Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Politics and Religion

"Autumn Sunset"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday I listened to a local NPR "call-in" program in which people were invited to share their opinions about a newly-published Pew Research poll. According to this latest survey, a growing number of Americans (about half the population ) believe that "churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues." A growing minority of people go even further and express the opinion that churches should endorse candidates for political office.

If you really want to have a lively conversation, talk about politics or talk about religion, and if you want to have a volatile conversation, talk about them both.  The callers who participated in yesterday's program were quite vociferous and often vehement in their responses.  Some folks were gleeful over this latest poll: "Religion has been losing its influence in public life and this influence needs to be restored."  Others were stridently opposed: "We live in a country where separation of church and state is guaranteed by our constitution. If you want to see what happens when religion is involved in politics,  just look at the Middle East." 

Throughout the program yesterday I found myself being swayed by both arguments. I think a survey that suggests more Americans want to hear more of a  "religious" voice in the political arena is both "bad news" and "good news."

On the one hand, the voice of "religion" has been deeply divisive in this country. Religious institutions  have stridently opposed and vehemently attacked same-sex marriage and Gay rights. Churches have been vocal and sometimes violent opponents of those who hold "pro-choice" opinions. And on a Sunday morning, churches still remain some of the most segregated places in the country.  Religion in America today has come to be associated with a "right wing" political agenda, and so there is something in me that says, "keep religious voices mute."  

On the other hand, many of the greatest and most progressive social movements of our times have been directly impacted by the involvement of "churches and other houses of worship." The "Civil Rights" movement would have never gotten off the ground were it not for the participation of religious leaders and their congregations. The political speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King were more like sermons, filled with biblical references - those who marched in places like Selma came from churches across the country, many of them where "White." And to this very day many churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are strong advocates for the weak and the poor,  the voice of those who have no voice in society.

So there is also something inside of me that says, "I want to hear a much louder religious voice in the public forum of American politics today." 

I think that the problem lies in the fact that we use and define the word "religion" very loosely nowadays. As I see it, many people who speak or act in the name of religion may not be all that religious after all. 

The very word "religion" comes from the Latin word, "ligare,"- "to bind together."  I think that the fundamental function of any religion in any culture is "to bind people together, " to weave people into a fabric of relationship, binding them with cords of love and compassion. 

When I boil it all down and get to the essence of any of the major world religions, I always find "compassion" at the core of all the teachings - this is what the Bible "essentially" teaches, what Jesus teaches, what the Buddha teaches, and what the Koran proclaims.  

If the voice of "compassion" can be interjected into the political arena because of greater religious involvement, I say speak up loudly and clearly.  If the voice of division and condemnation is interjected into politics because of religious involvement, I say we already have enough condemnation  and division in politics today; and besides, that strident voice of "tearing apart" is probably not all that religious after all. 


  1. The idea of religions possessing political authority or influence is not something I care to see in practice.

    Americans are suckers for religious revivalism. from Jonathan Edwards to Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and beyond. and have traditionally used religious revivalism to manipulate political and social activity according to their creeds. The Volstead Act is an example.

    The Comstock laws which made dispensing birth control and even information about birth control originated as a result of one religions intrusion in the political sphere are another example. This is still with us today in the opposition to planned parenthood.

    We don't need some religious experts to be giving us the low down on what is good and bad for public life. If we as an electorate are unwilling to do the right thing all on our own, mandating that the 'right thing' be done by a religiously contrived political fiat is not going to solve any problems. I think it will be a grave mistake if we let religions make political choices for the rest of us.

    As to the poll. America is in a desperate condition, much like in the past when revivalism raised it's head and was seen as a means of finding answers to societies problems.

    I grew up in upstate NY in an area known as 'the burned over district'. It got it's name from hell fire and brimstone revivalism which swept like wild fires through the region. The church I happened to be born into resulted from one such revival.

  2. Yes, for the most part I agree with everything you said. But I keep going back to people like Dr King or the the strong advocacy for the poor demonstrated in many religious organizations. On the whole I think religion should be kept out of politics but I still want to make room for the "authentically religious" voice of compassion.

    1. Dr. King was one of my heroes as was Malcolm X and Mohammad Ali for that matter. All put their religious sensibilities to productive use with good results. Dr. King did not succeed because he was religious, He succeeded because he was fed up and he was right. He succeeded because the moral depravity of segregation was finally revealed around every dinner table in the country and a fair number of those around the table we roused to end support for American apartheid-ism. His cause was 'just'.

      What concerns me is the historical record which accompanies governments that rely on religious institutions to show them the way. We have the record of the church of the middle ages, the social / religious experiment in Geneva with John Calvin and we have the record of the first western governments on this continent to show us what to expect when highly religious people make laws for civil authorities to enforce.

      Whether we like it or not religious convictions will make their way into law like we see now in the abortion and gay marriage areas. These people will never give up and they are the reason I do not wish to see them influencing legislation based on their religious sensibilities.

      People are able to be moral and kind without any religious affiliation. We know how to do the right thing when we see the wrong thing done.

      Church and State I wish to see forever separated because of what I have seen take place when they are not separated. People who only do good because it is the law are just as immoral as those who never do good.

  3. Gosh, this is a hard one! As a moderately religious and at least politically aware person my 1st reaction is "No!" the two should not be mixed.

    ....but as you state Dr. King and churches (and other religions) were key in organizing and changing our country during the civil rights era. Rather than just the "talking heads" and pundits of today, churches organized ordinary people like me into the streets. I'm sure along side many secular groups as well.

    I would like to see a strong social gospel or social justice movement (Like Sister Simone Campbell) take hold in Progressive churches. I think and hope the progressive church would not be as dogmatic as the religious right as to me conservative politics and dogmatic exclusionary faith tend to be linked if not go hand in hand.

    I want to be part of a faith that promotes social welfare and justice, but does not promote that you have to buy into what I bought into in order to receive that welfare or justice.

    Lastly what makes this a hard topic is of course my own personal bias. I tend to be politically liberal and a progressive Christian, and LGBT, so of course I want my church to speak for me, but on the other hand we are only human and having both political and religious power is a lot of power and can't think of a theocratic state I'd want to live in, so a strong separation of religion and politics seems the most prudent.

    ....but I really am not sure what to do! This is a tough one!

    1. Yes, so true…maybe the very fact that we are keeping this tension at the forefront helps the dialogue.

    2. I think Dr. King's success was in large part due to a deep understanding of his adversary. I can remember far back into the middle 50's seeing on news reels of police dogs,billy clubs, fire hoses, beatings and gunshots. Lunch counters being segregated and de-segregated.

      King's success appears to have been in part due to his knowledge of his adversary. He knew American mainstream society would react in the favor of civil rights if they saw for themselves what was happening. The media was essential to get his point across in every living room. While it is true the civil rights movement was a church based movement it was not serving with or alongside the government in any sense of the word. But it was successful. Without national coverage on the nightly news I doubt it would have been as successful as it has been.

      It was an appeal to common human decency and it worked despite local conventions and long held hatreds due to national and worldwide news broadcasts. The church should always be in favor of those resolutions. I am not convinced the church should be a liaison of the state.