By NEMS Daily Journal
Separating political conviction from religious belief may sound doable in theory, but it’s highly problematic in practice.
Secularist contentions that religion should be a purely private matter with no influence in how a person views public issues are neither fair, practical nor in keeping with the American story. Faith shapes the world view of committed people, and most major social movements in U.S. history have been influenced or even driven by people acting on their religious beliefs.
The idea that people’s faith should be checked at the door of public discourse is unnecessarily and even unconstitutionally restrictive.
Yet it’s clear that people often use the Christian religion as a means to a political end. Both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, are guilty of using religion to bolster their arguments, selectively quoting scripture and proof-texting their political argument.
President Obama did it recently at the National Prayer Breakfast in a thinly veiled justification of higher taxes on the rich with quotations from the Gospel of Luke. But Republicans likewise have called on Judeo-Christian ethics to justify tax cuts, defense buildups and other conservative policies.
Abraham Lincoln famously noted that both sides in the Civil War read the same Bible and worshipped the same God and obviously came to very different conclusions about what their faith compelled them to do.
A political perspective informed by prayer, study and serious reflection on the ethical imperatives of religious faith is one thing. But when we turn that around – coming to a political conclusion, then searching for religious tenets to prop it up – something else is happening. It’s the sin of pride, and no political faction has a monopoly on that.
Claims on both the religious right and religious left to God’s exclusive support for their political positions and the use of that certainty to harden positions and foment division have little to do with the Kingdom of God.
Garry Wills, the Catholic writer and historian, observed that Jesus never considered his reign to be in any way political, though it was as at its very root about how people should treat each other.
“The heavenly reign, though it undercuts the earthly reign’s claim to be more than what it is, does not exempt Christians from the duties of all human beings to be just to others, according to the rules of temporal conduct,” Wills wrote. “But it goes far beyond those rules. It treats the lowest person, the outcast, as if he were Jesus. Those who try to cram this overriding duty within the structure of any state are making Jesus a king in Pilate’s sense (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.) They follow the lead of Jesus’ enemy, not of Jesus. The program of Jesus’ reign can be seen as a system of antipolitics.”
What politician, Wills asks, could be elected on a platform of loving enemies, helping those who hate and abuse you, turning the other cheek, giving to people more than they ask of you, forgiving all wrongs. Christian ethics, seen in that light, are indeed the work of followers of Jesus and not the state.
Politics informed by faith can be a leaven, but summoning religion as a means to a political end is a cynical or misguided exercise.