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Monday, February 1, 2016

Marilynne Robinson: Traditional Christian, Political Liberal

Probably because of the perceived alignment between conservative Christian theology and conservative politics, many Christians who lean to the political left instinctively embrace the theological left, assuming that theological orthodoxy is incompatible with political liberalism. Many, in fact, assume that Christianity is incompatible with political liberalism. As the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson notes,
I am a Christian. There are a number of things a statement of this kind might mean and not mean. . . To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal (The Givenness of Things, p. 159).
One, however, does not need to abandon traditional Christian beliefs in order to embrace political liberalism. Jim Wallis, the evangelical founder of the Sojourners community, is probably the best known example, but so is Robinson. Robinsons is a public intellectual. In addition to her novels, she delivers lectures to a wide variety of audiences, from groups of scientists to college undergrads. And she is unembarrassed that she holds traditional Christian beliefs:
I have spent all this time clearing the ground so that I can say, and be understood to mean, without reservation, that I believe in a divine Creation, and in the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the life to come. I take the Christian mythos to be a special revelation of a general truth, that truth being the ontological centrality of humankind in the created order, with its theological corollary, the profound and unique sacredness of human beings as such (The Givenness of Things, p. 222).
But one could hardly characterize her as a political conservative. Take for instance her stance on religious freedom and marriage equality:
I understand that marriage equality offends some people's religious sensibilities, and I know that denial of basic civic equality offends the religious sensibilities of others. My own, for example. Why does only one side of this question merit attention as an issue of religious freedom? My denomination blessed the unions of same-sex couples until the minute it could instead perform marriages. Was not our religious freedom constrained by law until the state supreme court acted, and would it not be again if the Governor Jindals of the world had their way? Why is this controversy, insofar as it is conducted in the language of religion, so one-sided? I never feel more Christian than I do when I hear of some new scheme for depriving and humiliating the poor, and feel the shock of religious dread at these blatant contraventions of what I, as a Christian, take to be the will of God. And yes, I can quote chapter and verse (The Givenness of Things, p. 162).
One shouldn't confuse Robinson's orthodoxy with fundamentalism. She's a mainline Protestant (she was raised Presbyterian and now attends a United Church of Christ church in Iowa) who approaches scripture in a non-literalist way. For example, in discussing Jesus' temptation in the desert, she notes that the words placed on Jesus' lips all come from the Torah, indicating to her that the author of this narrative is trying to make a theological, rather than a historical, point.

None of this is to suggest that Christians shouldn't hold heterodox theological views. A very good theological case can be made for what many call "Progressive Christianity." But as Robinson (and Wallis) illustrate, one doesn't need to abandon Christian orthodoxy in order to embrace political liberalism. However, I suspect that many progressive Christians do just that. Rather than let their theological beliefs drive their politics, they let their politics define their theology. And in my opinion, that is unfortunate.

Note: President Obama is a fan of Robinson and has visited with her to discuss her work. Links to the conversations between the President and Robinson can be found here ("President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa") and here ("President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation—II")

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