Faith in Politics: Pluralism, Not Polarization

Faith in Politics: Pluralism, Not Polarization June 6, 2016

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Faith and the Election. Read other perspectives here.

To respond to the idea of what is the proper role of faith in this election, it is worth examining a few things: what is faith, what is the relationship of faith in an election, and what exactly is a “proper role” of faith in the 2016 election.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines faith as: 1) strong belief or trust in someone or something; 2) belief in the existence of God : strong religious feelings or beliefs; and 3) a system of religious beliefs. Hinduism is not simply belief-based, nor is it a single system. As explained in the Hindu American Foundation’s FAQ booklet, “Hinduism is a family of traditions that emphasizes experience and evaluation,” and it is grounded in pluralism.  An election is defined as “the act or process of choosing someone for a public office by voting.” As Abraham Lincoln said, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision.”

Christian faith leaders like Rev. James Dobson exhort people to make those decisions based on their faith: “God has called us to be His representatives in our nation and in our world. Select candidates who represent your views and work for their election.”  Ancient Hindu texts, on the other hand, like the Arthashastra – a Sanskrit work that (approximately) dates back to the 4th century B.C. – say that political rule is grounded in the Divine, but differentiate it from spiritual practices and functions. And yet the more modern Hindu political leader Mahatma Gandhi said that, “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.” But it is the words of three-time Senator John Danforth that I turn to as an American, a Hindu living in a predominantly Christian country, to understand and explain the proper role of faith in this election – particularly because I find the current climate to be based on a polarized binary, where pluralism has no place.

Nearly 10 years ago, I read three-time Senator John Danforth’s book Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together. His statements there have stuck with me as I have been involved in advocacy both locally and nationally:

The problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life.

Whether religion is a divisive or reconciling force depends on our certainty or our humility as we practice our faith in our politics. If we believe that we know God’s truth and that we can embody that truth in a political agenda, we divide the realm of politics into those who are on God’s side, which is our side, and those with whom we disagree, who oppose the side of God. This is neither good religion nor good politics. It is not consistent with following a Lord who reached out to a variety of people — prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers.

His recent work, The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics, emphasizes the importance of compromise. He suggests that religion offers politics “a place, when it’s functioning as it should, where different people come together with all different ideas and different backgrounds, and they are all children of God.”  

And even more recently, Murali Balaji of the Hindu American Foundation, in answering what is driving the current political climate, pointed out that “the ideological litmus tests that were once the trademark of the right are now becoming more common in the left.” Polarization is not simply the issue of religion in politics but it is a driving factor in partisan politics, where there is no engagement of diversity.  The election cycle becomes more and more vitriolic, with candidates cutting each other down as a means to win their point – and eventually the election – and often using certain aspects of their faith as a foundation for demonizing the Other.

If there is no respect for diverse viewpoints, if there is a binary that says, when I win, you must lose, we lose pluralism. For civil discourse, both before and after an election, the ability to hear, accept, and blend multiple viewpoints is critical. An inclusive pluralism is an essential requirement of faith and religion that is required in politics and elections. Without these  we cannot elect leaders who ensure that all perspectives are considered, that we can come together after the election, where all the electorate has a place at the table. Faith and religion also teach us humility – that no single individual, single party or single faith has all the answers to the challenges of our times – and that we must elect leaders who can work together to find solutions.

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