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.
In his Education of a Christian Prince, Erasmus, in good Renaissance fashion, satirized the sparkly pomp and gaudy clutter of medieval kingship: “What does the anointing mean, if not great mildness and civilized restraint on the part of the prince? What does the warm, rich purple mean, if not the essence of love for the state?” Erasmus was for substance and not symbol. In spite of Erasmus, the Renaissance didn’t eliminate symbolism from politics. It merely substituted new symbols, as a few moments with a biography of Elizabeth I or Louis XIV will be sufficient to demonstrate.
Christians today are often political Erasmians, and our oblivion leaves us politically vulnerable. We get out-flanked by opponents who know how to paint pictures and tell stories. Gay sex and gay marriage have been mainstreamed by activists who have slowly, deliberately created icons of gay normality. Obama laid out his version of American history in his second inaugural address with three symbolic movements of liberation—Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.
Arguments won’t turn the tide. We need to fight symbols with symbols, stories with better stories, encouraged by the recollection that injustices and tyrannies have been toppled more often by symbols than by swords or bombs.
Above all, we need to grasp the political potency of courageous testimony or, to use the biblical term, martyria. We don’t have to reach back to the early church for examples. Time and again, Pope John Paul II, an actor in his youth, said just the right thing and made just the right gesture in just the right circumstances. Visiting Poland in 1979 was itself an act of witness, and his prostration to kiss the tarmac at the Chopin Airport in Warsaw emboldened the Solidarity movement that eventually brought down the communist regime. A decade later, Lech Walesa was president of Poland. Poland was the first domino to fall, and by the end of 1989 the Berlin Wall was down and the rest of Eastern Europe had wrested itself from Russia. The Pope’s courage in facing down the regime repeated the political message of the martyrs: As Paul Kahn of Yale Law School has put it, “The Western state actually exists . . . under the very real threat of Christian martyrdom: a threat to expose the state and its claim to power as nothing at all. . . . The state’s power is ultimately the power to threaten life, but Christianity begins with a sacrificial act that undermines that threat by announcing life to be death, and true life to be beyond death.”
The superhuman aura that surrounded the late Nelson Mandela was enhanced by his courtly sense of symbolism. Mandela wore a Xhosa leopard-skin cloak to his trial to visualize the fact that he was “a black African walking into a white man’s court.” After he became South Africa’s president, The Economist’s obituary recalled, he acted out reconciliation by “honouring of the Boer-war guerrilla, Daniel Theron, as an Afrikaner freedom-fighter,” by wearing “a Springbok rugby shirt, hitherto a symbol to blacks chiefly of white nationalism,” and by visiting “Betsie Verwoerd, widow of Hendrik, the uncompromising architect of apartheid.”
Mandela wasn’t an innocent. As a young Marxist, he led the military wing of the ANC and (reluctantly) endorsed violence against the apartheid system. Yet he witnessed against the injustice of apartheid without a flinch, even when it meant a lengthy imprisonment. When he emerged from Robben Island, he was like a man risen from the dead. He witnessed, refused to compromise, and was ultimately vindicated.
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.
Peter Leithart received an A.B. in English and History from Hillsdale College in 1981, and a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1986 and 1987. In 1998 he received his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England. He has served in two pastorates: He was pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church (now Trinity Presbyterian Church), Birmingham, Alabama from 1989 to 1995, and was founding pastor of Trinity Reformed Church, Moscow, Idaho, and served on the pastoral staff at Trinity from 2003-2013. From 1998 and 2013 he taught theology and literature at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho, where he continues to teach as an adjunct Senior Fellow. He now serves as President of Trinity House.