Values of A Public Faith – Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts from Miroslav Volf titled “Values of a Public Faith.” Between now and the election, we will be hosting these original posts from Miroslav on the values that he identifies as significant for a political candidate.

Miroslav Volf is the author of the Brazos book A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good -which was named a Top Ten Religion Book of 2011 by Publishers Weekly. In this series of blog posts (originally featured on his Facebook page), Miroslav continues to themes of A Public Faith in a way directly relevant for us in this political season.

Be sure to visit The Brazos Blog every Tuesday and Thursday as Miroslav shares his twenty values of A Public Faith.

Values of a Public Faith: A Contribution to a Conversation

by Miroslav Volf

In this year of presidential elections, I have decided to summarize key values that guide me as I decide for whom to cast my vote. There are three basic elements of choosing a candidate for public office responsibly:

1.    Values we hope the candidate will stand for and the order of priority among them (which requires of us knowledge of faith as a whole, rather than just a few favorite topics, and knowledge of how faith applies to contemporary life)

2.    Ways in which and means by which these values are best implemented in any given situation (which requires of us a great deal of knowledge about how the world actually functions and what policies lead to what outcomes—for instance, whether it would be an economically wise decision to try to reintroduce the gold standard)

3.    Capacity—ability and determination—to contribute to the implementation of these values (which requires of us knowledge of the track record of the candidate)
Most important are the values. As I identify each value, I will (1) name the basic content of the value, (2) give a basic rationale for holding it, (3) suggest some parameters of legitimate debate about it, and (4) identify a key question for the candidate.

I write as a Christian theologian, from the perspective of my own understanding of the Christian faith. Whole books have been written on each of these values, explicating and adjudicating complex debates. In providing a rationale for a given value, I only take one or two verses from the Bible to back up my position, more to flag the direction in which a rationale would need to go than, in fact, to strictly offer such a rationale.

0. Christ as the Measure of All Values

Value: The ultimate allegiance of a Christian is to Jesus Christ, the creative Word (become flesh), who enlightens everyone, and the redeeming Lamb of God, who bears the sin of the whole world. A Christian ought not embrace any practice, no matter how prudent it may seem from the standpoint of national security or national competitive advantage, which conflicts with her or his allegiance to Christ.

Rationale: “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11)*

Debate: For Christians, the debate should not be whether one’s allegiance to Christ trumps one’s allegiance to the nation. The debate should be what key values for national life follow from allegiance to Jesus Christ and what the proper relation is between the universal claims of Christ and the particular claims of the nation.

Question to Ask: To what extent is the candidate merely seeking to serve the “goddess nation” and to what extent is what he stands for compatible with the Christian conviction that Christ is the key to human flourishing?

1. Freedom of Religion (and Irreligion)

Value: All people are responsible for their own life, and they have the right to embrace a faith or way of life they deem meaningful and abandon the one with which they no longer identify without suffering discrimination.

Rationale: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ . . . Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’” (John 6:60, 66–67).

Debate: The debatable issue should not be whether people should be free to choose and exercise their religion (or irreligion) without discrimination; that’s a given. Public debate should be about which way of life, including its public dimensions or implications, is more salutary, and whether there are ways of life so inimical to human flourishing and common life that their exclusion doesn’t represent an act of discrimination but is a condition of humane social life. We should also debate the moral foundation of a state that is “neutral” with regard to distinct faiths and secular interpretations of life as well as the precise nature of political arrangements required to keep the state “neutral.”

Questions to Ask: Does the candidate respect the right of all—Christians and Muslims, fundamentalists and secularists, conservatives and progressives, to name a few groups often at odds with one another—to take personal responsibility for their lives and to lead them as they see fit? Does the candidate think of America as a Christian nation (so that, in one way or another, all others have to fit into a Christian mold) or as a pluralistic nation (in which a way of life is not imposed on anyone without his or her endorsement)?

2. Education

Value: It is important for all citizens to understand the world in which they live, to learn to reflect critically on what makes life worth living, and to acquire qualifications for jobs which increasingly require complex skills. We should strive for excellent and affordable education for all citizens.

Rationale: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (Gen. 1:26). “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it. . . . Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her” (Prov. 8:4–5, 10–11).

Debate: The debate should be about what families and government must do to improve the educational system, what exactly improvements in education look like, and what proportion of the budget should be allotted for educational purposes (as compared to, for instance, defense). The debate should not be about whether we should have an educational system that is both excellent and affordable for all.

Question to Ask: What will the candidate do to ensure that all citizens—the poor no less than the wealthy—are taught to make intelligent judgments about what makes life worth living, acquire skills necessary for functioning in modern societies, and have an adequate understanding of the world?

*unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the NRSV translation.
©2012 Miroslav Volf. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Check back on Thursday for Part 2 of this series.
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  1. John Squires says:

    I think this is very well put. Our faith does not drag us away from public life, or set us over and against what is happening. Our faith requires that we engage constructively and seek what is good for all in positive and hope-filled ways. The Church-State relationship is not a simple ‘either/or’ option.

    I have always thought that Constantine served as a flogging-horse for ‘the state’ in an unfair way. Postmodernists (or post-Chistendomites) want to blame him for all manner of ills with the church–the downhill slide started with him, we became too dependent on our priviledged place in society, and so forth. He was simply doing what he believed to be right for his place and time (albeit, with a big dose of self-interest thrown in — but who is immune from that??).

    We are in a new era, and rather than bemoaning the problems of the era, we need to rediscover ways in which the Gospel can speak and act in positive and constructive ways. That’s what Prof Volf is offering us here. I look for3ard to future instalments.


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