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Well, as much as that might be the case, it is a subject that cannot simply be avoided because to say that religion and politics do not mix is to misunderstand both religion and politics. The two are inextricably bound together because both reflect the heights of human aspirations and the roads we choose to reach them.
An insightful book deals with both religion and politics and it comes from an author with a unique perspective. The book is Faith and Politics: How the "Moral Values" Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together.(1) The author is John Danforth, for 18 years a US Senator from Missouri, a Republican, who happens also to be an Episcopal priest. You cannot tie religion and politics more closely than that. He writes:
That religion is now a divisive force in American political life doesn't mean that in order to avoid fracturing the country, religious people should stay out of political controversies and attend only to the personal side of religion. Some faith groups - the Mennonites, for example - have chosen the course of disengagement from public life. But many people of faith believe that politics is a religious as well as a civic duty. Tradition supports that conviction. Religious people have engaged with government since Moses confronted Pharaoh. One of the books of the Bible is called Judges. Two are called Kings. That is government. Acting for God, the prophet Samuel anointed Saul and David kings of Israel. In the Old Testament, God was the ultimate ruler, and kings answered to God. As God's agents, the prophets told kings where to go and where not to go; which battles to fight and when to surrender; what to build and when; and how to treat the poor, the fatherless, the widows and the aliens. And when kings did not do as they were told, the prophets, again acting for God, confronted them and meted out punishment. The idea of incompatible realms of religion and government is not supported in the Old Testament.Good point. The question is whether or not elected officials have the choice. Danforth notes that the way candidates win elections these days is to campaign from the extremes; they have to "energize the base," the core supporters of either the right or the left, the folks who can be counted on at the polls. OK, that is a proven strategy that wins elections. But then once the newly-elected official takes office, he or she is expected to get something done on behalf of the constituents, and that generally requires working with folks "on the other side of the aisle" to arrive at some mutually agreeable compromise. All well and good. But if the candidate of one party ran on a platform that does not allow for compromise, and the candidate of the other party did the same, what happens? Without a capacity for compromise, the political landscape starts to look like scorched earth as whichever party commands the majority steamrolls its agenda and ignores intelligent debate. That is simply dangerous. Sen. Danforth:
The reason many Americans are turned off to politics is not, as party ideologues lament, that they do not have clear enough choices between candidates. It is the opposite. They have extremely clear choices, but they do not like either of them. They do not like either candidate. They do not like either party. I have heard many people use essentially the same words in describing their election-day frustration: "I want to check a box that says, 'None of the above.'"One of Sen. Danforth's suggestions for improving our current situation is for elected officials to substitute CONCERNS for AGENDAS. For example, to use one of the hot button issues of our generation, think about abortion. Sen. Danforth generally opposes abortion. An AGENDA opposing abortion might be to demand legislation outlawing the practice altogether plus Supreme Court rulings that would overturn Roe v. Wade. A CONCERN about abortion might be willing to take a broader approach - sex education to help folks avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place or the availability of birth control methods that involve more than an instruction to "just say no," to name just a couple. The idea is to come to the table willing to listen to a variety of approaches that would move toward a certain goal rather than coming with an insistence that there is a way - MY way - and no other will do.
A CONCERN rather than an AGENDA. Sounds good to me. Think of all the issues that are facing us right now - war, health care and its out-of-control costs, energy dependence, Social Security reform, and so on. If we sent folks to Washington with concerns rather than agendas, I suspect a lot more would be accomplished.
To be sure, our faith will shape our concerns. We know we are to be loving people who care for those in need as well as moral people who restrain our worst impulses. So saying, that is not the same as creating an agenda. Sen. Danforth again: "What we lack is a set of rules that tells us with specificity what political positions we should take and what candidates we should support. Jesus lets us figure that out for ourselves."
Whether religion is a divisive or a 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. If politics is the art of compromise, certainty is not really politics, for how can one compromise with God's own truth? Reconciliation depends on acknowledging that God's truth is greater than our own, that we cannot reduce it to any political platform we create, no matter how committed we are to that platform, and that God's truth is large enough to accommodate the opinions of all kinds of people, even those with whom we strongly disagree.The last chapter of the Senator's book is called "Paul's Primer for Politics," and draws on Romans, chapter 12, to lay out some principles. The Senator writes, "Christianity does not give us an agenda for American politics. It does not provide policy positions that we can identify with certainty as being Christian. What it does offer is an approach, a way of thinking about and engaging in politics, that while not issue specific, is highly relevant to our ability to live together as one nation, despite our strongly held differences."
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Danforth insists that politics is a way of expressing our Christian values, but politics is not Christianity. To confuse faith and politics is to be "conformed to the pattern of this world," which the apostle Paul says is a no-no.
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.
Danforth notes that this is a tough one for Senators (and, no doubt, Congressmen too). "Supported by staff, flattered by lobbyists, whisked by Capitol Police into elevators reserved only for senators, nearly everything about a senator's life supports the inclination to "think of yourself more highly than you ought," especially while being transported to the farthest reaches of self-esteem by the splendid sound of your own rhetoric." Even when speaking to an empty chamber with only the C-Span camera for an audience.
Verse 10: Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.
The Senator says, "In the heated world of politics, it is important to act as though we love one another, even where there is no underlying feeling of love. In the Senate, the language of affection and respect, even to the point of unctuousness, is the lubricant that allows the Senate to function."
My first debate on the Senate floor, on a long since forgotten topic, was against Senator Ed Muskie of Maine. A former presidential candidate and future secretary of state, Muskie was one of the most highly respected people in Washington. He was also known for his temper and his high-volume, red-in-the-face oratory on the Senate floor. Except for introducing myself to him on the day I was sworn in, I had never exchanged a word with Ed Muskie. As far as he was concerned, I was some unknown whippersnapper who had the gall to challenge one of his strongly held convictions. The debate was heated and the rhetoric loud, with Muskie shouting at me across the chamber. While I have no memory of the substance of the debate, I will never forget one phrase Muskie used amid the shouting and expressions of outrage. He called me "my very good friend from Missouri." He did not know me from Adam, and I had become his very good friend.Sen. Danforth goes on: "The requirement that we show honor definitely extends to fellow Christians with whom we disagree. After I wrote two newspaper opinion pieces stating that Christian conservatives should not control the Republican Party and do not speak for all Christians, a television reporter who interviewed me asked why I did not simply say that the conservatives are 'nuts.' He was inviting me to move in the opposite direction from Paul, to outdo myself in showing DIShonor."
Moderates, who want their own views of religion and politics to be respected, have an obligation to respect the views of Christian conservatives, not just to secure their own place in public debate, but to fulfill Paul's mandate. Indeed, much as moderates might disagree with the particular policies advocated by conservatives, there is much in the conservative message that deserves their respect and support.
Paul again: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
"As far as it depends on you..." Well, a united America DOES depend on us," says John Danforth. "It is the responsibility of people who follow Jesus. It is not a political agenda. It is the ministry of reconciliation."
TIME magazine once published an excerpt from a book by a young Senator from Illinois who would go on to even bigger things. This young man, Barack Obama, was recalling an e-mail that he received from a doctor shortly after he had won the Democratic nomination in his US Senate race.(2) It read:
"Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you." The doctor described himself as a Christian whose faith led him to oppose abortion and gay marriage, but also to question the idolatry of the free market and the quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of our current foreign policy.Obama continued, "The reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, which suggested that I would fight 'right wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose.' He went on to write, 'I sense that you have a strong sense of justice...and I also sense that you are a fair minded person with a high regard for reason...Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded...I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.'"
Obama said, "I checked my web-site and found the offending words. My staff had written them to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade. Re-reading the doctor's letter, though, I felt a pang of shame."
The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own - a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.Obama, the Democrat; Danforth, the Republican. Both offer hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all. Political discourse should not be reduced to the level of mud wrestling, but neither should it require walking on eggshells. We Christians can do it, and in the process, show the world how. I would say, "See you at the voting booth," but I have already voted. And one more thing. No matter HOW you vote, I will still love you on November 9th. God bless you and God bless America.
1. New York : Viking, 2006
2. Barack Obama, "My Spiritual Journey," Oct. 16, 2006