Last Thursday, I spoke at the annual meeting of the South Carolina Christian Action Council held at Zion Canaan Baptist Church in Columbia. I significantly condensed that lengthy presentation and repackage it as an editorial.
I began with an explanation of my title, “Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Politics,” that assumes there is a rightful role and has been a wrongful role of faith in politics. The title assumes that clergy have some recovery work to do.
The reclaiming work begins with seven touchstones:
First, the rightful role of faith in politics begins when clergy offer the theological declaration that God transcends politics.
God is captive to no political party, enslaved to no ideology and shackled to no economic system. God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican.
Yet we live in an era in which the Christian Right has claimed that GOP stands for God’s Only Party. Voting for Democrats is voting against God. Voting for Republicans is voting for God.
Not all Republicans have made that claim. Some have challenged the theocrats. Sen. John McCain did so in South Carolina in 2000. Former Sen. John Danforth did so in his 2007 book Faith and Politics.
Second, the rightful role of faith in politics continues when clergy stress the theological conviction that God expects people of faith to engage the public square.
If some have over-identified God with their political agenda, others have ignored their moral responsibility in politics.
Some suffer from moral sloth. They don’t really care. They don’t vote.
Others suffer from spiritual escapism. They have no need to invest in the gritty matters of earth.
Still others suffer from cynicism. They contend that politics is too sinful to merit their meaningful time.
Third, the rightful role of faith in politics calls clergy to speak from the moral high ground to the battleground of concrete issues.
The Hebrew prophet Amos said, “Let justice roll down like waters.” Amos wanted justice to irrigate the land. But the Hebrew prophet never said how to build the irrigation system.
Jesus said, “Love your neighbor.” But the prophet from Nazareth never presented a master plan for how we love our neighbors.
The task of clergy is to articulate moral principles without claiming a divinely inspired irrigation system and to call for the Golden Rule without claiming that providence wants Christians to rule.
Fourth, the rightful role of faith in politics requires faith leaders to retain a prophetic distance from those in power.
The prophet Nathan had power because he had the perspective of distance. He had the power to speak truth about wrong because he had an independence from the king.
A number of years ago, a Christian Right leader told the New York Times that the Christian Right wanted a sacred relationship with the GOP: ”No more engagement,” he said. “We want a consummation of the marriage.”
He lost his moral power to critique the Bush administration because he lost his distance from political power.
Fifth, the rightful role of faith in politics is for clergy to articulate a broad moral agenda, not a truncated one.
Rick Warren tacitly endorsed President Bush six days before the 2004 presidential election, claiming that the two major candidates could not “have more opposite views.”
“For those of who accept the Bible as God’s Word … there are five issues that are non-negotiable,” he wrote. “To me, they’re not even debatable, because God’s Word is clear on these issues.”
Abortion, stem-cell harvesting, homosexual marriage, human cloning and euthanasia were non-negotiable issues. Social Security and the Iraq war were negotiable issues.
Fast forward to April 2008, Newsweek’s Lisa Miller wrote: “In 2004, megapastor Rick Warren announced that abortion was a ‘nonnegotiable’ for evangelical voters. This year, he’s been silent.”
From my perspective, abortion, the war in Iraq, the Terri Schiavo case and fair taxation are all moral issues.
Sixth, the rightful role of faith in politics for faith leaders is to ensure a high wall of separation between church and state.
None hammer more relentlessly against the wall of separation than those who want theology taught in biology classes.
Intelligent design advocates claim that teachers who question Darwinian evolution experience discrimination. They claim that academic freedom acts will protect these teachers.
Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents.” Practicing “serpenthood” means recognizing that academic goals aren’t always academic goals, freedom isn’t always freedom and what Christians say isn’t always what they mean. Practicing discernment means doing the right thing for public education, the right way for the common good in a pluralistic society. The right way in our society is a high wall of separation.
Seventh, the rightful role of faith in politics for clergy is to speak for peace in the time of war.
Christian Right leaders formed the pro-war wing within American Christianity. Many framed the war as a war between a Christian nation and a non-Christian one. Southern Baptists even published a Bible with camouflaged cover, wrapping military might around the message of God ”God was on America’s side.
When Bush rushed to war with Iraq, however, he was actually out of step with many leaders in the religious community. Mainline Protestants, Catholic Bishops and others opposed the war.
This memory needs to become part of the national narrative about faith in politics. Our nation needs to know that leaders of faith were right about the wrongness of the Iraq war. If the nation had listened to its moral leaders instead of too many of the retired generals, the elected officials, pundits and the experts, we would not be locked and lost in Iraq today.
We remind folk of the need to speak for peace in the time of war because our culture already has enough voices for war.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Golden Rule Politics: Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Politics