Politics are a touchy matter for Christians.
Our parents and grandparents might have been the constituents of the Moral Majority that swept Ronald Reagan into the White House and made names like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson household names. While the Religious Right has made most of the headlines over the past few years, a very strong religious movement exists left-of-center as well. Various leaders of the civil rights movement, liberation theologians and Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics blog are examples of these movements. We’ve witnessed an age where discussion of religious faith in the public sphere has gone from taboo to demanded. Try telling Mitt Romney or Barack Obama that the Constitution forbids any religious test for public office.
Rick Santorum came from total obscurity to become a presidential frontrunner in a couple weeks’ time last December, for no other reason it seemed than he could deftly use religious language and assure the evangelical wing of the Republican Party that their social issues had not been forgotten. Here is Santorum’s take on the role of religion in public life.
Even Barack Obama, a pluralist by confession and representative of a party that generally advocates for a strong separation of church and state, has made several very personal statements of faith. See here and here for details.
As Christians, I believe it is appropriate and inevitable–indeed, that it is essential–that our faith impact how we view the act of governance. If we do as the Apostle Paul says and “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), then Jesus will have something to say about how we conduct ourselves in the public sphere and even how we advocate for public policy.
Yet there is something very disturbing about how comfortable we’ve gotten using religious language in public policy debates. A new poll released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggests that many Americans agree. As someone who passionately believes that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, that his Gospel is the key to the redemption of the world and that the Creator should be acknowledged and glorified in every aspect of the Creation, my trepidation at religious language stems not from any secularism, but just the opposite. The name of Jesus is too holy and precious to be callously bandied about for political gain.
This is especially disheartening when you consider that God-talk in America today bears very little resemblance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In a piece written just prior to the 2004 election, conservative commentator George Will does an excellent job describing how the use of religious language has been co-opted to support an increasingly secular civil religion. The virtues of freedom and liberal democracy–even social justice and social conservatism–have overtaken Jesus’s redeeming death and resurrection as the salvific agents in a fallen world. By investing our Presidents with divine mandates and policy debates with apocalyptic implications, we support the blasphemy that the salvation of mankind is in our hands.
Mostly I’m asking that we be careful when we drag the name of Jesus into the mud-slinging brawl called politics. Extreme humility and caution is necessary. President Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame three years ago was a good discourse on how our nation should approach the integration of faith and politics. More than anything though, we must not confuse our loyalty to our God with anything temporal and worldly–including patriotism and good works.
No one but Jesus–not Barack Obama, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney or even the United States as a whole–is going to save the world. Telling religious narratives about institutions of this world not only discredits those institutions; it tethers our faith to imperfect, fallible and sometimes just plain ignorant ideologies. The discussion of religion in the public sphere is not bad. But the discussion of the public sphere as a religion is downright dangerous.