As several reviewers of Raised Right have quite fairly pointed out, the subtitle of my book suggests that I “untangled my faith from politics,” but reading the story will give you a different impression. They have a point. I had reservations about the subtitle myself; the publisher and I ran through dozens of alternatives before consensus formed around this one, which makes an imperfect attempt to distill a book and a life into seven words. So here’s a little more about what I mean—and don’t—about “untangling faith from politics.”
First, I had to realize that the Bible does not contain a political platform for the 21st century, a dramatic departure for someone raised in political theology like I was. Although it has plenty to say about broad principles like justice, power, oppression, and mercy, the Bible does not spell out exactly how the the United States tax code should be structured or what we should cut from the FY2012 budget. We don’t know whose taxes Jesus would cut or whose platforms he would endorse, in part because Jesus repeatedly turned down political power, lived in first-century Israel, and hasn’t yet released his jobs plan in either paperback or full-color Kindle form. But despite this uncertainty, the Christian right takes it as self-evident that God supports their crusades against gay marriage, for instance. To a somewhat lesser extent, the Christian Left co-opts religious language to attach Jesus to a very particular political agenda. I think it strips religion of its transcendent meaning when we reduce it to partisan proof texts and the lowest-common-denominator language we need to make everyone feel that God would approve what they’re voting for. Religion should not be another hammer in our political toolbelts.
Second, I’m no longer trying to turn America into a Christian nation again. My politics was once premised on the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation, that our laws should reflect a Christian sexual morality and that we should enforce the ascendancy of Christian principles through displays of the Ten Commandments and prayer in schools and government acknowledgment of our reliance on God. While I still strongly believe in religious freedom and oppose any effort to squelch religious expression, I had to learn that America is not a Christian nation and never was in the sense that the Founders I loved were not evangelicals like me, and they created an explicit separation between church and state. Since the Founder’s culture was less diverse than ours is today, that separation of church and state looked different then that it should now. But the principle remains the same: the separation of church and state is in everyone’s best interest–Christian, Jew, Muslim and atheist.
For politically indoctrinated young Christians, just realizing God may not be interested in your political agenda is a major step on the religious journey. Before you can reach any kind of solid conclusion about what your politics are and why, you have to wade through the messy swamp of figuring out just how much of the political dogma you’ve been taught is actually part of the Christian faith—and possibly wrestle with the unsettling fact that very little of it was. It requires a deconstruction of your entire view of the world. So that point of “untangling” is a crucial one, and it’s where I suspect many of my readers may be. They’re not necessarily on a theoretical journey, but a visceral one where they have to make a painful decision about what to do with politics their conscience knows are wrong and even immoral, but have undergirded their worldview for many years.
After I separated Christianity from the old politics, I was able to see scripture’s political promise differently, in a way that is both less specifically political and more generally radical. Its clear, constant teaching on equality and individual dignity are still very radical. They’re ideas that turn traditional power structures on their heads. The Bible preaches the insanity that the poor will inherit the earth. It unwaveringly sides with the defenseless, the low, and the powerless over the strong, the high and the powerful. These principles are inescapably political, but they are hardly partisan in a liberal-vs-conservative or Republican-vs-Democrat sense. They make me deeply passionate about politics, to the point where I still read, tweet, and yell about it every day. But no longer do I take for granted that God is on my side in the voting booth, or that Jesus would endorse my imperfect, infallible struggle to make the world a little more fair.
I realize it’s unavoidable that people will say I merely exchanged religious conservatism for a religious liberalism. That’s not entirely inaccurate. But the point of telling my story was neither to promote a utopian politics-free centrist Christianity nor to suggest that leftist politics are God’s politics. It’s to show the trajectory of one brainwashed girl who realized her faith and her politics didn’t fit together, and to tell what happened when I began to untangle the two.