4.05.2011

Musings on the Intersection of Religion, Politics, and Governance in America


If discussing religion or politics is like wading into a crocodile-infested swamp, then what about discussing religion and politics? And yet these are two important facets of our lives, our beliefs, and our society. So in I go.

Living as a Christian in a Western democracy, I have a certain point of view about religion and politics, which I hope is somewhat internally consistent, and a certain sense of what is right and wrong, which I admit is finite and flawed. To unpack these concepts, let's consider some questions in turn, with my ramblings after each.



1. Is it right to mix religion and politics?

I think it's fairly sensible to find some middle ground between thinking that my faith precludes me from having any contact with the political realm, and thinking that my faith precludes me from being able to accept the viewpoints and contributions of others I interact with politically who don't share my beliefs. So, as a follower of Jesus and a believer in the Bible, I consider it important to both engage politically (and not think the whole thing too sullied to wade into) and to learn from and coalesce with others who are not of my faith persuasion (and not think that those different from me have nothing of truth or value to offer to my causes).



2. Should our faith values influence what we hope for out of our governmental institutions?

Again, it seems a moderate position is the most consistent with my beliefs. On the one hand, try as our politicians might to turn me completely off to the American political process, it seems incorrect and ineffective to completely detach from our governmental structures. On the other hand, it is tempting but wrong to place too much faith in politicians and in systems to be the answer to all of life's injustices.



3. When is government the right solution to a problem?

The nervousness I have about Tea Partiers is that they often come off as wanting to start a fight more than wanting to effect a change. And, as with any human organization, the temptation is great for them to so revel in their cause that they become the monster they seek to slay: power and publicity has a way of corrupting us like that.

That being said, a central tenet of the Tea Party is that government needs to be put back in its place, and a central source of the Tea Party's rage is that government has gotten out of control to the point that it needs to be put back in its place. We have seen far too many examples of weak and ineffective government, to be sure, so there is a role for reforming and strengthening it; but we have also seen far too many examples of government that overreached and in doing so atrophied our civic muscles and left us weaker and not stronger.

The remarkable thing about our earliest days as a nation, and to this day still a characteristic that differentiates us from most other countries, is the incredible grassroots fervor we display. It is quintessentially American, when we see something that needs to change, to organize and make that change. We are truly a nation of "we the people." Now, we need government to play its part in that change, for there are certain ways in which the structure of government is in fact the best way to approach a particular problem. But it is government that works with, and is accountable to, "we the people," and not government doing for the people.



4. What should we care about, and what does government have to do with that?

And so those first three questions are a long and windy lead-in to where people usually tend to start, when they talk about the influence of religious beliefs in political engagement. As Christians, it is right for us to care about the environment, defense of the most vulnerable among us, and the provision of safety nets and income redistributing mechanisms to ensure that those who have resources can help those who lack them. When Republicans vilify Democrats for being pro-choice (is there any population more defenseless than a baby in the womb?), or when Democrats vilify Republicans for not supporting social programming (is there any more common running theme in the Bible, besides "love God," than "take care of the poor among you"?), it makes them feel good about themselves but it isn't really a fair way to start a discussion.

For all of the discord that we read about in the papers and watch on cable TV, I actually think there is a fair amount that the vast majority of Americans can agree on. We all want the same general things for ourselves, our communities, and our country, because we all buy into the same general narrative about what America represents: the land of opportunity, the melting pot, the experiment in government that is based on the notion that we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the sense that we are a "we the people." What is up for grabs are not these core values, but if and how government plays a role in mediating our day-to-day experience of them and in mediating our interactions with one another and with the rest of the world in upholding them.

What's beautiful about America is not that I am right and you are wrong, or I am wrong and you are right. What's beautiful is that we all have the same general take on what this whole thing is about, but it means different things for each of us, because of our differences in worldview and station in life, and we differ in our sense of what role government and governance have to play in managing all of this. I think this is what the Founding Fathers anticipated and wanted, and I think that if they were alive today they would marvel at how their concepts have played out over the past 200+ years.



5. Is the majority always right?

If there is anything the Christian should have over many others, it is patience. Patience because it is a gift from God and a commandment from God, and patience because of our belief in the ultimate sovereignty of God and in the eternal nature of our souls. The thing I have appreciated about our country is that it is one of majority rule, and one that is fluid enough for sentiments to change over time such that what the majority ruled before may not be what it will rule in the future. In light of the volatility in the Middle East, consider how remarkable it is that every four to eight years, we turn over our top office to someone new even though upwards of 49 (or more?!?) percent of voters (let alone non-voters) did not want that person. And, when you read about folks who fought against grave injustices (the civil rights movement comes to mind easily), you are struck by the certainty of their beliefs: they may be in the minority today, but time will prove their cause to be right, and someday it will be validated by government (through legislation and/or election).

Alas, us Christians have not shown such patience or certainty. We act haughty and entitled when we are in the majority. And we antagonize and demonize when we are in the minority. Whatever happened to a mindset of sober stewardship when in power, that understands the grave responsibility we have been given to govern with integrity? And whatever happened to a mindset of faithful opposition when out of power, that submits to the will of the people but continues to make an honest case for what is believed to be right, believing that if it is right then it will come to pass someday?

Cynically, many of us have opted out of engagement altogether; while, drunk with power, many of us have gone in the other direction and sought authority that isn't ours to wield. We have a ways to go in being right with our Creator and the Biblical principles we purport to uphold. And, as is evidenced by the long and convoluted structure of this post, I am far from settled in my own mind. But I will continue to muse, glad for a nation where I am free to do so, and glad for a God who has given me guidance on if and how to engage in such a nation.

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