Thursday, January 03, 2008
Religion & Politics: Oil & Water
I'm writing this post on January 3rd, the morning before the Iowa caucuses. (Yes, I had to look up how to spell caucuses. And, yes, I had spelled it wrong.) These "town meeting"-like events mark the official start of the shortest primary season on record - and over the next few weeks, folks all across the USA will be subject to a barrage of campaign ads, brochures, phone calls, polls, text messages, e-mails, etc., in an attempt to get votes. For those of us here in California, it's just over a month until the primary election (February 5th). For some of you who read the Grapevine, it'll happen even quicker than that. (I'm not sure if anyone in Iowa reads this thing... but just in case, you need to go to a caucus tonight - and not just because I looked the word up so I could spell it correctly.) As a follower of Jesus and as a minister, I've been warned numerous times that "religion & politics don't mix" - and they've been variously compared to oil & water or Michigan & Ohio State football fans. (OK, nobody's ever said the football fan thing to me - I've just been thinking about how great the Capital One Bowl was on Tuesday.) I'm going to argue a bit with that premise, so hang on to your proverbial hats. First, I'll agree that religion shouldn't mix with politics, if by "religion" what you mean is "religious observance" or "government support for a particular religion." While I don't want to do the whole "separation of church & state" debate here (except to say that the phrase, "separation of church & state", does not appear anywhere in the Constitution), I believe that the quest for governmental recognition or sanction almost always hurts the religions who receive it, whether they be Christian or Buddhist or Mormon or whatever. Short-term gains in temporal (earthly) power lead to compromises in belief & practice that wreak havoc in a religion for years to come. On the other hand, I will argue that religion & politics SHOULD mix, if by "religion" what you mean is "belief" or "faithfulness to a set of beliefs." Every one of has ideas & practices that we cherish for a variety of reasons - whether we are followers of Jesus Christ or ardent atheists. To ask any candidate or political office holder to abandon their beliefs in order to govern well is a violation of their unique personhood - it's asking them to not be themselves. When we desire people of integrity to lead us, it seems foolhardy to request that they saw off one of their ethical/moral limbs in order to get elected. In fact, I think we all are kidding ourselves if we think that what someone believes about the nature of the world and the existence of God can be turned on & off like a light switch. What someone believes will affect their decisions - their values will help (or hinder) them from certain courses of action. This is not to say that we are consistent in living out what we believe - far from it! But if our beliefs are deeply held, if they are more than darkening the doors of a church in order to appease a portion of the electorate, they will bubble up in what we say and do. I want leaders in this country who believe in something more than getting elected or gaining power. I'm praying for it. And I don't want any of the candidates, whether I like 'em or not, pretending to be something that they're not. So, I close this with two requests: 1. To the candidates (ha - like they're ever going to read this - still, I can dream, can't I?!): Tell us what you believe. I'd love to hear about your faith decisions - since so many of you claim an "important" relationship with your God, let us know what that means specifically. Stop trying to use "code words" to appeal to one faith segment or another and simply tell us the truth. Give us the opportunity to make an informed decision about who will be the next president of the United States. 2. To the rest of us: Stop pretending that religious faith doesn't matter in politics - it does. It's OK to be concerned or moved by a candidate's beliefs. By the same token, if it matters to the way the candidates conduct their campaigns & (eventually) lead as they hold office, then it also matters to each of us. We "Average Joe's" (or, in my case, "Average Mark's") have the same responsibility that they do - to live out our lives based on our beliefs - to attempt to live consistently & with integrity. As a follower of Jesus Christ, that means I need to pray for the candidates - all of 'em, not just the ones I'd like to see on the ballot in November - and ask God to work in their lives and the lives of those around them. I need to participate in the political process in a way that brings honor to God (speech seasoned with grace, standing for truth). I need to use the brain God has given me (quote from my dad - "God didn't call you to be stupid.") as I decide who to support. A version of this article originally appeared in the January 3, 2008 issue of The Grapevine, the newsletter of NewLife Community Church.