Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

Peter Leithart on Political Symbolism / “Who Wears the Crown?”

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Peter Leithart has an excellent piece over at the Canon and Culture blog on political symoblism.

American Christians are often dismissive of symbolism in politics. We’re interested in substance, by which we mean the nuts and bolts of policy, law, political principle, message and governance. We’re tempted to dismiss political symbolism as an unfortunate feature of our media-saturated age, when people are too distracted by their ubiquitous glimmering screens to pay much mind to gritty and unglossy realities.

This perspective is deeply unhistorical. Politics always has been infused with symbols. Punishment is as substantial a political act as you can find, as Michel Foucault noted, until the eighteenth-century public executions were forms of drama as much as deterrents. Ancient Romans crucified rebellious slaves, saying in effect, “You want everyone to look up to you. We can arrange that.” Later Romans flayed Christians alive, poured salt and oil in their wounds and burned them at the stake, in a quasi-sacrificial procedure. Christians refused to sacrifice to the emperor and claimed to be “living sacrifices” to Christ, so the Romans designed executions of Christians to parody Christian beliefs.

Rule by spectacle is an ancient practice. Caesars projected power with monuments, temples and coliseums. It wasn’t enough to win a battle—the victory had to be followed by the propaganda of a triumphal procession. When a king died in medieval France, his corpse sat on the throne, was served meals, and processed through the streets of Paris in full regalia until a successor was crowned. The macabre drama portrayed a basic principle of Christendom’s politics: Like Christ, the king is divine and human, human by birth and divine by anointing. Individual kings die, but “kingship” never dies.

He then connects the importance of political symoblism to the recent discussion of gay marraige in the United States and the ramifications for Christians. Ultimately, Leithart says, “the martyrs will wear the crowns”:

American Christians aren’t in immediate danger of being killed for their faith, but we will face pressures soon enough. After the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision, gay marriage is effectively the law of the land. No state limitations on gay marriage will stand up in court. The federal government aims to redefine human sexuality by fiat, an act of arrogance rivaled only by the most extreme totalitarian regimes.

Anyone who witnesses against this tyranny risks paying a heavy price. Speak out against sodomy, and you’ll lose your cooking show and never be a reality star on A&E. You’ll risk being labeled a bigot and having your reputation and life shredded. The GOP will buckle; if you pay close attention, you can hear it buckling as you read. Pastors and other Christian leaders will be tempted to hedge and accommodate to the new sexual orthodoxy. Christians who hold to biblical sexual standards will be mighty lonely.

But faithful witnesses will speak, and they will speak knowing that lasting political effects go to those who are willing to sacrifice reputation and stature and even their lives to tell the truth to and about power. Ultimately, the martyrs will wear the crowns.

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Written by Josh Philpot

February 27, 2014 at 6:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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