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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