Is there a place for religion in politics?
Is there a place for religion in politics? Depends on who you ask. If you ask our most conservative evangelicals they would certainly say, "Yes". On the other hand, if you ask a secular atheist, they would say, "Absolutely not". Many people feel that faith is private, just between you and God, but that is not God's intention. From the Hebrew Prophets, through Jesus, through Paul, God clearly demonstrates a desire that God's vision for humanity be central in our public consciousness. Moses spoke out against the oppressive imperial regime of Egypt. The prophets decried the exploitation of the poor at the hands of the monarchies of Israel and Judah. Jesus' teachings on the Kingdom of God exposed how far the conventional society of his day deviated from God's vision for humanity. As Christians, we are to be disciples of Jesus. Being a disciple of Jesus therefore has political implications. The founders of our nation placed the separation of church and state into our Constitution. This is essential if a country is to avoid theocracy, if it is to ensure a free and democratic nation. This does not mean, however, that our founders envisioned an absence of spiritual and moral values within the public arena. Indeed, such values are central to our national identity. Social reformation, such as the civil rights movement of the 60’s and the abolition of slavery, emerged from the conviction that all humans are equally beloved by God. Jesus clearly spoke against the injustice he saw in the political and economic systems of his day that oppressed people. In fact, his attempts at deconstructing systemic injustice is what ultimately led to his crucifixion.
Jesus had a bias for the weak and poor, those marginalized by society. He opens his ministry proclaiming, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus states, "Blessed are the poor." Many of his parables such as The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) have to do with teaching us the importance of providing for the impoverished. Jesus was passionate in communicating a message that everybody should have enough. This is not to say that everyone should have the same, but at least everyone should have enough, enough food, enough clothing, enough shelter. He taught that God's grace and love extends to everyone, even those that people felt were untouchable or incorrigible. In his Parable of The Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16), Jesus shows us that God views each and every one of us as equally precious. He reveals in his Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) and Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) how God might judge us. God will assess us on the basis of how we treat the weak and vulnerable among us. This must be reflected in our politics. This must be reflected in our economic systems. In his Parable of The Rich Fool (Luke 12: 16-21), Jesus makes it clear that we are to share our resources with others. Jesus knew that the ultimate destiny of humanity is dependent on how well we are able to elevate the lowest among us, to elevate those marginalized by society. If we truly want to call ourselves the disciples of Jesus, then we need to stand for social justice, and we need to communicate this to our legislators and elect legislators who will listen.
Decisions regarding war and peace are also religious. Gandhi once said that the only people in the world who fail to realize that Jesus was a pacifist are Christians. We are to take our signals from Jesus. Jesus was clearly for peace and nonviolence. In his Sermon on the Mount, we hear him say, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God." (Matthew 5:9). Later, when teaching about love he says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:44). Much to the chagrin of the zealots around him he never incited insurrection against the Romans. It is hard to know how we should apply Jesus' words when faced with terrorism, or truly evil dictators, or countries practicing overt genocide. Clearly there are times when all civilized nations should intervene in order to save lives. I've looked at this from a Christian perspective in my videos on War and Peace and God's Love in the Face of Terrorism. The point I'll make here, however, is that if we look at Jesus and the way he dealt with tyranny in his time, our first impulse should be for peacemaking, not war. The most obvious way this can be achieved is to have a generous and compassionate attitude towards countries that are not as well off as we are. When we decide to hoard our wealth, it provides an opportunity for radical groups to capture the hearts of that country's populace.
Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics, is quick to point out that God is not a Republican or Democrat. He is not a Conservative or Liberal. The role of religion is not to choose sides, but rather to remain outside political affiliation. The role of religion is to set a moral context for the debates of our time. It is to elevate the public consciousness when political or economic policies lead to injustice. It is to spotlight God's vision of justice as revealed by Jesus. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. describes this role for the church: "A church is not merely a thermometer that records the ideas and principles of popular opinion; but a thermostat that transforms the mores of society." This is what Martin Luther King Jr. did for American civil rights. This is what Bishop Tutu did to end apartheid in South Africa. Like Martin Luther King and Bishop Tutu, if we are to make a difference in this world, we must ask our legislators to change the direction of the wind, away from selfishness and violence, and toward compassion and peace.
It is easy to live in accordance with societal conventions. Most of the people criticized by Jesus were not bad people when examined by the conventions of their day. Everyone accepted that you did not deviate from your social class. It was totally accepted that a Pharisee would not hang out with the tax collector. Tossing a coin to a beggar or making a donation to the temple was acceptable. Entering into the actual suffering of someone outside of your clan was not expected. Those who could abide by Mosaic law were to be held in high esteem and those who could not were to be shunned. It didn't really matter that most of the poor could not afford the necessary temple sacrifices that would enable them to emerge from the "sinner" class. Jesus did everything he could to break down barriers that separated people, to eliminate the judgmental attitude people held towards others. He worked tirelessly to restore God's vision that everyone is equally beloved and should be treated fairly.
You know, it doesn't appear that too much has changed within the past 2000 years. We still largely ignore those living on the edge of society and stick to our "own kind." But once you have encountered the Gospel, you can no longer abide by conventional wisdom when it diverges from God's wisdom. As Christians, it is never proper to ask whether God is on our side. Rather, as Abraham Lincoln stated, we should ask, "Are we on God's side?" Do the paths we choose lead us to God's vision for humanity?
Many politicians draw their religious line in the sand over issues like abortion and homosexuality, two issues that Jesus never, I repeat never, spoke about. God's vision for humanity that is clearly delineated through Jesus encompasses a world filled with love, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, and peace. It is a healing vision, a vision where all people are equally precious. When the top 1% of the wealthiest people in the US hold 40% of the total wealth of our country, we must ask, "Where is the compassion?" When millions of people have no health insurance, we must ask, "Where is the healing?" When our urban children are under-educated and their parents under-trained, we must ask, "Where is the equality?" If Jesus were here today, he would be asking these questions. As Christians, his spirit abides within us and walks alongside of us. We are now his presence in the world. We are called to be his light in the world and must keep his vision of the Kingdom of God in the forefront of public consciousness.
So, in summary, I feel strongly that there is a place for religion in politics, just not bad religion. There is no place for religion that is judgmental and exclusive. There is no place for religion that primarily focuses on issues that were not central to Jesus. There is no place for a religion of aggression and violence. If you are going to call yourself a Christian, and if you are going to speak out in the public arena, at least speak toward the issues that were critically important to Jesus, again those are love, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, and peace. These are the central tenants of all major faiths. If we remain true to these basic precepts, the world indeed can become the Kingdom of God.