Religion and Politics

For those of you who were a little confused as to whether to come to this session or go down to something else, “prophetic voices” is something I have on my outline. This topic would take at least eight or nine hours to cover, and I have twenty minutes, so we’ll try to hit the high points.

What I’d like to do first is take a little historical excursion, which very often gets lost in the heat of the moment, about how you deal with the religious right in all this. That is, to look very briefly at the connection between religion and politics historically. I had one history professor who argued that after Constantine’s conversion the world went to hell in a hand basket and has never recovered. I would argue that a connection between politics and religion goes back further than Constantine. One can argue that the gospel message, when looked at in a context of the first century theologians, was very much a political document as well as a religious and social one. I’m going to assume that you have all had your appropriate courses on the history of the Roman Empire. Palestine was a colonial area. It was an area that was under political control of Rome. And any non-status-quo message was considered as potentially dangerous.

To give Constantine his due from the stand point of the church, Constantine’s conversion constitutes a change in the social order of the church, going from the outs and the have-nots to the ins and the haves, at least in a structural sense. The level of politics is still intense. It has to do with the size of the group you’re in.

Jumping ahead a million events or so, only in recent times in terms of history, do we have the distinct split between “politics” and “religion.” Quite frankly, what we have come to know in this county as separation of church and state actually came as a reaction to religious wars through the reformation period. It is embodied in the treaty of Versailles where state and religion are split for the first time in an official legal document. That is just a very brief history.

The issue, however, that doesn’t get addressed often enough is: What is politics? I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on a definition basis, but we have to ask ourselves a question: When we say religion and politics, what is politics?

I’m going to use two quotes. One is from David Easton, who argued that “politics is the authoritative allocation of value.” When we look at that idea for a moment, we’ll decide which of those factors is the most important – the authority or the value. The second one is from Ted Lowi, who is a little bit more earthy in his phrasing. He defines politics as “who gets what of what there is to get.” They both think more or less the same thing, but in each case, politics is a system used to allocate those things which are important to society – whether it’s important in economic terms, or whether it’s important in social terms, or whether it’s important in cultural terms.

Given a faith community that argues that there are essential qualities, essential aspects for human behavior that need to be looked at, a faith group that is not involved in politics is the exception rather than the rule. So any group needs to address these political issues. (We can talk about internal Church politics at some other time, but that would take a whole other conference. Let me stay with the externals.)

If we take the two presumptions that I’ve made so far – one that the church has always been involved in politics, and second, that there is nothing inherently wrong with that – we then have to ask the current question: How do people of the progressive Christian movement deal with the very firm political reality that when you mention religion and politics in the U.S. you are talking about the religious right? What are we in fact talking about? We are talking about two or three different things. Leaving the points of the agenda alone and making a process argument for a moment, I must admit that the religious right has been very successful, but the question is: How have they been successful?

The first aspect of the religious right is that mechanically in terms of delivering their message, they are sophisticated, they are powerful in terms of economic power, and over a decade or so they have developed, a very slick organization. Some people are on opposite sides of the issue would criticize them. I will not. They have done a very good job of articulating their interests and of identifying people who will support those interests, both in terms of dollars and of people to contact members of Congress. Those techniques are value neutral per se.

There are some aspects of their approach that I don’t think the progressive movement can adopt. For example, one of the reasons that their direct mail campaigns have worked is that they have taken very complex problems and given them very simple solutions, the moral equivalent of a printed sound byte. That just doesn’t work for a number of issues. They have also adopted the symbols of Christianity as the symbols of their movement. So family values get associated with the religious right. What are family values? They’re what they say they are.

I was reading in the local paper just this morning that the Southern Baptists have come out with a boycott against Disney because of Disney’s position against family values. Translated: Disney has extended medical coverage to the domestic partners of their employees. To the Southern Baptists this is against family values. When a Disney employee was interviewed, he asked why anyone would deny extending medical benefits to as many people as possible. So one the questions for us to look at is how we begin getting back the agenda and getting back those symbols, which will not necessarily be associated exclusively with our position but not be associated exclusively with opposing views, either.

Then there is the issue of technology and how the religious right has been successful. The religious right has been extremely successful in the application of modern technology, i.e., use of various electronic media, use of computer networking, use of educational materials based on current research in terms of educational theory. It is not just having an infinite number of fax machines, which they have as well. They also have put as much effort into networking the local groups as they have in attempting to influence general public awareness. Quite frankly, this conference is probably part of building our position with the same techniques.

The other point in terms of the connection between politics and religion is that of the prophetic voice. We teach people how to say something, but if we have nothing say, then we might as well go for coffee. How do you begin articulating that prophetic voice? What is it about the theology that you support which speaks to the society of which you are a member? How do you begin dealing with certain issues in terms of the political reality of the world? Let me enumerate a few.

Look at the crisis in medical care. We are making societal judgments every day in terms of the value of medical care. No group is articulating the issues of conscience associated with that crisis: whether it is mothers being discharged twelve hours after a vaginal delivery, or most people being handled by unlicensed care givers, or hospital downsizing, or any number of other issues. If you have a theology that argues for the value of community and argues that people are entitled to certain things, there is an issue that you might want to look at. The issue of child welfare and abuse is not one that has been articulated. A number of people have come out with individual statements, but the value of group effort in terms of that articulation is what’s missing in many of these issues. Part of the whole political process is for the decision-maker – whether it be a local legislator, a congressman, a senator – to represent a viable segment of society.

Over the last fifteen years, you have represented a politically endangered species. From 1980 on, the political reality is that anyone who would be classed “liberal,” small l or large L, has been a zoo exhibit. They have all but disappeared. There are a number of us here, but liberals have basically disappeared. They disappeared by default in terms of politics because they did not articulate their core values and how they relate to the political issues of the time. We simply have centered ourselves in the field and let the religious right define what we are in addition to what they are, and we are beyond the pale. Even though I have said we/they about six times, I am not doing a we/they kind of orientation. One of the core values in the classic small l, liberalism is that all groups should have the opportunity and should be encouraged to articulate their interests. Part of what that means for a small l liberal is the articulation must be made by the group and not imposed on the group by someone else, which is the key factor in all this. I would not presuppose to tell the Jerry Falwells of this world how to define themselves, but at the same time, I must insist on my right to define myself and like-minded people. It was not defeat on issues, it was not even defeat in the polls, that made the “religious left”, which is what it is now being called, a term I don’t like any more than I like some of the others. We allowed ourselves to be defined by the groups that felt our positions were wrong. I would suggest to you – given just normal logic, normal reason – that if you let that happen, you are doomed. In one sense, what has happened is not just the success of the religious right but our failure to see the value of the connection between politics and religion.

How does one begin that interest in articulation? And how do you begin balancing those connections? Personally, I come from a relational theology, which argues that if you take the two great commandments of loving God and loving neighbor, there is a core value for dealing with issues in society, whether those are issues inclusiveness, issues of protecting the unprotected, issues of dealing with the potential abuse of power situations. If our interests are articulated along those dimensions, then you will find a certain pattern emerging in the political agenda of the progressive movement. When the issues are defined in terms of inclusivity or exclusivity, this movement should be on the inclusive side. If issues are framed in terms of hierarchy versus egalitarianism, egalitarianism should prevail. And if issues are understood as wanting societal protection versus exploitation, we must stand up for those people in society who cannot defend themselves. They are worthy of societal protection.

Those are not specific letter-writing campaigns, those are not specific issue positions, but those are the values that come out of relational theology, values that can be articulated, values that can be translated into a specific agenda for dealing with political issues. But first, we have to get over the hump that is the first amendment of the United States Constitution. I’ve heard parishioners ask, “How can we take a political position if there is separation of church and state?” I remind them that historically the reason the first amendment was passed is not because the founders of the country didn’t want to establish a religion but because they couldn’t figure out which religion to establish. I am not for the establishment of religion. I am, however, for the notion that the core of our values comes from our faith and that politics must deal with how those values are respected. If we are not in the political discussion, we know that the values that are most important to us are likely to be for naught.