While it’s a truism that religion and politics don’t mix, and there’s evidence that when religion and politics intersect trouble is soon to follow, can we really hope to separate our faith from our political decision-making and remain true to that faith?
It is this question about the relationship between faith and politics that will drive a conversation with a conservative Christian activist who shares a publisher with me. Our publisher, perhaps hoping to sell a few copies of our books during this election season, has set up a weekly conversation that we hope you’ll join in with. Henry will pose the question and the Elgin Hushbeck and I will offer our response to the question and then to each other’s answer.
The opening question is: – How does your faith inform your decisions and actions in this political season?
In response, I start with a reminder given by theologian Jose Miguez Bonino that all decisions are political, because they have the potential to affect the lives of millions of other people (Toward a Christian Political Ethics, p. 11ff). Since politics involves the exercise of power, then there will be questions raised about how one exercises this power. What moral foundations guide political decisions – including our own decisions about what to eat and what to drive – not to mention the way we vote?
Where then does faith fit into the way we exercise of power? It would seem obvious, but likely isn’t, faith/religion can offer a moral compass or ethical foundation for decision making. Of course, the powers that be often try to co-opt faith for their own ends. Thus, we sing “God Bless America,” believing that God somehow has deemed us a chosen people, or we use religious symbols for political ends – such as the practice of swearing on a Bible. Is this not idolatry?
I enjoy politics and am fairly engaged in the conversation, using this blog to speak to political issues and even on occasion endorsing candidates (as a private citizen not as a pastor). I believe in the importance of voting if the opportunity is provided – we are, after all, the foundation of the representative government. My mantra has always been -- if you don’t vote then don’t complain!
Although I am a political animal, I try to approach the political realm with my faith in God as my guide. I seek to view the political realm through the lens of my faith, and while I may not always ask “what would Jesus do,” I hope that my basic political views reflect that commitment.
Therefore, I take seriously the call of the prophets to do justice and to love mercy, to consider the plight of the poor, the widow, and the orphan. I also hear a call to give voice to the concerns of the stranger (the “alien”) in our midst. I also hear Jesus take on the mantle of Isaiah in his visit to the synagogue at Nazareth. After he unrolled the scroll he read these words from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He close by telling the community that he was the fulfillment of this promise and in doing so he showed us the path toward a ministry of justice and mercy (Lk 4:16-20 Common English Bible). Then there’s Jesus’ definition of the terms of judgment, that we will be judged by how we treat the “least of these” (Mt. 25).
My own moral sensitivity is rooted in this biblical message, and I seek to view the world through this prism, both as a pastor and as a citizen of this nation and this world. With this sense of calling in mind, I’ve committed myself to interfaith work and faith-based community organizing.
Some of my friends believe that the lure of power politics is too great for any true partnership to exist. That is, when people of faith join with the political class to work for justice, they will eventually be corrupted. My friends believe in justice, but they believe that we should focus solely on the work of the church as witness. Although I would agree the church should seek to live out its alternative vision of community, but I also believe that the stakes are too high for us to forgo engaging the powers. While we can do this as individuals, I believe we’ll be more successful if we do so as a community of faith. I don’t believe the church should endorse candidates, but it can be an advocate for justice, calling on government to fulfill its responsibilities for the providing the general welfare of all the people.
In bringing faith into conversation with politics; I recognize that I cannot coercively impose my beliefs on others. We live in a pluralistic country, not a Christian one. My aim isn’t to impose my religious practices on others, but instead be and advocate for justice for all. In that regard, while I believe he church should seek to alleviate the ravages of poverty, we simply don’t have the resources to go it alone. Government will play the central role in providing a safety net for the nation. We can assist and supplement, but we can’t take on the full burden of providing for the general welfare. Therefore, the role play in the political realm as people of faith is to be raise the moral and ethical – indeed the prophetic – voice so that justice might be served. In doing this, acting out of our faith commitments, we hold our government accountable for serving the general welfare in a fair and equitable manner. If that makes me a big government liberal, then so be it. I believe I’ve come to this position because of my faith in a God who calls for us to tend to the least amongst us.