John Senior on A Theology of Political Vocation

Publication Year: 2015

Jermaine McDonald: What was your inspiration for A Theology of Political Vocation?

John E. Senior: I noticed that when Christian theologians think and talk about Christian participation in public and political life, they most often have in mind the work of ordinary citizens as voters, activists, community leaders, protesters, and leaders in community organizing projects. While the political work of ordinary citizens is certainly important, focusing on just this perspective neglects a theological analysis of the moral complexities of political power. Ordinary citizens in most political roles in which they might serve, do not often wield power to govern. Instead, citizens more often wield power to hold their elected officials accountable. I wanted to think about how Christians should understand the work of governing and the moral ambiguities and complexities that work entails from a theological point of view. The driving question of the book is: What makes for good work in politics–especially the work of good government? This examination helps in two ways: it provides a theological treatment of the work political officers do, and it pushes theologians to move away from political ethics that make recommendations about law and policy without attending to what the actual practice of politics entails.

Why should the general public be interested in this work?

A theological understanding of vocation frames political work in relationship to questions about the common good. What makes for good political work, in other words, will depend on how it relates to some conception of the common good. In morally pluralistic societies, we can’t say from the outset just what the common good means or what it should look like. Nevertheless, the frame of vocation requires an ongoing public discussion about the nature of the common good, one that recognizes that our ideas about common life and common goods will likely change over time. Those conversations are indeed a challenge. Yet, wouldn’t be it be nice, to invoke a Trumpism, if our thinking about the question of what makes for good political work were tied to some understanding of the common good and of common life? The general public should be interested in this approach because it would radically re-orient how we value politics, starting from questions about what our common life should look like, and then thinking about the politician’s responsibilities in relationship to that. That is a far cry from where we are now!

Can a theology of political vocation help us to better navigate the deepening left-right chasm in the United States?

Re-orienting the question about what makes for good political work along the lines described above would at least raise awareness about the kinds of unhelpful assumptions Americans make about what government can and should do. Conservatives tend to think that an unrestrained globalized market should be the primary mechanism used to create, maintain, and distribute common goods, and, more generally, organize social and political life. Progressives tend to think that governments have a greater role in this work. A complex understand of the common good would push us to think more critically about how each of these mechanisms work well and how each is limited. We need both market systems and governmental structures to create, maintain, and distribute common goods equitably. The job of the politician is to figure out how best to arrange each. Additionally, a public, political discourse focused on common life opens up opportunities for constructive theological reflection that both moves beyond, and maybe also helpfully re-frames, political debates where public theology currently tends to get stuck: i.e. abortion and human sexuality for starters.

How is this book situated within existing research on the subject?

I think that public and political theologians often like to make recommendations about how Christian citizens should participate in public and political life without considering the moral complexity of the practice of politics, even on the level of ordinary citizenship. In response to this phenomenon, my book focuses on the work of ruling well, inviting those who are interested in political vocations of ordinary citizenship to think more critically about what it means to exercise power. For example, theologians, following the lead of much of contemporary political theory, tend to think that the practice of politics really amounts to making really great arguments in public space, as if the political arena is a doctoral seminar. Public dialogue is important, but it is just one form of political agency, and a not particularly morally complex one at that. How should citizens wield instrumental, even coercive political power? My book adds some thinking about that question into the mix.

What is one question you wish someone would ask you about this book and how would you answer it?

A timely question might be: What does your book have to offer to an age of authoritarian rule in the U.S.?

I argue that vocation is an interesting frame for thinking about the meaningfulness of work because it holds in tension, on the one hand, a realism about the world-as-it-is with a vision of the world-as-it-should-be (i.e. the common good). That is, vocation recognizes that politics is morally ambivalent and ambiguous work at times, involving, for example, competition, compromise, and tactical dissimulation. How do we know when those practices are good, or good enough? It’s not easy to draw clear lines, but a theological understanding of vocation proposes that the practice of politics must reflect, and is evaluated against, a commitment to some vision of a common good or a common life, as well as a commitment to work with others, even opponents, to continuously refine such a vision. Authoritarian rule rejects that understanding. It is solipsistic, narcissistic, and anti-democratic. The book was written before 2016, but I hope it shows why vocation could be a meaningful antidote to politics in the age of Trump.

John E. Senior

About John E. Senior

John E. Senior is Director of the Art of Ministry Assistant Teaching Professor of Ethics and Society for the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University and an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). His book, A Theology of Political Vocation: Christian Life and Public Office, was published in 2015.

About Jermaine M. McDonald

Dr. Jermaine M. McDonald is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He completed his PhD in Ethics and Society from Emory University in the Spring of 2015.

Jermaine M. McDonald

Dr. Jermaine M. McDonald is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He completed his PhD in Ethics and Society at Emory University in the Spring of 2015. Jermaine researches interesting convergences between race, religion, and politics with the aim of analyzing how various groups bring their religious ideas of the common good to bear in U.S. society.

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