Politics and faith might as well be joined at the hip
August 8, 2008
I probably spend more time reading and thinking about politics than is good for me. And although I try to be fair and objective in evaluating positions and candidates, I know that I am subject to the same kinds of emotional and partisan influences that affect most all of us.
But let me try to put on my best “fair and objective” hat and share with you a few thoughts about how people of faith should talk about politics.
For one thing, let’s have none of this “there should be no connection between politics and faith” nonsense. Politics is the process by which we work out how we will live together; how can Christians or others of faith be indifferent to these arrangements?
Different political arrangements will reflect different fundamental values, distribute benefits differently, and will have different rules for political engagement. These things matter. (A Brazilian Roman Catholic bishop: When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I questioned why there were so many poor, they called me a communist.)
The Old Testament prophets would never have accepted that politics and religion don’t mix. On both domestic issues (especially Amos and Micah) and in foreign policy (especially Isaiah and Jeremiah), the prophets constantly called Israel to account, to a more faithful way of being Israel. (The prophet Micah: What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?) We Christians similarly need to call ourselves to a more faithful way of being America.
What I think people may mean by wanting to separate politics from religion is that there should be no partisan politics in the church. Churches should not be either Democratic or Republican; nor should we be officially liberal or conservative. This is certainly true.
To have a commitment to a political party or ideology would be to compromise the underlying (and overriding) commitment to Christ’s gospel. Furthermore, to be a Christian involves sharing a set of values; it does not mean agreeing on just how those values can best be realized. Even if we agree, as I hope we do, that we have a special obligation to take care of those who are disadvantaged, we may disagree about what policies best accomplish this.
This is especially hard for a lot of people, including me sometimes. Committed liberals and conservatives often find it impossible to believe that those on the other side hold their views in good faith. So people on the other side become demonized. They are called dishonest, corrupt, unpatriotic, hypocritical, self-serving.
Is it really possible that intelligent and well-intentioned people can differ so dramatically on what their shared values commit them to in the political realm? Of course it is. I suggest that the best evidence that good and faithful people can disagree on even fundamental political positions is that, indeed, we observe that good and faithful people do so. Some of the best people I know are dyed-in-the-wool liberals, and some other of the best people I know are equally committed conservatives. This is simply a fact about the world, a very interesting fact, that must be accepted.
So Christians should have nothing to do with demonizing those we disagree with. The other party, the other candidate, can be misguided without being stupid or evil. This is the truly poisonous aspect of most of political talk radio or opinionated cable news. It is the constant demonization of “the other.” (We all know this is mostly conservative, but there are good examples of this same awful behavior by liberals.)
The favorite technique of these hate-mongers who poison political discourse is to take a statement of an opponent, often out of context, often twisting it, but always deliberately giving it the worst possible interpretation. The goal is to make “the other” look as bad and as foolish as possible. This is the nature of “gotcha” politics. It is ugly, un-Christian, and it debases our political conversation.
When I was studying philosophy many years ago, I was taught that all criticism of those you disagree with should be governed by what was called “the principle of charity.” This principle said that if there were two interpretations of what “the other” said or wrote, and one of them made the person out to be reasonable and decent while the other made him out to be stupid and evil-well, one should always adopt the one that made him look good. Of course, in today’s political discourse, many take precisely the opposite course.
So yes, join me in taking your faith-based values into the political arena. Our values matter. We want them to influence how we live together and how we govern ourselves. And let us do so in a way that honors each other, our faith, and our nation.
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