Newly arrived at Duke from King’s College in London, Luke Bretherton brings a fresh perspective on how Christian churches and faith-based causes intermesh with American political life. In a recent Office Hours interview, Bretherton, an associate professor of theological ethics and a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, describes four key “temptations” that pose problems for the church as it carries out its public ministry.
Co-option: One of the problems is how the church can be co-opted by the state. The church simply becomes a kind of mechanism for generating social glue, and we can think of the slightly problematic nature of the White House’s faithbased and neighborhood partnerships initiative along those lines.
Communalism: The church often adopts what one might call communalist discourses, ideas that we’re just another identity group fighting for our place in the political, social, and economic order. And that obviously pits the church in conflict with its neighbors, so that they’re not neighbors to be loved. We’re in competition with them.
Commodification: The danger is that Christianity becomes just another lifestyle choice; you do tai chi or yoga one day, and you’ll do a little bit of church the next.
Clientalism: That’s the idea the church often falls into, which is a kind of noblesse oblige, the charitable giving to those less fortunate than ourselves. And with that there’s a refusal of any notion of mutual, reciprocal life. It’s “I give to others, but I don’t want anything to do with them. I just write a check.”