For those interested, here are the remarks I delivered for today's pre-inauguration panel discussion "Making Sense of Rhetoric and Reality on American Democracy's Big Day" at Gardner-Webb University. I’ve been introduced as a theology professor. I define my discipline this way: theology is thinking with intentionality about God and that with which God is in relationship—which is everything in the universe. There’s nothing that doesn’t have some relationship to God and God’s intentions for the world, and that includes the political order. And since God created us in the image of God as social creatures, created for relationship in community, and politics has to do with the ordering of our relationships in community, politics merits special attention in the task of doing theology. So, let’s do some theological reflection on this momentous occasion for the American expression of the political order. When Christian theologians think intentionally about God and God’s world, they do so in light of the Bible and the Christian tradition. I offer for our consideration a word from each of those authoritative sources for Christian theology. From the Bible, the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah’s words to the people of God living in exile in Babylon. Jeremiah 29:7: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” From the early Christian tradition, the Epistle to Diognetus written sometime in the 2nd century AD: “[Christians] live in their respective countries, but only as resident aliens; they participate in all things as citizens, and they endure all things as foreigners. Every foreign territory is a homeland for them, every homeland foreign territory.” Both Jeremiah and the Epistle to Diognetus portray the people of God as a community in exile. This suggests to me a few things about my participation in the political order as a Christian. It means that I’m living in exile not only when I think the political order opposes Christian values, but also when I think the political order is more consistent with Christian values. I have opinions about expressions of the political order I believe are more consistent with the way of Jesus Christ. I’ve voted for candidates and donated to their campaigns; I’ve served as a precinct representative to the county convention of a particular political party. But it is not my political home. My political home is the kingdom of God, the community toward which God is transforming the world. If I’m always living in exile in the midst of a particular expression of the political order, it means that I should be a patriot in the sense of seeking the welfare of my country. But it also means that I cannot be a nationalist in the sense of not seeking just as intently the welfare of other countries, which are also places where the people of God are living in exile. “Every foreign territory is a homeland, every homeland foreign territory.” Now some theological reflection on terms in our panel topic, starting with “rhetoric.” We often associate “rhetoric” with heated rhetoric. We’ve certainly had lots of that. But in its more positive sense, rhetoric is simply the means of persuasion. The present political moment is an opportunity for persuasion of a nation instead of power through populist authoritarianism. We’ve elected a politically centrist president with a long track record of working across the aisle. We have an evenly divided Senate and a closely divided House. This state of affairs can invite persuasion toward consensus and power-sharing, involving everyone in finding mutually agreeable solutions instead of a majority dominating and a minority losing out. What does this have to do with theology? The gospel is about persuasion rather than coercion; it persuades rather than coerces people to join God in what God is doing in the world, which is God’s work of persuading the world toward the realization of God’s creative purposes, and it seeks to involve everyone willingly in this work. If this new chapter in the American political order ushers in a politics dependent on persuasion, Christians can celebrate it as something analogous to the persuasion of the gospel. “Reality.” While the intent behind the wording of the panel theme may have been to contrast reality with what is merely rhetorical, the term “reality” is theologically significant in more than one way. Christian faith believes in a reality that is more than meets the eye. There’s more than meets the eye about any expression of the political order. But while Christians believe that ultimate reality is disclosed by Jesus Christ—a belief that requires trust in what cannot be seen or proven with rational certainty—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus at the center of Christian faith happened within “reality” in the sense of what does meet the eye. It happened within the created material order, and it happened in history. This means that Christians of all people should prize the science that helps us understand more fully the workings of the world God created. It means that Christians of all people should earnestly desire to learn from history in all its painful complexity. In the midst of a global pandemic, an ecological emergency, and a racial reckoning, Christians can have common cause with an administration that seems willing to be guided by rigorous science and to acknowledge both the shame and the successes of the American story. “American Democracy.” I’m a Baptist theologian, and Gardner-Webb has Baptist roots. In these connections I note that there are aspects of democracy in the way Baptist churches ideally approach the task of discerning how to be a faithful community of followers of Jesus Christ in a particular time and place, with every member having a voice in this discernment. That may be among the reasons Baptists have tended to flourish under democracies earlier in their history. In the American experiment, Baptists like Roger Williams made significant contributions to shaping a democracy committed to maintaining freedom of religion through a religiously neutral civil order. American democracy has been threatened recently, but it has proven resilient. I hope the new administration will strengthen it. As a Baptist ecumenical theologian involved especially in ecumenical dialogue between Baptists and Catholics, I close by noting that we will have a Catholic President and a Baptist Vice President. President Biden is likely to be the most active churchgoer among presidents of recent decades, and Vice President Harris has a story that includes becoming a Baptist by choice. I hope and pray that their Christian faith will guide their administration.