What do Gene Robinson and Charles Colson have in common?
V. Gene Robinson is the rather high profile Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire who is openly and proudly gay. He has been tapped, along with the equally venerable evangelical Rick Warren, to participate in the presidential inaugural events. (Robinson got to kick things off Sunday and Warren gets to wrap them up Tuesday.)
Born in Boston, Charles (“the culture warrior formerly known as Chuck”) Colson is known for his time in the Nixon Whitehouse and prison, then subsequent born-again experience. These credentials are enough in broad evangelicalism’s cult of personality to catapult one into a silent but vociferous popery. Vanguard of all things ECT, Colson has also recently published “The Faith,” which, whatever else it promises, from all appearances looks to be another effort to persuade Protestants they really do have a horse in the “culture of life” race. Since most are long since convinced of that anyway, this should be more an affirmation than an apologetic.
Assuming the reader is even more familiar with American religion than these thumbnail sketches provide, at first blush it might seem like one couldn’t find two more different figures.
But in a recent New York Times piece Bishop Robinson echoes a sentiment he gave in an NPR interview. Referring to presidential inaugural prayers in the past, he indicated that he was “horrified” at how “specifically and aggressively Christian they were” and resolves:
I am very clear that this will not be a Christian prayer, and I won’t be quoting Scripture or anything like that. The texts that I hold as sacred are not sacred texts for all Americans, and I want all people to feel that this is their prayer.
For what it may be worth, I am inclined to agree with Robinson’s impression as he glanced through the history of presidential inaugurations, although perhaps for different reasons. What I think he observed was a record festooned with the ghastly violations of the spirituality of the church and a brazen display of Constantinianism. I would gather, though, his gasp was over the fact that a particular version of religious belief held public sway that was not his. In other words, like rivaling social gospels, the wrong kind of Constantinianism had been dominant. And it is now “high time” his brand of neutered religiosity graced the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
It appears that Robinson was true to his word. His prayer offered up Sunday was a thorough-going example of a hushed Christianity crafted just right for a kinder, gentler Constantinianism.
For his part, in the “Foreword” to Keith Fornier’s Evangelical Catholics, Colson writes:
The pain and distrust between Catholics and Protestants goes [sic] back centuries. The church has often been plagued by wars within her walls, crippling her in her battle against the encroaching armies of secularism. But at root, those who are called of God, whether Catholic or Protestant, are part of the same Body. What they share is a belief in the basics: the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, His bodily resurrection, His imminent return, and the authority of his infallible Word. They also share the same mission: presenting Christ as Savior and Lord to a needy world. … It’s high time that all of us who are Christians come together regardless of the differences in our confessions and our traditions and make common cause to bring Christian values to bear in our society. When the barbarians are scaling the walls, there is no time for petty quarreling in the camp.
What Robinson and Colson have in common is the notion that theological devotion is trumped by ideological care. As each would seem to have it, it is appropriate for religious conviction to be relegated to a privatized sphere when the really crucial matters are on the table. This is not the sort of privatizing those who would a Reformed doctrine of the spirituality of the church or a Lutheran conception of two kingdoms; this is the sort that actually betrays the measure of shame of which confessional Protestants are wrongly accused. Seen, perhaps, but not heard. One of the ironies in their shared assumption that theological persuasion is to be cordoned off in this way is that it co-exists with an effort to make theology directly relevant to public life. In Robinson’s case, getting a bright young president and his country ceremoniously off on the right foot far exceeds whatever the texts he quietly holds as sacred might demand. For Colson, the “petty” differences and doctrinal nuances better confessional Protestants and Catholics know make all the difference serve only to retard making the world a better place. With friends like this, who needs Rodney King?