Not Enough Religion in Politics?

“Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  (Romans 12:2) This was the Apostle Paul’s counsel to the Christian community at Rome.  He challenged them to live by a different lifestyle and spiritual orientation than the culture around them.  Paul knew that we are children of our culture, but our culture need not determine our beliefs or actions.  There is a divine restlessness that lures us away from polarization, consumerism, nationalism, and idolatry toward a humble alignment with the message of the healer from Galilee.  Paul’s words are as appropriate for Christians in the American Empire as they were to first century Christians living in the shadow of the Roman Empire.  Be in this world, rejoice in its beauty, seek the well-being of all, but keep a critical distance from its economics, power plays, and political intrigues.

It is impossible to separate religion from politics.  We are whole persons whose faith shapes our values and political stances. Being born in the USA profoundly shapes who I am and the nature of my values.  I embrace many of my country’s gifts and values, but there has been much I’ve had to unlearn and oppose. As citizens, we are persons whose faith is shaped by our environment and by our social and political positions.  We often uncritically justify these positions by our religious principles, which we often justify without self-criticism.  The issue of faith in politics is not only what we believe but how we believe what we believe.  This has both religious and political implications.

Be not conformed, be transformed! At the heart of the Abrahamic religions is the recognition that persons are prone to absolutize finite and relative positions.  In fact, all positions are relative and subject to critique in relationship to the divine. This is also at the heart of USA democracy, whose “separation of powers” and “separation of church and state” (non-establishment of any religion) recognizes that no political or religious position can be held as absolute in a free society, but there are many pathways to truth in both politics and religion.  The three branches of government emerged to provide a check on the potentially coercive and destructive impact of monolithic political perspectives. We need political diversity, just as we need religious diversity to be a healthy nation.  In fact, we need to be grateful for those who hold contrasting viewpoints, since they often provide a check on our own political excesses.

When we hold to principles and demand that others follow them, we become, the Abrahamic traditions assert, idolaters who mistake the finite for the infinite.  What is more destructive is when our faiths are coopted by finite political positions.  It is then that we lose the prophetic edge and become conformed to the fractious world of political wrangling.

Reinhold Neibuhr once stated that we need to recognize the truth in our neighbor’s falsehood and the falsehood in our truth.  Accordingly, a faith-influenced politics is not only principle-inspired but humble in orientation.  Perhaps, we don’t need more religion but a different kind of religious approach to political life today.   Anytime I hear a politician use the word “principles,” I substitute the word “inflexible position” or “idolatry.”  There is a great problem with having principles, if we don’t criticize and relativize them.  Without criticism and humility, principles lead to polarization and demonization in our body politic.  Government grinds to a standstill when politicians would rather default on loans than compromise or put the nation into debt because they have principles against raising taxes on those who benefit from our government, the wealthiest 1%.  Compromise has become a dirty word, when, in fact, healthy relationships of all kinds involve trusting the good faith of those with whom you disagree and finding ways to work together for the common good.

We need more of a different kind of religion, not a religion that encourages political and economic apocalypse because of abstract principles but one that is based on humility, recognition of the partiality of our viewpoints, and our proneness to see the world in black and white and good and evil, assuming we are good and our opponents are evil.

I am Christian and thus I will only advise my fellow Christians about the role of religion in politics.  But, it seems to me that Christians need to remember a few things, both positive and negative in political involvement:

  • The reality of sin means you could be wrong.
  • God’s graceful love means your opponent could be right!
  • Confession is important for nations as well as individuals.
  • Our enemies and political opponents are God’s beloved children.
  • Christian faith has nothing to do with lower taxes, tax breaks for the wealthy, or the American empire.

Stated positively, those who claim to be Christians and take scripture seriously had best ponder these words addressed in the political arena.  After all, the Hebraic prophets were speaking to nations, and usually the wealthy, not the impoverished and dispossessed.

  • What does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly

with your God? (Micah 6:8)

  • Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)
  • Those who trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor of the land….will experience a famine of hearing the word of God. (Amos 8:2, 11-14)

And, Jesus proclaimed to the nations, not just individuals, a word of warning.  God is present in the least of these and governments will be held accountable for their care of the vulnerable:

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.

At one level, we are all “the least of these.”  We all need grace from one another even in the political area.  But, those who claim to be Christian need to secure a politics of compassion and a safety net large enough for everyone, even if this means higher taxes and a realignment of the budget.  We need to be responsible and that means paying our debts and working toward a balanced budget.  But, more than that, we need to be compassionate in the political arena and to those who most need our care.

Content Director’s Note: This post is a part of our Election Month at Patheos feature. Patheos was designed to present the world’s most compelling conversations on life’s most important questions. Please join the Facebook following for our new News and Politics Channel — and check back throughout the month for more commentary on Election 2012. Please use hashtag #PatheosElection on Twitter.

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About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).