Since the 2016 election, our nation has been fiercely divided politically, ideologically, and morally. These divisions are evident in not only our social interactions, but in our religious communities. In the run-up to the 2020 election, these rifts feel like they are growing wider and more violent. Enter Citizen: Faithful Discipleship in a Partisan World by C. Andrew Doyle.
Doyle, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, attempts unravel the tangled threads of our Christian religion and what he calls civil religion. The first part of the book makes a case for a separation not only of church and state, but religion and politics. He asserts that as followers of Jesus, we are to be Christian citizens first, and then engage in the citizenship of nation and country. This is not to be a divorce of Christianity from citizenship, however. Doyle cautions us not to abandon what he calls our American civil religion. “Some Christians call American civil religion a heresy. I am not sure about that. I think Christian citizens can work congruently within such a civil religion, though we should not confuse the two.”
He argues that our society has become too focused on the needs of the individual over the community. While I found that point troubling, as it has been used to justify misogyny and racism for centuries, I agree with Doyle’s claim that to be a Christian is to live in community and to be engaged in that community. This community should follow the form of God’s initial vision for us, in what Doyle calls the “social garden imaginary.”
I was gratified to see Doyle acknowledge the church’s role as America’s horrific treatment of indigenous peoples and enslavement of people of color. He also spends considerable time on the role of religion in the founding of our country in the first chapter.
Our particular theology of dominion that drove the first Christian colonists here continued well into the nineteenth century. There is a clear yet creative tension between democracy and dominion present in our DNA from the start. The newcomers to the American shores were looking for freedom and they were also colonists who came to dominate. We must always be careful not to perpetuate a Eurocentrism as we look back.
He also cautions preachers against preaching politics, choosing sides from the pulpit. “Politics does not save us. It is always a golden calf.”
Doyle makes his case for Christian citizenship through the lens of key biblical texts from both the Old and New Testaments. From the creation story in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, to the New Testament accounts of Mary and Jesus, he offers a roadmap for Christians in community and uses these texts to debunk the American notion of dominion and “America first.” Doyle also weaves other writers and theologians through these biblical narratives to present a detailed, researched work.
Sometimes the book feels too heavily researched. The beginning reads like an academic dissertation, but the writing feels more conversational as the book continues. Doyle includes an interesting factoid about America’s national obsession with the Ten Commandments in chapter seven. In chapter eleven, he draws an interesting connection between the Gerasene demoniac and the Roman military. Doyle clearly knows his subject.
While Doyle acknowledges our nation’s problematic history, the majority of his research focuses on white male writers, with a couple of exceptions. I would have liked to have seen more theologians and writers of color referenced in this work. That said, Citizen is an interesting exploration of our history as Americans and our role as Christians in this country as well as an interesting academic conversation about familiar biblical texts. Parts of it would make an engaging Bible study. An interesting read from an academic perspective, but not the practical approach to navigating these turbulent times for which I was hoping.
Sheri Blume is a prodigal Episcopalian, church geek, and shoe fanatic. An aspirant for Holy Orders, she is pursuing a Master’s degree in Non-Profit Studies at the University of Richmond. Sheri lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, two kids, and a demanding yet adorable terrier.
Citizen: Faithful Discipleship in a Partisan World
C. Andrew Doyle