Column Entry, “What is Faithful Witness?”, Part 1, by Mark Allan Steiner

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Column Title: Faithful Witness: Speaking and Living Truth in Public Life

Column Entry: “What Is Faithful Witness? (Part 1): Stephen Carter on Religion and Politics”

By Mark Allan Steiner, PhD, Christopher Newport University

Column Description: It is all too often true that American Christians, just as the Apostle Paul warned against in Romans 12:2, are conformed to the pattern of this world in ways we don’t realize and are hard to see. In this column, a religious rhetoric scholar and aspiring theologian reflects on how we can avoid this kind of cultural conformity, and how we can speak and live in genuinely countercultural and God-honoring ways.

February 2024 | January 2024


February 2024

What Is Faithful Witness? (Part 1): Stephen Carter on Religion and Politics

Welcome back to my column on “faithful witness”! What I would like to do for the next several months is to offer some reflections that further unpack and explain what faithful witness is—what its distinctive features are, how to apply them to current issues and circumstances, and how think and act in this broad framework in order to resist properly and effectively the “pattern of this world” to which we are all too often conformed.

To begin this undertaking, I want to go back to the beginning of my own intellectual and theological journey with the idea of faithful witness. For me, this journey began when I read Yale law professor Stephen Carter’s book God’s Name in Vain for the first time over 20 years ago.[1] As the subtitle—“The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics”—suggests, Carter addresses the deeply dysfunctional ways in which American Christians (on both the political left and the political right) engage in political discourse and political activism, and he makes a case for a very different and countercultural way to approach political life instead.

Few things are as divisive, even for American Christians, as politics. Even so, according to Carter, these divisions within the Christian community aren’t nearly as important as the more foundational questions regarding the basic purpose of political engagement and what is ultimately at stake in political engagement. He argues that Christians as a whole have made some basic errors in vision, that they have failed to see politics as a form of seduction in which Christians support political figures or political parties to gain what they see as power and influence. In so doing, they lose their voice and their mission, and they become essentially servile partners of temporal political interests and of the state more generally. This happened to Christian progressives in the wake of the Civil Rights years of the 1950s and 1960s, according to Carter, and this has also been happening to Christian conservatives since the early 1980s. In short, American Christians across the political spectrum have failed to heed the warnings that “religion, when it engages in the public life of the nation, must do so with some care,” that politics is a “dirty business at its best” that “leaves few of its participants unsullied,” and that “religions that fall too deeply in love with the art of politics lose their souls—very fast.”[2]

So, for Christians who want to honor God and have a positive impact in public and political life, what is to be done? Carter’s core answer to this question is, honestly, where I ultimately got the idea of faithful witness. “The religious voice at its most pure,” he writes, “is the voice of the witness. The witness comes to ‘bear witness,’ as the Bible puts it … to reveal to others the truth that the witness has seen,” whether that be “the central truth of a tradition” or “the prophetic truth of God’s will: This is what the Lord requires.”[3] Put another way, the core mission of religiously motivated public and political advocates is to eschew the “headlong rush to gather enough votes to tell everybody else what to do,” and to work instead to “stand apart from politics, even from culture, to call [people] to righteousness without regard to political advantage.”[4]

Perhaps not surprisingly, Carter frequently uses the phrases “prophetic resistance” and “prophetic witness” throughout the book, stressing that the core challenge for religiously motivated advocates is avoid trading the most beneficial role for religion in public life for mere temporal political gain or political standing, much as Esau traded his birthright for a mere bowl of stew. Carter examines some of the important social and cultural issues for which Christians need to have a proper prophetic witness, to which we would do well to pay attention. But more significantly, he shows how the state and the cultural status quo—which are most threatened by authentic religious voices—have all too often persuaded Christians to allow their voices of prophetic witness to be muted or silenced in exchange for a “seat at the table.”

While I think there is room for honest dialogue and disagreement among Christians about which particular values to advance and which particular political goals to pursue, it’s vitally important that we come to grips with what the basic purpose of our political work is. If Carter is right (and I believe he largely is) then we should engage in politics not primarily to get certain material results, whether that be laws and policies that we think are proper, or whether that be greater protection of our own temporal rights and interests. Rather, we should see the fundamental purpose of everything we do in public and political life as bearing witness to that which transcends partisan politics: truth, righteousness, and (ultimately) God himself.

Christians in the ancient Roman Empire—while misunderstood, persecuted, and even martyred—were well known for their extraordinary and deeply countercultural charity. They cared for the sick and intervened to protect the lives of others, at their own expense and often at their own peril. In so doing, they offered a collective and politically inflected witness that was both perplexing and compelling to outsiders. And so the basic questions we must ask in our own day about our own public and political engagement are these: What are we known for? What picture of Jesus do people outside the Church get when they watch us engaging in politics and public life? Are we showing other people and our culture what God’s distinct nature, promises, and agenda are? Or are we just acting pretty much like everyone else?



[1] Stephen L. Carter, God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics (New York: Basic, 2000).

[2] Carter, 19-20.

[3] Carter, 31, emphasis in original.

[4] Carter, 20.

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