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Religion in Politics

I suppose it is a strange idea, but tonight’s post is a review of a review. A colleague, Dr. Robert Jensen, recently wrote a review, “Prophetic politics: Charting a healthy role for religion in public life,” which is a review of Walter Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipatory Word (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012). My comments will make a lot more sense if you can take the time to read Bob’s article.

The first thing that surprised me was the extent to which Bob and I actually agreed. He and I come from very different political perspectives, and somewhat different views of Christianity, and have had a rough patch or two, largely due to my mouth more than his, I’m ashamed to say. His graciousness went a long way towards smoothing things out. So this convergence was a very pleasant surprise.

I thought one critical point that was missed, possibly also by Brueggemann, is that polemics often trumps the "first principles" that one's faith might otherwise inform a voter. I'll offer two examples, one each from traditional liberal and conservative platforms.

From the left, the laudable, very Christian desire to succor the poor and suffering is often corrupted with the ideas that 1) all rich are evil, selfish and greedy and all poor are salt of the earth, oppressed and completely innocent of all blame for their situation, and 2) it is up to the state to enforce charity through wealth redistribution and punishing all rich, while not holding the poor accountable for the use of the charity received.

From the right, the equally laudable desire to bring freedom to oppressed people is corrupted by the idea that sovereign nations can and should have their corrupt leaders overthrown via our military might and a system of our choosing can be implanted and the people will automatically embrace a free and open society even if it is a completely new and foreign concept (in short, nation building instead of just war).

In both cases, a solid Biblical principle is at the root, but its implementation is corrupted politically to buy power for somebody rather than truly ministering to the need. Please realize that I am offering a very high level overview of situations that are truly more complex, yet I maintain the overall accuracy of this assessment.

Another idea I'd like to suggest is that there is a true American exceptionalism, but its definition and expression have been corrupted and hidden. When I think of American exceptionalism, I think of the idea of disparate groups of people that have come together under the ideal of individual liberty and responsibility.

What makes the U.S. truly unique among the nations of the world, past and present, is that, as far as I know, it is the only nation (certainly the only major nation) in world history that is NOT assembled around a specific tribe of people. It is assembled around a philosophy, a set of ideals. Every other nation is based on a tribal model--the English, the French, etc. Even Canada and Australia are extensions of colonial England, and still part of that Commonwealth.

Iraq, Pakistan, India, etc. are less tribal-based than they used to be, but that is due to the actions of colonial powers, and the troubles in such regions are largely still based along tribal identities. America is unique in that while its key founders had a common tribal origin, that identity was not the basis of their cohesion, but rather a political vision.

I long have noticed a strong correlation between the egalitarianism of the American political philosophy and the egalitarianism of Christ's universal Church. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, male or female, slave or free--we are all one in Christ. America was an attempt to secularize this equality of human worth.

Therefore, as our society has become increasingly fractured along political, racial and religious lines, we have been losing that uniting belief. Our individual priorities and identities have supplanted the vision. Simultaneously, as we have actively sought to divorce our national culture from its Christian moorings, we have been set adrift.

Note that I am not making a statement about the "Christian-ness" of our founders, but of the general spiritual tradition they honored and recognized as the strength of the American model. There is real evidence that many of the founders were not evangelical Christians, certainly not in the contemporary sense, yet they had a profound respect for the principles of the Christian faith, and recognized that as a necessary component of the glue holding us together. As we have rejected that component, and tried to stand apart from it, the success of the American experiment has waned.

At this point, I would be happy to accept these two facts (loss of a common religious heritage and loss of national unity) as a correlation rather than having a causal relationship, so long as folks really consider that there is a correlation and it should therefore be studied. I'm willing to concede for argument purposes that if studied, a suitable secular replacement may be found for our religious heritage.

In order to do this, we must learn what it is about the Christian heritage that was so successful at holding the country together, what things contributed to those factors' decline in efficiency, and how to rebuild them while maintaining the vibrancy of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

I also suggest that one of the key areas of failure is that we have transformed the very idea of freedom from being the ability to choose a course of action and accept responsibility for the outcome, positive and negative, to the idea that we can do as we please without having to worry about the consequences. When this change occurs, government is required to step in and enforce consequences. Under the more "Christian" version of America, one's religious upbringing trained the citizen to self-police. We have lost that, and thus the increase of laws and law enforcement.

With this transformation in the definition of freedom, we moved from a self assembled orderly society to a tug of war between anarchy and totalitarianism. Thus the fundamental question becomes, do we wait to see who wins the tug of war, or is it possible to transform the society into informed, self-disciplined citizens who mutually maintain the peace?

If so, how? I'd be interested to see if someone could come up with a truly workable secular model, but I deeply suspect that it will require a spiritual transformation of a substantial fraction of the population who voluntarily surrender their wills to a common set of priorities above their own agendas for personal comfort and gain. The key word in all of that is 'voluntarily.' Anything coerced comes from totalitarianism, not freedom.

In some ways, I've come a long way from Jensen’s article and the book it reviews, yet, perhaps this is an example of that very prophetic voice Brueggemann discusses.


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