Heaven and Hell Have No Place in Public Policy-Making

Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Political Engagement. Read other perspectives here.

I'm glad to hear that Pope Francis, Billy Graham, and Russell Moore have "toned down" their brands of activism (if indeed this is true). I'm pretty weary of hearing "Christianity as usual" rhetoric. I admit to having a certain level of respect for both Pope Francis and Billy Graham. I could probably say the same of Russell Moore if I knew anything about him. But all three of them are distinctly "Christian," distinctly "white," and distinctly "male."

By Christian, I mean that they give public voice to—and I'm convinced they are sincere—the standard doctrinaire Christian party line. The problem with this standard party line is that it manufactures an existential fear that focuses ordinary people's attention on what's going to happen to them when they die. Make no mistake, heaven and hell are a high commodity for sale in the Christian market. We are naïve if we think we're not paying hard cold cash for this "belief product."

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, are struggling under oppressions that manifest in economic and political injustice—oppression and exploitation of women, minorities, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, and the working poor. Bottom line: Christian leaders talk of heaven while billions languish in poverty, anxiety, violence, and disease. Some even prey on the poor as if the promise of heaven were more important than food to feed their children.

Salvation hysteria is a poor competitor to a Jesus of history who non-violently resisted the empire of his day and called the oppressed around him to join in God's program of justice.

So do I think Pope Francis, Billy Graham, and Russell Moore need to step it back? Yes. I do. Let them, and others like them, sell their "heaven on their minds" gospel wherever they can. But they should keep their hands off the democratic process that they distort, obfuscate, and commandeer.

We need to be self-critical here and ask ourselves why it seems that most of mainline Christianity turns a blind eye to the oppression and exploitation of women, minorities, LGBT people, the poor. It is the same kind of question we asked in the 1960s about why the church had been silent about slavery for so long. Why was it silent about the conquest of America and stealing the home of Native Americans? Why is the church silent on the degradation of our environment—a problem that might have been ignored at one time, but under present climate conditions no longer can be? Why has the church been mostly silent about our illegitimate invasion of Iraq? Why has the church been mostly silent about the treatment of prisoners of war? Why has the church been mostly silent about the thousands of innocent women and children killed, left homeless, brutally raped, as a result of our participation in wars?

Why does the church seem basically so impotent? More than impotent, even—it deliberately makes a decision not to challenge and confront the government and the powers that be. Why does the church seem to pick and choose what it will speak out about? The church is certainly having a lot to say about women's health and reproductive freedoms. The church will raise a moral question about sexual reproduction but it refuses to raise moral questions about the rest of women's lives—including their equality under the law, equality in the workplace, preventative health care, and reproductive freedom.

It is time to fight every high-profile religious leader at every turn where they seek to manipulate the democratic system for what are clearly selfish motives that are not for the common good. Non-violently fight them every step of the way. Refuse to let them shape public policy with their "me at the center of the world" religion.

You who have ears to hear: do the litmus test. Don't be naïve. Don't believe it because the man (most often) in the pulpit tells you to believe it. Ask yourself what motive underlies how your religious leader is seeking to massage your beliefs in order to influence our political systems. Do your religious leader's motives genuinely support the common good? Does what your religious leader is saying require the exclusion of any person or group of people? Does it require hatred or judgment? Does it require assenting to beliefs or doctrines that don't make sense?