Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics

by Robert Benne

Robert Benne Source:

Robert Benne

Could anyone imagine an American government ordering Martin Luther King, Jr. not to use Christian rhetoric to inspire the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s?  Precisely this is what some militant atheists, secularists, and even a few religious leaders would like to happen today.  These folks are what I call “separationists,” those who believe religiously-based moral values ought not have a place in public discourse or policy-making.  While most of them merely disapprove of the interaction of religion and politics, others are so hostile to religion—especially conservative Christianity—that they would formally prohibit it.

Separationists come in different varieties, all of which provide examples of how not to think about Christianity’s relation to the political sphere.  There are the militant atheists—Dawkins, Dennett, Harris—who find religion so dangerous they seem to want it banished from public life.  Others—not so militant—simply want religious people to drop their religiously-based moral values when they enter the political sphere.  They think only secular, rational, and purportedly universal values should be allowed to enter the public square.  They consider religion so parochial and irrational that it would likely lead to some kind of theocracy if it had its way.  They are appalled, for example, that religious people have been effective in supporting policies that limit abortion, and they wrongly charge that such actions violate the separation of church and state.  The First Amendment does indeed prohibit the establishment of a specific institutional form of religion (separation of church and state), but it also guarantees the free exercise of religion, which historically has led to the lively involvement of Christian individuals and organizations in political life.  Separation of church and state is a matter quite a different from the interaction of religion and politics.  Moreover, limiting Christian activity to the private sphere violates Christian belief, which affirms that God is active in all facets of life and that Christians are obligated to follow his will in them.  Separationism goes counter to the Constitution, American history, and serious Christian conviction.

But separationists do point out a second bad way to think about religion and politics, which I call fusion.  Fusion happens when core religious beliefs are so wedded to a particular political ideology or set of public policies that they become nearly identical.  Then we have religionized politics and politicized religion.  Like separationism, fusion comes in different varieties.  Some is intentional, as when religious people firmly believe their core beliefs mesh perfectly with a certain brand of politics.  The great theologian, Paul Tillich, once wrote that “Socialism is the only possible system from a Christian point of view.”  Some conservative Christian writers have come close to fusing Christianity and capitalism.  But most fusion is unintentional, because Christians and their churches sense that melding Christianity and politics damages the transcendent, universal claims of their faith.  Politicizing their faith tends to reduce the Gospel to human work and narrow its scope to people of a particular political persuasion.  Fusion destroys the radicality and universality of the Gospel.

Yet, too many Christian churches unintentionally fuse their faith and their political persuasion.  They unconsciously draw a straight line from their core beliefs to specific ideologies and public policies.  The liberal Protestant churches all advocate for liberal political policies; they are the left wing of the Democratic party at prayer.  Conservative churches that address political issues—not all of them are “political”—advocate for a conservative political agenda; they pray with the Republican Party.  One suspects that the political tail is wagging the religious dog.

There is a better way, which I call “critical engagement.”  This approach assumes that the movement from core Christian beliefs—the incomparability of every human life, salvation through Christ not through politics, concern for the poor—traverses a number of steps before it gets to specific policies.  Those steps include, among other things, one’s political philosophy, social location, gender, assessment of the current situation, religious intensity, ordering of important values.  At each step Christians of good will and intelligence may differ.  So the trajectory is a jagged one; there are no “Christian” policies.  However, there are some policies—for example, racist ones—that so obviously violate core values that they have to be ruled out as policies Christians can support.  Many of these kinds of policies emerged when the Nazis took power in Germany, and the right thing to do at that time was to protest.  Thankfully, we live in a country where such wicked policies are rarely proposed.  Rather, we grapple with much more ambiguous cases, which makes the movement from core to policy uneven.

Even though the trajectory is jagged, however, serious Christians carry those core convictions into the political fray.  They may not be sufficient to come to a decision on policies, but for serious Christians they are necessary.  Sometimes they are even dominant.  I argue that three concerns move with a relatively straight line from core to policy:  protection of nascent life, decent support for those among us who cannot participate in the economy, and religious freedom.  Christians ought to be able to support policies aligned with those concerns, but even then policy-making is ambiguous.

So, the religious factor in politics generally ought to be indirect yet important.  I also propose that for the most part the church, for its own good, should act indirectly in the political sphere.  If the church really is the church, it will produce well-formed lay people.  Those people will make the journey from core to policy in their individual lives, as voters, politicians,and as participants in voluntary associations.  One serious Christian senator is worth a thousand church statements.  Yet, there are times when the churches must speak out and act directly, even though those cases should be well-considered and rare.  Let the churches model good ways to involve themselves in political life.

Robert Benne, Director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society and author of Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics (Eerdmans, 2010)


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