Why We Need More Religion in Politics, Not Less

Why We Need More Religion in Politics, Not Less October 16, 2012

Last week I received another expression of a very common sentiment in the comments box at Philosophical Fragments — and the commenter wished it known that she was “not a libertine” but a 50-year-old former-Christian woman with a long marriage and three children, two in the military.  She wrote:

George Bush and his supporters were a large reason that I left Christianity and have become quite hostile to the evangelical agenda. I vote against it at every opportunity and make sure none of my money goes to organizations who support the evangelical desire to control everyone else and shove their views down the throats of people who aren’t interested.

She went on to write that “the large majority of my friends and colleagues agree with me.”  Later that day, I read a piece at The Washington Post in which Sally Quinn lamented that Republicans have “hijacked” God for political purposes.  “I do not believe religion should play any role in politics,” she said.  It’s “depressing and unAmerican” that faith “continues to make a big difference in how people view candidates,” but Republicans in particular “use the dog-whistle of God every chance they get.”

Quinn fails to see that the Obama campaign has done just as much as, if not more than, the Romney campaign to leverage religious belief.  Since she thinks that Romney is using religious language in the service of selfish (non-religious) ends, she views his words as “pandering” and deception and manipulation.  But since she believes that Obama is using religious language in the service of the true and good and beautiful, then he is merely explaining his heart to the American people, merely doing what is necessary.

In truth, Romney is much more private about his faith than Obama.  Since Romney cannot claim to be Christian without igniting a firestorm, his campaign largely avoids religious conversation.  This leaves Obama to claim the mantle of the Christian candidate, so he testifies to his Christianity as often as possible.  Unlike Romney, Obama has devoted an entire wing of the campaign to “People of Faith for Obama.”  A slick video encourages people of faith to organize their churches on Obama’s behalf.  You can read Obama’s “Faith Platform” or host a “People of Faith for Obama social.”  Obama shares his two-minute testimony.  Although both candidates are happy to meet with religious leaders, and conduct quiet outreaches for funds and support, I’m aware of no similar campaign operation from the Romney camp.

All of this is an extension of what Obama has done throughout his presidency.  Obama has taken the Faith-Based Office that was, under Bush, about putting government’s resources behind the good work churches are doing, and turned it into a political operation that puts the churches behind the purported good work that government is doing.  I’ve been on the mass conference calls where the purpose of the call was to mobilize “the faith community” (as though it were all united behind the administration) to support the Obama agenda, or other calls where the purpose is to equip pastors to teach their congregations about all the benefits they just got through another lovely Obama administration program.

It’s also an extension of how the Democratic party has utilized African American churches for decades now.  Let a white evangelical pastor endorse a Republican candidate from the pulpit and liberals will shower him with condemnation for weeks.  He’s “hijacked God” and made Jesus into a lever in the political machine.  But scores of African American pastors can meet their congregations at their churches and march them down to the polling centers and no one raises a peep.  Clinton played the African American church like a fiddle.  Obama has never needed to, since they were already in the bag.  The concern once expressed by some African American pastors over the President’s “evolution” on gay marriage is now long forgotten.

So where do people get this notion that the Right has claimed ownership over Christianity?  It’s best understood historically.  And while there are certainly points in this story on which to criticize the Right, the story has just as much to do with poor decisions on the Left.  If it came to seem as though the Right owned the Christian camp in the ongoing political warfare between the parties, it was largely because the Left completely abandoned the religious field.

Jeffrey’s Bell’s The Case for a Polarized Politics tells the story in far greater detail than I can hope to do here.  But in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Democratic party came to represent the rejection — in fact, it was quite explicit — of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Democratic National Conventions were awash in anti-Christian sentiment, as that tradition came to represent all that was oppressive and backwards, the decrepit authority of a prior generation that was best case aside in the mark toward the new utopia.  Religion was essentially privatized.  Believe whatever (nonsense) you want in the privacy of your own home, but religious convictions, passions and persuasion do not belong in the public, political sphere.

Also, since this was (not coincidentally) the same group that was promoting the sexual revolution and its transformation of personal mores, cultural forms and social policy, the Religious Right arose and, increasingly in the late 1970s made common cause with the GOP.  On one issue after another — prayer in schools, artifacts and invocations of faith in the political sphere, the enforced teaching of evolution and sex education, abortion, pornography, marriage and eventually gay rights — the Left lined up on the side opposite the Christian consensus.  Evangelicals briefly believed they might have a Democrat they could support in the born-again Jimmy Carter, but they quickly grew disenchanted with Carter and fully cast their lot with the GOP in 1980.

However, what was initially a temporary alliance forged to address specific issues that concerned Christians as Christians, became a more complex and thoroughgoing union.  Eventually it seemed as though Christians were not choosing pragmatically to work alongside the GOP on specific issues so much as they were aligning themselves entirely with the GOP agenda and provided it all with a Christian theological defense.  This was a mistake.  It led to the impression — the commenter quoted at the beginning of this post being one example — that a person had to convert to Reagan/Bush before he could convert to Christ.  It impoverished our moral discourse around issues such as war, poverty and the death penalty, where Christians ought to be making robust arguments on both sides.  It robbed the Republican party of something it should have had — a prophetic critique from an independent Christian community.  And it tarnished the church and contributing to some leaving her.

In my view, Christians were not wrong to make common cause with the Republican party over an issue like abortion.  Here is a case where Christians overwhelmingly agree that there is no “right” to abortion — and the Democratic party is — lock, stock and barrel — the party of abortion “rights.”  This is not a matter of the parties making different prudential judgments about the wisest paths to a single destination.  This is a fundamental moral and theological judgment, and Christians are absolutely right to side with the GOP here.  But Christians stood so close to the Republicans that they lost their perspective to see their faults.  They lost the capacity to speak out against military misadventures, against the rapid growth under Republican as well as Democratic administrations of the reach of government, against the increasingly incestuous relationship between Wall Street and Capitol Hill, and against the most extraordinary expansion of debt the world has ever seen.

As a historical matter, the extreme alignment of Christians and the Right might never have happened if the Left had not abandoned the field.  As it was, the Right was the only side making a religious pitch.  Both sides should have been making a religious pitch.  The Left has been reemphasizing the use of values and religious language, and when it’s not artificial and manipulative I actually appreciate that.  We need Christians arguing both sides.

While I tend to vote conservative, it’s my responsibility as a Christian to examine each issue on its own merits according to my principles and my beliefs.  I feel no loyalty to the Republican Party.  In fact, I fear that feeling of loyalty because I fear it would cloud my judgment.  My loyalty is to something much greater, and that greater loyalty will sometimes call me to criticize the Republican Party.  I need to be able to deliver that criticism.

What we require is not less religion in politics, but better religion in politics.  We require a religion in politics that is not reflexively partisan (and now that problem is just as acute amongst progressive Christians on the Left as it ever was amongst conservative Christians on the Right).  We require more thoughtful ways of bringing the fullness of who we are, religious vision included, into the political arena.  We require the kind of faith in politics that will hold us accountable to be humble and honest and searching and serving, that will hold the state accountable to use the power of the sword and the power of the public purse wisely and justly, and that will hold the church accountable to speak with a greater regard for the truth than for political power.

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6 responses to “Why We Need More Religion in Politics, Not Less”

  1. Thank you for this post. I think part of the problem Catholics have with the Paul Ryan budget is that partisan blinders make it difficult to look at problems fully. It is easy to see the need of people who are hungry and poor. It is also too easy to ignore, but it doesn’t require abstract understanding. The moral impact of systematically fostering dependency requires a level of abstract understanding not required for seeing immediate need. The moral responsibility for our levels of debt is also hard to understand. When partisan politics get in the way it’s just that much harder. A libertarian might argue about the need for a social safety net, but most people don’t think that’s an interesting discussion. But we can’t even have a reasonable discussion about limits to the social safety net when too many people can’t see why it needs limits.

  2. I am not going to vote in this year’s presidential election. I will vote in the other races on the ballot, but cannot in good conscience cast a ballot for any of the candidates for President. Why? Both major party candidates, Romney and Obama, meet the Biblical definition of false teacher and we are instructed not to give our support to such men. I have concluded that they are not simply flawed men like those among whom we have had to choose in the past, but manifest a spirit of evil that should not have the support of a Christ follower. In Georgia, the only other choice we have is Libertarian Gary Johnson – pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage, and holding many of the other questionable views that Libertarians often have. For what I think should be obvious reasons, that is an unacceptable choice as well.

    Romney is not only Mormon, but was a high ranking leader in that group – a teacher. Mormon doctrine rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, but does so by teaching that Father, Son and Holy Ghost are not of the same substance, and that Jesus was a created being that has become a god. This teaching contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture found in John 1 and as a result meets the definition of false teacher found in 1 John 4:1-3, a definition explained throughout 1 John. 2 John 10-11 teaches that if we even give such men a greeting we participate in their deeds. I feel that voting for such a man, giving him my imprimatur, would make me a participant in his false teaching. I understand that some can distinguish 2 John by noting that he is running to be President, not coming to us as a teacher. Is that a distinction that really makes a difference under these circumstances? I do not believe so. Secondarily, I do not trust his “evolution” on abortion and gay marriage/civil unions.

    Obama speaks about Christian faith. He lectures and instructs those that listen, but then articulates beliefs that are not Biblical. Further, he articulates those unbiblical beliefs as arising out of his Christian faith, contrary to Jude 4. His “evolution” on homosexual marriage is the most egregious example of this conduct. He idolizes human institutions, especially government. Moreover, his stance on the legalized killing of children is simply reprehensible. Finally, and this has become more obvious in the last year, Obama is clearly more interested in supporting Islamic concerns than Christian ones. I am not saying he is Muslim. I am not contending that an American president should be a Christian theocrat. An American president should not, however, claim a Christian faith and then pander to Muslims, especially to the detriment of Christians as well as national security (which is one of his primary responsibilities). I will say he provides no evidence that he walks in the light, and the evidence suggests that he walks in darkness. He holds himself out as a teacher, and thus also runs afoul of 1 John 4:1-3.

    Luther reportedly said he would rather be lead by a wise Turk than a dumb Christian. Fortunately we do not yet have to make such a choice. We, however, have two professing Christians that meet the Biblical definition of false teacher. Obama proclaims faith, but then professes unbiblical, abominable positions as resulting from that faith. Romney was a bishop and stake president in a cult, and his ascendency cannot but result in more souls being led astray. I cannot in good conscience vote for either.

  3. Tim, I so sympathize with your post and I must disagree with it as well. Part of the problem is very much like attempting to explain the issue of “works” theology to a Roman Catholic Layman. They simply cannot “hear” the difference. The same is true for you I fear. We – on either side – do not “see” our own “group think”.
    Conservative Evangelicals or so intense – and rightly so – on many issues they do not see the strong, all pervading sense of “you are going to hell if you are not a Republican” , the denigration of education as a tactic, the always subtle and almost always present racism, the lack of true respect for the left, that runs through their communications. The “left” side sees these lies and political manipulation followed by a the lack of condemnation from their religious brothers and judges then the “right” side as corrupt and not worth listening to.
    The right sees the destruction of Life and the corruption of family life, the lack of “spiritual reasonableness” , the lack of respect for biblical authority and theology in a literal sense, the appearance of a lack of moral certitude, the acceptance of all points of view as valid as toying with the evil, and judges the “left” as heretical and lacking God and condemned not worthy of respect – anathema.
    These judgement are harsh and they all lack God’s mercy. These “judgments” are mostly false with a profound element of truth in each evaluation of each side. The Answer is a willingness to do the irenic work on your respective side. That is to operate re-constructively and accept each complaint as valid, seeking proof and a solution for your side alone. Each side must be willing to disarm unilaterally. While both sides see the need to disarm the other, they seldom see the AR-15 in their own hands, an even when they do, it is justified and protecting some sanctified position.
    The spiritual answer is that as long as we think “we are doing something” and not willing to let God and the Holy Spirit do it, this will pervade.
    For a model of the problem, think the Jerusalem and the Crusaders. Which side are you??
    Have a God filled Sunday!

    • Of course we have difficulty seeing our own group-think. I actually write about this fairly frequently. But these are caricatures: “[the] all pervading sense of “you are going to hell if you are not a Republican”, the denigration of education as a tactic, the always subtle and almost always present racism.” I know plenty of people who have a hard time understanding how a Christian could support the party of abortion rights, but I have never met anyone – anyone anywhere – who believed that you’re going to hell if you’re not Republican. That’s just absurd. There is no “all-pervading sense” to that effect.

      As I say in my post here, there are some ways in which the Christian Right has suggested, albeit unintentionally, that any Christian who thinks things through clearly and rationally will support the pro-life party and etc. And in this post, I’m being critical of that. But that leaves an awful lot of space for people who may be true Christians and just not think through political matters clearly and rationally. To take that and say there’s an all-pervading sense that you’re going to hell if you’re not a Republican is a huge exaggeration.

      I *think* I know what you mean by the denigration of education as a tactic, but there’s more of a concern that the people who control the educational infrastructure of the country are coming from a worldview and set of values that are alien and sometimes hostile to traditional Christian beliefs. I would criticize the bunker mentality, but this is not a denigration of education itself but a criticism of the perversion of education. It’s a fighting for true education. That, at least, is how they see it.

      I don’t know where to start with the almost always present racism except to say that there are an awful lot of conservative evangelicals of all colors.

      Look, I fight against the caricatures of the Left from time to time, and I fight against the caricatures of the Right. This is certainly one.

  4. Afraid of real criticism, hmmm. Once again, proving your bankrupt intellectual honesty, the pervasive and pernicious racism, homophobia and general intolerance of the religious is manifest, you people simply must ignore facts, it is the only way you can justify your beliefs and the torturous ‘logic’ of their rationale. You are losing, you hate it, and you have to spin fantasies to make it through the day. Sad, pathetic, unchristian, and so transparent, the youth see, and they’re leaving in droves, and your odious and delusional behaviour is really really helping, thank you believers!