Conventional wisdom teaches that one should never discuss religion and politics in polite company. I have never quite understood this, as I believe human interaction is at its best when people are not afraid to reveal themselves, when we are open to civil discourse and healthy give-and-take on matters of substance. Besides, the weather has never been all that interesting to me. But perhaps this is why I am not invited to many dinner parties.
It is true that mixing faith and politics often results in confusion and misunderstanding. Secular liberals immediately suspect encroachment of the wall separating church and state, failing to distinguish the many varied avenues upon which people approach politics from a faith perspective. They often assume that the only people who mix politics with religion are members of the Christian Right, a group which unfortunately excels at shoving rigid, narrowly-defined views of morality down everyone’s throats. And yet, while conservative Christians have effectively mastered the art of mixing religion in the public square, in my experience, growing up as I did in a mainline protestant denomination, it was often conservatives who complained of “liberal” preachers crossing an invisible line. “Reverend,” the conservative critic would say, “just deal with God and the Bible and keep politics out of the pulpit.”
In reality, most people who complain of mixing religion with politics simply do not agree with the message. When liberal preachers threaten the status quo by speaking prophetically on issues of economic justice and the biblical mandate of caring for the least valued members of society, it can threaten a congregation’s way of life, challenging them in ways that might require a loss in power, money or status. As Robin Meyers, a United Church of Christ pastor, wrote in Saving Jesus from the Church (Harper One, 2009), “Not all preaching can be a healing balm. If we are true to the gospel, some of it will disturb, disorient, and even distress listeners.”
On the other hand, secularists and liberals often criticize conservative preachers when they attempt to influence public policy, however misguided (and biblically incorrect) their positions may be. My problem with the Religious Right is not that it engages in faith-based advocacy, for this is a healthy part of our democracy essential to a vibrant discourse in the public square. My problem is that these so-called Christian voices have a misguided view of Christianity; that what they claim as Christian values and principles are simply not consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus.
American culture and history is dominated by an ethos of individualism. It is perhaps our core cultural value, emphasizing individual rights, individual choice and individual responsibility. We seem to avoid public appeals to the common good, believing concepts of collective effort and community responsibility are threats to freedom. We take pride that we are a nation of “self-made” individuals, people who have succeeded through individual initiative and hard work. This culture of individualism, however, fully embraced by the Religious Right, is often used to legitimate a political and economic system that maximizes rewards for individual “success” and ignores those who are not “successful.” In this line of thinking, we all get what we deserve. The rich are blessed by God; the poor, not so much.
Although individual responsibility is important, as Marcus Borg points out in The Heart of Christianity (Harper San Francisco, 2003), “none of us is really self-made. We also are the product of many factors beyond our control. These include genetic inheritance, affecting both health and intelligence; the family into which we’re born and our upbringing; the quality of education we receive; and a whole host of ‘accidents’ along life’s way – good breaks and bad breaks.” To believe that we all get what we deserve, or that our individual success is entirely attributable to our hard work and effort, “is to ignore the web of relationships and circumstances that shape our lives.”
Understanding that political and economic systems deeply affect people’s lives is crucial to understanding the Bible’s passion for justice. This is what is often missed by many conservative Christians, who fail to see that the essential message of Jesus was that of justice, compassion, and God’s love for humanity. In the Gospel of Mark, the synoptic gospel authored closest to when Jesus actually lived, Jesus spoke of establishing the “Kingdom of God,” a concept full of political meaning. At the time Jesus lived, “kingdom” referred to the dominant political systems of the day, systems ruled by powerful and wealthy elites. The Kingdom of God stood in stark contrast to the Kingdom of Herod and the Kingdom of Caesar. And while the Kingdom of God had both political and religious significance, it is clear that Jesus was speaking about what life would be like if God’s justice replaced the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and domination systems that were then in control. It is why Jesus had so much to say about justice in the here and now, and why his focus was on the poor, the sick, the outcast; why he emphasized love of neighbor and God’s unconditional love for all of humanity.
This is a concept often overlooked by many Christians today, perhaps because, as Marcus Borg has noted, the author of Matthew changed the term “Kingdom of God” to “Kingdom of heaven.” As Matthew was the synoptic gospel most widely read in churches through the centuries, generations of Christians heard Jesus speaking of the Kingdom of heaven, naturally assuming that he was speaking of the afterlife, not about God’s kingdom on earth. This also may explain in part why, in my experience, many Christians, certainly many within the Lutheran tradition, believe that the role of the Church is simply to care for the “inner" life of its members, to save souls and lead its members in prayer and worship. Many of these same Christians believe that the Church should stay silent about the “outer” life and issues confronting society, issues of politics, justice, war and peace. But as Catholic theologian John Dominic Crossan has quipped, “Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.”
The American Christian community consists of an extremely diverse group of people, practices, and beliefs; the same schisms that divide society apply as well to the Christian faith. The media has made a habit of focusing on the outspoken voices of the Christian Right. But I have been far more influenced by a more compassionate brand of Christian clergy, including those who played a leading role in the civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and who would later lead resistance to the Vietnam War. It was preachers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Moore, Jr., and William Sloane Coffin, among others, who spoke prophetically against racism, inequality, and injustice. While these pastors did not ignore the spiritual needs of their congregants, they were equally or more concerned with issues of justice. “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions,” said King. “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”
Just as Jesus preached of the Kingdom of God here on earth, so, too, did King and Coffin and other activist preachers involve themselves in the here and now. These pastors realized that Christianity could be a force for good in the world – or a force for bad – depending upon how one viewed and applied Scripture. Their moral vision came straight from the life and teachings of Jesus, the historical, living, breathing Jesus portrayed in the Gospels, who led a ministry of service, healing, helping, liberation and forgiveness. Unfortunately, many Christians over the years have not shared this view of the Gospels, or have selectively chosen to ignore it.
As difficult as it is to believe today, there were a large number of “Christians” prior to the Civil War who contended that the Bible justified slavery. Of course, if one believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God, it is almost understandable. After all, Leviticus 25:44-45; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-25 and 4:1; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-19; and 1 Corinthians 7:20-24, each on their face condone, or at least acquiesce in the existence of slavery. It was not until the summer of 1995, 132 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest protestant denomination, apologized for the role it had played in the biblical justification of slavery in the United States. The apology recognized implicitly that those who owned slaves, and those who approved of slavery and racism and segregation, were often self-professed “Christians” who attended Church every Sunday, said grace before every meal, and believed that the Bible justified their racist views.
Fortunately, there were many Christians who understood that the Bible was not always to be taken literally, that it must be understood in its proper context and interpreted in a manner that captures the essential message of God’s unconditional love for humanity. These Christians fought slavery and saw it as morally abhorrent and contrary to the Gospels. The issue of slavery in fact stimulated a major theological debate about the nature of Scripture and its interpretation, a dispute that continues to this day about how the Bible ought to be read, interpreted and applied. English evangelists John Wesley and George Whitfield, among others, argued that the biblical texts used to justify slavery had been overruled by the New Testament principles of love and justice as exemplified by the life and teachings of Jesus. This message of justice, ethics, mercy, and compassion, which was also articulated by the Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, would form the basis for the antislavery movements of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The political battles in Washington and around the nation today make clear that there remain deep divisions between us, including on a spiritual level. The Christian Right continues to be dominated by biblical fundamentalists, who read the Bible unquestioningly, in a vacuum, outside of its historical and literary context. As a result, some on the right oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools, are skeptical of scientific findings on global warming, and oppose full and equal rights for gays and lesbians. Over the past few decades, the Religious Right has combined forces with the anti-tax and laissez-faire capitalist crowd, opposing any and all government policies aimed at lessening the burdens of poverty and unemployment, protecting the environment, or of providing universal access to health care. I am at a loss to identify a biblical mandate for a philosophy of individualism and self-interest. I certainly cannot reconcile such positions with the teachings of Jesus.
I understand, of course, that there may be no Christian answer to complicated matters of public policy, but there are certainly moral, ethical and spiritual values that should inform how Christians think about and address these questions. Much of Jesus’s ministry was about hands on service to those in need – healing the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. But underlying all of his teachings was the pursuit of an all-encompassing justice, that by bearing witness to God’s unconditional love for all of humanity, we may heal and repair a broken world.
For me, Christian advocacy involves giving voice to those on the fringes, the forgotten people who lack money and power, the starving populations of sub-Saharan Africa, the plight of the unemployed, the poor and homeless in our inner cities. It involves challenging the existing power structures, the government, corporations, the military-industrial complex, and the news media to correct injustices. If the Church does not speak prophetically on these matters, then what right does it have to speak with authority on personal issues of morality?
Many on the left and right of the political (and theological) spectrum are often blinded by ideological differences and pre-determined political leanings. How and in what manner we raise taxes, spend federal and state dollars, interact with other nations, protect the environment and grow the economy are complicated issues. Jesus may not have spoken to the precise issues we confront today, and the Bible may not address them precisely. But to Christians I would ask, in what manner does the essence of the Christian faith speak to these issues? Were not the life and teachings of Jesus intently focused on correcting injustice? Does not the Christian faith command its followers to reject complacency and attempt to change conditions for the better?
In her lifetime, Dorothy Day, a Catholic layperson, was considered one of the leading examples of contemporary Catholic activism. A pacifist and a tireless advocate for the poor, she was the founder of The Catholic Worker, a loose collection of houses of hospitality, communal farms, and newspapers that sought to reform society consistent with her vision of Christian justice and compassion. “Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me,” Day once wrote, “I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper.” But even as a child, she asked, “Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? . . . Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” For Day, her Christian faith demanded that she work to improve the lot of humankind.
What we would like to do is change the world – make it a little simpler for people to clothe and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the poor, of the destitute, we can to a certain extent change the world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world.
Perhaps President Obama put it best when reflecting personally on his faith in 2010: “[W]hat we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace.”