection do not destroy the world but rather affirm it. Thus, Christ’s Kingdom “is the foundation of the [worldly] state too, which wards off the power of death, preserves the ‘order of the community, marriage, family, and nation [Volk]’ against the isolated individual, and restrains the thirst of selfishness.” In Bonhoeffer’s view, as in Luther’s, there is no right to revolution. 

Krötke explains the nature of the divine-human “partnership” granted by grace—what Barth called “the sum of the Gospel.”

But this doesn’t mean the state has carte blanche; on the contrary, the state is obligated to further the other orders of society—church, family, the economic sphere, “culture, scholarship, and art.” And the church must seek to limit state power, which, in its use of sanctions and force, distinguishes itself from Christ’s kingdom of love. 

As the Third Reich maintained a minimum of social order, Bonhoeffer hesitated to demand that the church identify it as an aberration that “comes forth as ‘the beast from the abyss’” in denial of Christ. But Bonhoeffer did believe that individual Christians could find that Nazism had abandoned the obligation to work with—and be limited by—other orders of society, placing itself above them as a kind of an idol. In his 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “the state is to create ‘law and order’ for all its ‘subjects.’ The state therefore illegitimately constricts its office when it refuses order and justice to a particular group of people—in other words, the Jews.... The church must stand up without exception for all ‘victims of any societal order’ and first and foremost the Jews.” 

Because of the German state’s refusal of justice to the Jews, Bonhoeffer found himself in “an extraordinary situation” in which, as Krötke writes, one could depart “‘from the normal and regular,’ and decide for an action ‘beyond any possible regulation by law.’” While Hitler made lawlessness a new mode of governance, Bonhoeffer saw his own decision to step outside the law only as an exception made necessary by exceptional circumstances—and it was, notably, a decision for which he was willing to accept punishment. 

In Krötke’s view, it was this thinking that propelled Bonhoeffer to return to Germany from the United States in 1939. Krötke thinks Bonhoeffer’s theological position on the Nazi state was finally far more radical than the 1934 Barmen Declaration, largely written by Barth. Yet Krötke also leaves us with one more irony: the theology Bonhoeffer developed to fight the Fascist state would soon be appropriated by East German authorities in support of the Communist one. 

 

Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Theologians for a Post-Christian World.

Wolf Krötke
Translated by John P. Burgess
Baker Academic
$48 | 272 pp.

Issue: 

Religion Booknotes

I suspect that no great argument was needed to make the Book of Revelation an entry in the “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. This last book in the biblical canon, with its prophetic voice and phantasmagoric visions, has had a long and often problematic history of reception that invites consideration of its remarkable longevity. Timothy Beal, a professor of religion at Case Western University, has earned a reputation for combining learning in biblical texts with an impressive grasp of contemporary cultural trends. Indeed, as the reader here learns, much of Beal’s own youth was immersed in present-day millenarian readings of this classic text (think Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind novels). This background would seem to make him an ideal guide to understanding the impact that Revelation could have. And in some respects, it does; the last hundred pages, for example, contain a mesmerizing account of the peculiar horror culture fostered by apocalyptic cultists.

Beal is also an effective interpreter of the (thoroughly non-apocalyptic) reading of Revelation in Augustine’s City of God, as well as of the medieval appropriations of the book’s imagery by Hildegard of Bingen and Joachim of Fiore. He shows how the book’s polyvalent symbolism can be read in quite distinct ways. Another of the pleasures of Beal’s treatment is his attention to art. In one instance, he shows how Cranach’s depiction of Revelation’s visions trumped Luther’s disapprobation of its text. In another, he recounts how the African-American folk artist James Hampton used bits and pieces of found objects to construct (in his Washington D.C. garage) a complete heavenly sanctuary based on the vision of God’s throne room in Revelation 4–5.

No one can dispute Beal’s evidence for the way Revelation’s imagery was used to demonize other religions or even large swaths of Christianity (for instance, equating the “Whore of Babylon” with the papacy). Such “othering” (to use Beal’s term) was, however unfortunate and ugly, scarcely owed entirely to that book, as the usage of patristic authors concerning Gentile religion makes clear. The tendency to emphasize the negative in the Book of Revelation, I think, is the main deficiency in this otherwise entertaining and informative treatment. This is especially true of the opening exposition, where Beal’s claims for the book’s violent misogyny lead him to some dubious reading of the actual text. He misses the opportunity to help readers understand more broadly the character of apocalyptic literature (a genre to which this writing belongs), and the ways that the Book of Revelation’s call to faithful witness against the powers of idolatry and corruption have strengthened countless believers, especially in times and places of persecution.  

The Book of Revelation: A Biography
Timothy Beal
Princeton University Press
$26.95 | 288 pp.

 

It is refreshing to read a book that states a modest but well-defined goal and then proceeds to accomplish it through the application of clear thought. Such precision delights the reader particularly when the topic is one that, without the control of consistent logic, could easily grow unwieldy. Christian Smith is a professor of sociology at Notre Dame University, whose earlier books reveal him to be a philosopher intensely concerned with religion and morality. In this small book consisting of four relatively independent essays, he seeks to challenge what he considers the “overreach” of claims concerning human morality made by certain humanistic atheists (or atheistic humanists) by carefully examining the logical connections—or lack of connections—between the claims they make and the warrants for those claims.

Smith states that he wants neither to defend religion nor attack atheism, but instead seeks to advance the conversation by paying attention to arguments made by atheist authors. His interest, therefore, is not in the obvious facts that many atheists are (sometimes impressively) personally moral, nor in the (pretty convincing) arguments of evolutionary psychologists that a naturalistic explanation of the world provides the basis for a limited altruism that can extend to others in one’s family, tribe, or nation. His interest, rather, is in larger claims being made for a morality based on an atheistic premise.

His first chapter asks, “How good without God are atheists justified in being?” That is, do they have a basis, as some apologists hold, for a high standard of ethics without recourse to God? Smith concludes that intellectually honest atheists, lacking delusions about innate human goodness or the need for social control in the absence of religious conscience, “do not have good reasons justifying their strong, inclusive, universalistic humanism, which requires all people to adhere to high moral norms and to share their resources in an egalitarian fashion for the sake of equal opportunity and the promotion of human rights.” They fail to reckon, he says, with the weight of religious influence that still persists among people, and they have no real answer to the problem of the “sensible knave” who takes advantage of everyone else’s rule-keeping to break rules (as criminals do) for his own benefit.

The second essay is a fascinating variation on the first: What justifies aspirations for universal benevolence, egalitarianism, and equal rights among those who inhabit a “naturalistic” universe—that is, one that consists merely in material causes and effects without design or purpose? If humans are only accidentally and randomly selected, the logic of this view would seem to work in the opposite direction—a social Darwinism characterized by savage competition rather than sweet cooperation. To think otherwise, Smith suggests, is once more to borrow without acknowledgement from the traditions of transcendental warrants provided by religion, or to indulge in sloppy sentimentalism.

Smith’s third essay shifts from ethics to epistemology. “Why Scientists Playing Amateur Atheology Fail” makes the fairly obvious but often occluded point that the methods of science properly practiced do not (and cannot) be the basis for metaphysical or “atheological” declarations. His quote from Terry Eagleton summarizes nicely: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is The Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

The last and most properly sociological of the essays asks whether humans are naturally religious. After a careful run-through of inadequate ways to ask or answer that question, Smith offers a highly qualified “yes,” in the sense that humans have natural capacities for religion that are real and resilient, but that can be either suppressed or encouraged by ideological and cultural influences. As I say, a careful and thoughtful book, with many notes at the end, but in a prose that is for the most part accessible to a non-specialist reader.

Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver
Christian Smith
Oxford University Press
$19.95 | 168 pp.

 

Blondel was a philosopher by trade rather than a theologian, and this distinctive role allowed him to approach questions with fresh eyes.

Post–Vatican II Catholics who understand tradition as a living process, encompassing all the Church’s practices and above all its liturgy, might be surprised to learn that such an appreciation is not to be taken for granted. In truth, it is a hard-won perspective owed to such French Catholic theologians as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Jean Daniélou, all of whom were marginalized in the years before the council, but whose views animated the council documents on revelation and the Church. Catholics today are undoubtedly even less aware of the early-twentieth-century philosopher whom de Lubac himself named as the greatest influence on his own sense of tradition: Maurice Blondel (1861–1949).

Robert C. Koerpel teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas, and he seeks in his slender but densely written book to elevate this mostly ignored thinker to his proper place in the history of Catholic theology. Blondel was a philosopher by trade rather than a theologian, and this distinctive role allowed him to approach questions with fresh eyes. His earliest philosophical work (L’Action, originally published in 1893 and expanded to two volumes in 1936–37) served to lay the foundation for his later thinking about tradition within the Church. In contrast to the idealism of Kant and Hegel, which emphasized human cognition, and similar to his contemporaries Bergson and Marcel, who focused on the dynamism of embodied human existence, Blondel began his analysis with practice, specifically with the implications of human volition. It was in the gap between a person’s reach and his grasp when willing something that Blondel located the space for divine revelation. The same emphasis on practice, this time in the body of the Church, characterized his later contributions on tradition.

Koerpel works hard to show the intellectual context within which Blondel developed his understanding of tradition in works such as Histoire et Dogme (History and Dogma, 1904). On one side was the reductionistic historical-critical approach of Alfred Loisy, and on the other side was the equally reductionist approach of neo-scholasticism, which, following the lead of the First Vatican Council (1869–70), tended to define tradition propositionally in terms of dogma or magisterial pronouncements. Blondel advanced a more profoundly religious, even mystical, understanding of tradition, as the continuing presence of the incarnate Christ (through the Holy Spirit) within the practices—above all the celebration of the Eucharist—carried out by God’s people in the Church. It was a stunning insight that, by being positively appropriated by more renowned theologians like de Lubac, entered the consciousness of those of us fortunate enough to have inherited it.

Maurice Blondel: Transforming Catholic Tradition
Robert C. Koerpel
University of Notre Dame Press
$55 | 278 pp.

 

The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is among the most vivid and memorable in the Gospel tradition. Jesus invites the one without sin to cast the first stone at her, and when her accusers withdraw, he releases the woman with the words, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on, do not sin again.” In English translations and in the critical texts of the New Testament on which the translations are based, the story appears in John 8:1–2. But it also appears in brackets of some sort, with an accompanying note warning that the story is absent from the earliest Greek manuscripts; that in some other manuscripts it is found after John 7:36, or after John 21:25, or even after Luke 21:38; and that there are many variations in wording even in texts that contain the story. Like the “longer ending” of Mark (16:9–19), the passage’s origin and authenticity are questioned by New Testament scholars, most of whom do not consider either story to be the work of the “original evangelist.” But if that is the case, how did they become part of canonical Scripture?

Jennifer Knust teaches at Boston College and Tommy Wasserman at Ansgar Teologiske Høgskole in Norway. Finding themselves both researching the passage on Jesus and the adulterous woman, they combined forces to produce this splendid and exhaustive examination of its textual history and reception by the Church. With scrupulous attention to every scrap of extant evidence, they probe the obvious questions: Was the passage added, was it omitted by accident, or was it suppressed for some ideological reason? They examine each possibility within the context of the actual practices of ancient scribes who worked on classical and biblical texts, showing how a strict fidelity to the version being copied was accompanied by the freedom to mark dubious passages with asterisks. The conclusion that the passage was not part of the evangelist’s narrative, however, is only the first step. How did it get into that narrative?

The authors trace the signs of a story about Jesus and a woman caught in sin that can be detected as early as the second or third centuries—at a time when our earliest papyri evidence was being produced. The story was around, in other words, for a long time. Then they show how the story was incorporated into its respective locations in Greek and Latin manuscripts of the New Testament. In the West, the acceptance of the passage (“found in many manuscripts”) by Jerome in his Vulgate translation sealed the deal.

In the East, the liturgical reading of the passage meant its inclusion in lectionaries, which turn out to be invaluable sources for the text critic. The passage, in brief, was a witness to the character of Jesus that was regarded as evangelical, even if it had not been penned by an evangelist. In a very real way, this study confirms what Maurice Blondel argued about tradition (see the previous review): the practices of the Church form and transmit tradition, and sometimes the shape of Scripture itself.

Although massively learned and minutely argued, this book on an apparently arcane and insignificant issue makes a major contribution to our understanding of early Church history as well as contemporary debates about the relation of Scripture to tradition. It also makes a major statement concerning text-criticism of the New Testament as a whole: the quest for the “original text” has some merit, but the far more fascinating topic is the history of textual reception—how Scripture was actually read in diverse communities.

To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story
Jennifer Knust and Tommy Wasserman
Princeton University Press
$45 | 464 pp.

Issue: 

Kanye’s Gift: Black Gospel and Catholic Polyphony Together at Last!

Over the past fifteen years, Kanye West’s influence in the popular culture has had no parallel. He has led the reshaping of hip-hop. His shoe brands have been top sellers. He has been successful in dozens of business and philanthropic ventures. Critics love him. Fans love him. He has angered people and inspired them. Like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and Prince, he has it—a mysterious something that has always transcended the words and music he records. When he married Kim Kardashian in 2014, his mystique took on a whole new energy. When his 2016 album Life of Pablo came out, much vulgarity remained, but it was clear he was headed in a religious direction. “This is a God dream,” he declared on the opening track, “Ultralight Beam.” By 2018 he admitted publicly that he had been diagnosed as bipolar. In 2019 he made his landmark Christian record Jesus…

Chesterton and the Vocation of Our Senses

 Here dies another day During which I have had eyes, ears, hands And the great world round me; And with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed two? —G.K. Chesterton, “Evening”   Known for his mental acuity and piercing insight, G.K. Chesterton was perhaps at his finest in his most incisive observations. Though Chesterton had the capacity to wax eloquent on everything from the lives of the saints to the form and movement of the cosmos, some of his most memorable expressions, like the one posed in the poem above, are those which seem, on first glance, to be most fleeting. In this pensive fragment of poesy, Chesterton meditates briefly on the state of his own creatureliness; and yet, what seems to be a wisp of an idea expands outward, like the toll of a bell that grows…

Word on Fire Institute: Here’s What’s Coming in 2021

2020 was a strange year in many ways. Sadly, the beginning of 2021 has not slowed the fear, isolation, and anger of the last many months. In the midst of such confusion, the work of evangelization becomes ever more necessary, and a refocusing on the grace and peace of our Savior ever more urgent. Bishop Barron and Word on Fire have placed themselves in the Lord’s service, poised (and privileged) to work in precisely this field. Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire Institute (WOFI) continues to train evangelists all around the world who can be channels of grace, and incarnated invitations to come to know Jesus Christ through his Church. God’s providence in the hope-filled work of the apostolate showed itself in myriad ways in 2020: We have grown to over 17,000 members from around the world, representing 32 countries. We filmed 12 brand-new courses to be viewed by our…

Learning by Heart with Miss Duffy

Miss Duffy was a giant. Physically, she was diminutive; she dazzled with a shock of grey hair, meticulously placed bright red lipstick, and a limp from childhood polio. In the eyes of a fourth-grade boy, her presence was towering. Miss Duffy talked and laughed with a gravelly voice. She told incredible stories and crafted assignments of great creativity. Somehow this old woman still lived in a fourth-grade world. And I loved her. That is, until one day when she assigned us to memorize Robert Frost’s immortal poem, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. Now, understand, the poem is only four stanzas—sixteen brief lines—of easily apprehended English. But in the mind of a fourth-grader, it could just as well have been The Iliad. A few weeks hence, we were told, each of the twenty-three fourth graders at Jefferson Elementary School would stand by their L-shaped desk (one-by-one) and recite the…

Warnock’s Way

Faith was a defining feature of the Georgia special-election campaign that helped give Democrats control of Congress and the White House for the first time since 2011. The Black church and progressive religious activism took center stage, helping make Rev. Raphael Warnock—the son of a sharecropper who grew up in public housing—the state’s first Black senator. The pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once presided, Warnock is heir to generations of Black liberation preachers. It is a distinguished lineage. From Howard Thurman’s seminal work, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), to A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), to The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011) by Warnock’s mentor James Cone, this prophetic tradition understands the Gospel through the prism of Black suffering and oppression wrought by centuries of white supremacy and systemic racism.

Catholic liberation theology emerged from Latin America as a response to violence, extreme inequality, and poverty; in similar yet distinctive ways, Black liberation theology grapples with slavery, Jim Crow, and the contemporary injustices of voter suppression, mass incarceration, and police brutality. It’s an understatement to say that the discomforting truths illuminated by Black liberation preachers clash with the predominant strain of white Christianity, which largely focuses on personal behavior and individual salvation at the expense of structural injustices and social sins. This contrast played out during the campaign in a state where the intersection of race and religion shapes debates over values, politics, and identity.

Snippets of Warnock’s sermons became fodder for attack ads from his Republican opponent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler. A white Christian businesswoman, Loeffler had earlier decried what she called the “anti-faith attacks” against conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. But Loeffler showed no reservations in using faith as a political weapon against Warnock. Loeffler and her GOP allies seized on a thirty-second clip from a 2011 sermon the pastor gave in which he references the Gospel of Matthew, declaring, “America, nobody can serve God and the military. You can’t serve God and money. You cannot serve God and mammon at the same time. America, choose ye this day who you will serve.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who frequently tweets Bible verses, circulated the clip, commenting that “these and even crazier things is what the radicals who control the Democratic party’s activist and small dollar donor based believe.” President Trump called Warnock “the most radical and dangerous left-wing candidate ever to seek this office,” during an election-eve rally in Georgia. “He does not have your values,” the president said.

The orchestrated efforts to portray Warnock as a Marxist, an unpatriotic radical out of touch with Christian values, only make sense if you whitewash the Hebrew prophets and the ministry of Jesus from the Bible. Small government, lower taxes, and a strong military are a manufactured holy trinity that fuel the political and religious imagination of many white Christians. But this orthodoxy is ideological, not authentically Christian. In contrast, Warnock, who said he will continue to preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sundays, embraces a Christianity that, in the words of Pope Francis, goes to the “peripheries.” In the United States, you can’t start from the peripheries without acknowledging the ways that white supremacy has shaped laws and institutions that continue to harm people of color. As Warnock put it in a eulogy last summer for Rayshard Brooks, a young Black father of four shot and killed by an Atlanta police officer in a Wendy’s parking lot:

Warnock...embraces a Christianity that, in the words of Pope Francis, goes to the “peripheries.”

This country has become too accustomed and comfortable with Black people dying. If Black Lives Matter, then we must do all we can to fight for our lives, fight this virus: COVID-19. But we had to come together because there’s another virus in the land. And, it’s killing people. There’s COVID-19 and then there’s COVID-1619. They are both deadly. And in this land, we’ve been trying to beat back this virus since 1619 when about twenty slaves or so arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. Mass incarceration is the latest mutation of an old virus called racism. And that’s not just a social issue or a political issue. That’s a moral issue. That’s a spiritual problem. 

Along with renewed attention to the power of Black liberation theology, Warnock’s win is instructive for shifting the narrative about faith in politics, especially in red states where religion is a central player. The Religious Right has spent decades investing in organizing faith leaders and conservative voters. White Evangelicals and white Catholics played a decisive role in claiming the mantle of “values voters” during the George W. Bush era. Donald Trump relied on these voters to win the White House. It’s true that religious progressives attract more media attention than in the past. Democrats such as Pete Buttigieg and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker spoke eloquently about their faith during the presidential race, at times pointedly challenging the hypocrisy of conservatives who claim to own the moral high ground on issues. The Biden campaign had a robust religious outreach operation. But the Democratic Party and liberal funders still too often pay attention to religion only when an election cycle comes around. Transactional relationships aren’t built to last. Long-term investment and infrastructure building with a diverse coalition of religious voters and faith communities are essential.

Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House speaker who lost a razor-thin 2018 gubernatorial race, understands this. The leading force behind Georgia’s turn to blue, Abrams founded Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project, organizations that redefined the state’s political calculus with a massive effort to register new voters, especially voters of color. In 2018, that effort registered more than two hundred thousand new voters, and it increased to eight hundred thousand new voters this year. “My faith is central to the work that I do, in that I not only hold Christian values, but my faith tradition as a Methodist tells me that the most profound demonstration of our faith is service,” Abrams has said.

Reaching new voters, especially in rural areas, begins with a faith connection. Faith in Public Life, my organization, has staff on the ground in Georgia working with religious leaders and people of faith every day of the year. They visited rural churches and made sure people had rides to the polls. “We spread out from Augusta and hit all the rural counties,” my colleague Shavonne Williams told Reuters. “Many didn’t want to be political, or they thought it didn’t make a difference. We educate and encourage. We remind them that Jesus got involved. That seems to get through.”

Rev. Warnock’s victory doesn’t have to be an outlier. A progressive, prophetic religious approach to justice and politics can be a winning ticket across the country. A new moral majority—multiracial and interfaith—can begin to reclaim faith from the grip of reactionary white Christians who have defiled the Gospel since long before Trump’s election. The pro-Trump rioters who stormed the Capitol last week, many holding “Jesus Saves” signs and waving Confederate flags, stand in the way of making that future a reality. “A new America is emerging and that’s why you see the expression you saw yesterday,” Warnock said in an interview a day after the insurrection in Washington. “It is the desperate, last gasp of an old problem that knows it’s on its last breath.”

But Trump is a symptom of deeper ills that will not disappear when he leaves office. Believing in that new America will require committed donors who understand the power of faith as a catalyst for social change, and a tangible commitment to organizing. Faith demands hope, but it also needs a strategic plan.

A National Examination of Conscience in a Divisive Time

After the frightening and sobering events occurring at the US Capitol recently, Bishop Robert Barron recommended that, as a nation, we engage together in an examination of conscience. Thinking about what such an examination might look like, I came up with the following questions: Do I make an effort to inform myself in a way that is open to truth wherever it may be found, or do I only read opinions and media with which I always agree? Do I make an effort to find, understand, and read news sources that are objective and follow journalistic standards? Do I regularly reduce complex issues to simplistic, partisan sound bites to avoid engaging honestly and vulnerably with people with whom I disagree? Do I speak of my ideological opponents in a way that dehumanizes, stereotypes, or objectifies them? Do I speak scornfully or dismissively of those with whom I disagree rather…