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Religion and politics: How should they mesh?

Robert Benne is director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society and author of Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics

Robert Benne

is director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society and author of Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics

Could you ever imagine that an American government would order the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not to use Christian rhetoric to fuel the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s?

That is precisely what some militant atheists, secularists, and even some religious leaders want to have happen today. These folks are what I call "separationists," those who believe that religiously based moral values ought to have no place in public discourse or policy-making. While most of them merely disapprove of such an 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 the relation of Christianity to the political sphere.

There are the militant atheists - Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris - who find religion so dangerous they seem to want it banished legally from public life.

Others - not so militant - want religious people to drop their religiously based moral values when they enter the political sphere. They want only secular, rational, and purportedly universal values to enter the public square. They consider religion so parochial and irrational that it will likely lead to some form of theocracy if it has its way in the public sphere. For example, they are appalled that religious people have effectively supported policies that limit abortion and wrongly say such actions are a violation of 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 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 quite a different matter than interaction of religion and politics.

Moreover, limiting Christian activity to the private sphere violates serious 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 smell 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 that their core beliefs mesh perfectly with a certain brand of politics. The great theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, "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 badly damages the transcendent, universal claims of their faith. Politicizing their faith tends to reduce the Gospel to human work and narrow its scope to those of a particular political persuasion. Fusion destroys the 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. Those 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 one's political philosophy, social location, gender, assessment of the current situation, religious intensity, ordering of important values, among others.

At each step Christians of goodwill and intelligence can 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 permissible policies for Christians to support. Many of these kinds of policies emerged as the Nazis took power in Germany and the right thing to do was to protest them. Thankfully, we live in a country where such wicked policies are rarely proposed. Rather, we grapple with much more ambiguous ones, which makes the movement from core to policy uneven.

Even though the trajectory is jagged, however, serious Christians carry their core convictions into the political fray. They may not be sufficient to come to a decision on policies, but for these 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. Most 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 ought generally to be indirect yet important. I also propose that for the most part the church should act indirectly in the political sphere, for its own good. If the church really is the church, it will produce well-formed laypeople - as well as lay-led voluntary associations - who will make the journey from core to policy in their lives as individuals, voters, and politicians, and as participants in voluntary associations.

One serious Christian senator is worth a thousand statements by churches. Yet, there are times when churches must speak and act directly, but those should be well-considered and rare. Let them model good ways to involve themselves in political life.