3 March 2004

Another political bludgeon

Anna Quindlen writes recently about how religiosity — which is not the same as faith — has become the Roman flaying of politics.

When did it first become gospel that only
conservatives knew God? It sure wasn’t true 40 years ago for a Roman
Catholic kid in a Catholic neighborhood, when the knock on John F.
Kennedy was that religion was likely to be too much a part of his
politics and he’d be on the phone to the Holy See so often, the pope
would be a de facto cabinet member. Jimmy Carter’s faith was as much a
part of his persona as that Chiclets smile, and I’d like to meet the
guy who could go head to head with Mario Cuomo on theology and not cry
for mercy by the end of the exercise.

All
that made perfect sense to me because I had long ago concluded that I
had become a liberal largely through religion. Loving your neighbor as
yourself, giving your cloak to the man who had none, blessed are the
peacemakers: taken together, all of it seemed a clarion call to social
justice and the obligation of individuals and institutions to help
those who needed help. Jesus was the first radical rabble-rouser I’d
ever read about in school, and the best.

…What emerged was the knee-jerk assumption that those with left leanings
were never people of faith. This was also complicated by the fact that
many of us not only lack a simplistic way to talk about the subject but
also resent even being asked to do it, to slap the contents of our soul
down to establish the bona fides of our political positions. Those
positions are the product of the ability humans have been given to
reason, to interpret and to understand, not some literal textual
interpretation that makes dialogue or disagreement unnecessary or
subversive.

…Any time I hear a guy going on and on about
how his road to the statehouse or the White House was paved with prayer
(not to mention a good bit of soft money), I get the uncomfortable
feeling he’s doing what Mel Gibson has done with his movie: trading on
God for personal gain. The modern version of 30 pieces of silver.

The
connection between politics and religion for me lies in the motto of
Cornelia Connelly, the Philadelphia wife and mother who founded the
order of nuns by whom I was lucky enough to be educated. Actions, not
words. Touch the sick, the poor, the children, the powerless, as Christ
did, and never mind quoting Leviticus. For the record, I have never
written the name of God without capitalizing the G. But that is the
letter. What truly matters is the spirit.

I was told as kid, by a former John Bircher who was also a youth leader
in my church, that you couldn’t be a Christian and be a Democrat,
because the Democratic party stood for so many things that were
anti-biblical.  The only example I recall him offering was the Dems
position on abortion.

So you want to know what motivates my politics? 
It’s complex.  I have religious reasons for each of the positions
that I take — my theology of public life is carefully thought out, so
that I can talk to my fellow Christians, to Jews, to Muslims, to
Buddhists about the interaction of my spiritual and political
lives.  So my positions on gay rights, war, the care of the poor,
the divide between church and state, and all that sort of stuff has
roots in what I believe spiritually.

But I also believe in the project of the
republic, and I believe that I must not have purely particularist reasons
for the positions I take on public issues.  So I also — right
alongside the “faith-based” reasons and NOT as a “cover” for them — have arguments and positions
based on reason, logic, and analysis.  I believe that the public arena
deserves nothing less.

Quindlen points out the “worship gap” — the idea that weekly church
attenders tend to be much more conservative than those who don’t attend
every week.  But she also rightly notes that among those who go
“most of the time” or “several times a month”, support for Democrats
and “liberal” positions is much stronger.  Also, importantly,
these people are the vast majority of the people polled.  Those
who claim to go to church “every week” or “never” are the vast minority
of Americans.  (And people tend to overestimate in polls about
stuff like this and the good works they do.)  Those who
occasionally miss church but are still faithful attenders are the great
mass of Americans.

(I might note that I attend church two or three times a week.)

But I have grown tired of a highly politicized
group of religious believers laying exclusive claim to labels like
“Christian.”  I usually identify as an “Episcopalian” because the
word “Christian” has been co-opted by a group with a particular agenda,
a particular politics, and a particular theology, none of which I agree
with.  And it seems to me that some members of these groups, like
the “Christian” Coalition, and such ilk, by participating in politics
exactly as everyone else does, engaging in “war” and working mostly in
demagoguery toward their opponents, bear false witness to the faith
they proclaim.  Although they believe in a transformative God,
their faith has not transformed them.

I’m with Quindlen and the nuns who taught her:
“Actions, not words.”  Or as St. Francis of Assisi put it, “Preach
the gospel at all times.  Use words, if necessary.”

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2 Responses to “Another political bludgeon”

  1. Anna Says:

    Nate,
    My comment became quite lengthy so I posted on my blog. Great post!
    Anna

  2. Zaak Says:

    Indeed, a great post.

    I was told by my father, a Canadian Christian, ” I can’t believe all Christians aren’t Democrats.”

    Agreeing with him, I was surprised when I found out my American Christian friends, with the exception of 2 or 3, were active Republicans. Incredulous!

    I don’t get the conservative right at all. Early Christians lived as communists (Acts 2).