The recent, and still ongoing, debate over health care reform has provoked another serious (and at times not so serious) debate over the role of religion in public life. Glen Beck has undertaken an offensive against those who believe that social justice is part of our calling. In doing this, he attacks not only Jim Wallis, but Bishops of Rome for the past century. There are, and have been, different understandings of the role and purpose of the church and of Christians in government and society. There has always been a tradition that calls for the church to remain outside the world -- the most distinctive example being the Amish. There have also been examples, including the Social Gospel movement, that called for the church to be actively engaged in the transformation of society. Still others, including fellow blogger Allan Bevere, are arguing that the church should be the locus of transformation and that the reach of government should be constrained rather than encouraged.
Mark Toulouse wrote an excellent book a few years back called God in Public (WJK, 2007). In it he argued that Christians have engaged society in four different ways -- Iconic Faith, Priestly Faith, Public Christian, and Public Church. The last of these expressions, the public church, describes a faith community that gets actively involved in the transformation process. No better example of this would be the churches and synagogues that actively participated in the civil rights movement.
Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer and I wrote an article, published in Congregations, in the Summer of 2008. We used Mark's taxonomy to argue for a way in which progressive religious folk could engage the political arena -- both as individuals and as communities. It was entitled "Faith and Politics: Finding a Way to have a Fruitful Conversation." An rewritten version of this essay will be published this summer in a Rabbinic journal, carrying the title: "Same-Gender Marriages from the Intersection of Faith and Politics," (CCAR Journal).
In the essay we made this observation, that I think might be helpful -- along with a set of guidelines that can be found in the article itself.
There are inherent dangers in mixing religion and politics, and clergy must be careful about how involved they get with partisan efforts. There are legal and tax ramifications that must be kept in mind. There are many who believe that it is not in the church’s best interest for clergy to become heavily involved.7 If clergy and people of faith enter into the political realm, certain rules need to be considered. Besides the legal issues, there are ethical ones. As clergy with sympathies for the Democratic Party enter into conversation with the party of their choice, it would be important that neither party nor person of faith feel beholden to the other. Clergy must not take on the role of “kingmaker” or dictate policy. They can, however, offer words of advice and guidance from the perspective of faith. There can be no quid pro quo relationships. Indeed, the question that stands before both the political and religious communities as they enter into conversation is whether one or two issues trump all others.
I will close by saying that at this point I'm operating more out of the Public Christian mode than the Public Church mode -- though as a church we are taking up missional causes that while not politically aligned may have political implications. With this as an introductory statement, I invite my readers to consider the relationship of faith and politics.