-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.