Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Gawd bless the USA!

I can't seem to escape this meme:

  1. Paul at A Spiritual Diablog reflects on the political rantings of a rabidly conservative reverend.
  2. Forrest at American Bodhisattva is fairly appalled at the Family Research Council's advertisements for Justice Sunday,
  3. And he brings us a political cartoon from Bagley expressing similar disgust with the posturing of Frist and DeLay.

On top of that, I was having lunch with a friend last week who's in the middle of comprehensive exams for his M.Div. One of the topics he had to discuss with a faculty panel was "The Confessing Church in Germany during WWII." During the discussion, one of the panelists asked my friend an intricate question about the proper relationship between church and state, and then then shortened it to something like: "What does Focus on the Family have in common with the Nazi party?"

And finally, there's this blog, which shamelessly juxtaposes Christian and political ideas.

So I've been wondering. To what degree should we commingle our politics and our religion? If the good Rev. Swank wants to preach sermons on "God and the GOP", should we scold him? Should we waggle our fingers at churches that have American flags in their sanctuaries? Should Dubya be reprimanded for using religious language to burnish his political halo? For that matter, should Bill Clinton? And for presenting Jesus as a champion of liberal ideas, should I?

First, let's consider the aim of political speech. Most of us probably ascribe to some kind of marketplace of ideas theory, courtesy of Adam Smith, Charles Darwin and others. This theory says that the best mechanism for ensuring the triumph of good ideas is a sort of intellectual free market. So political speech is a way of endorsing well-known ideas or inserting new ones.

Of course, most of us probably also understand that a free market of ideas is an unrealistic ideal, just like free market capitalism and communism. Certain speech acts ought to be punishable by law (shouting "FIRE" in a crowded theater), and certain other speech acts, not dangerous enough to prosecute, still ought to be flagged as "harmful to rational discourse."

Certain religious-political speech falls into this category. For example, try this peach from Randall Terry, who was the official spokesperson for Terri Schiavo's parents:

I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good...Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism. (quoted in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, Aug 16 1993)

Even without the religious reference, this comment would be objectionable because it makes a desperate emotional appeal, attempting to move the discussion from the realm of calm discussion to the realm of screaming hysteria. The religious element simply exacerbates this problem.

In addition, this is a great example of jingoism, the marriage of religion and patriotism. It asserts that one's loyalty to God is inseparable from one's loyalty to the state. And as my M.Div buddy explained to me, this was a big problem for the church in Nazi Germany. In order to be able to critique the state, the church must continually insist that it is distinct from the state.

Now I don't mean that we should try to classify all of our activities as either "secular" or "religious", and I certainly don't mean that we should try to keep our faith from influencing which policies we support and which we reject. We simply need some guidelines to keep us honest, and to keep our marketplace of ideas in balance.

Paul provides some suggestions:

I think this is exactly the manner in which faith constructively enters the realm of action, including politics:
  1. When it brings us personal strength and motivation.
  2. When it moves us in a spirit of good will and humility to engage in respectful dialogue with others as full brothers, sisters, and equals.
  3. When we recognize that God’s will is not something that we carry in our own hip pocket, but something that emerges in time as we constructively engage with the wider world.

In what sense should faith stay out of politics? When it’s not faith. When it’s politics posing as faith by making use of a lot of God-talk. In particular:
  1. When we identify the will of God with specific political agendas and platforms concerning which persons of good will may reasonably differ.
  2. Even worse, when we identify it with specific planks in the platform.
  3. Still worse, when we identify the will of God with planks that we help to install in the platform for the love of money and power.

Are these good guidelines? Would you add anything? Remove anything? Clarify anything?

And how would politicians and activists like George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King, Jr. fare with respect to these guidelines?

1 comment:

forrest said...

That quote from Randall Terry is quite frightening. Its so alien to me that people claiming to be Christians can excuse such statements.

It certainly runs contrary to the message of love that was at the heart of Christ's teachings.

When "leaders" can get away with saying things like that, it sure makes me think their "Christian" followers certainly aren't reading enough of the Gospels.