The “establishment” clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment asserts that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This constitutional agnosticism about religious belief (or unbelief) has spurred a creedal pluralism and religious vitality that is unique among Western nations. And it empowers people of faith to bring their values and beliefs into the voting booth. As the mid-term elections approach, the Beacon invited two perspectives on the intersection of faith and political engagement.
Rev. Marvin McMickle is president and director of the Doctor of Ministry Program and professor of African-American religious studies at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. A published author, McMickle writes articles that regularly appear in professional journals and magazines.
Robert McAfee Brown, who taught religion and theology at Stanford for many years, offered an approach to the way that religion and politics should intersect that has proven helpful to me over the last 40-years of my public ministry.
In Christianity and Crisis in 1953 he wrote: “Christian worth his salt knows that in this day and age there is an imperative laid upon him to be politically responsible. When one considers the fateful decisions which lie in the hands of the politicians, and the impact which these decisions will have for good or ill upon the destinies of millions of people, it becomes apparent that in terms of trying to implement the will of God, however fragmentarily, politics can be a means of grace.”
Politics can be a means of grace, if by grace one means any action that mirrors the ennobling values of religious faith such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the stranger, providing for the sick, the imprisoned and the marginalized. Politics can be a means of grace when people of religious faith cast their vote for people whose vision for the country is broad and inclusive. Politics is a means of grace when people of religious faith work for, vote for and pray for political leaders that work to unite and not divide the nation. Politics becomes a means of grace when persons of religious faith advocate for policies and vote for candidates that work to preserve the environment over which God made us stewards.
Politics can be a means of grace when persons of religious faith make their views and values apparent around issues such as prison reform, the death penalty, affordable housing, affordable and accessible health care for all citizens. As Brown observed, these are “fateful decisions that will impact the destinies of millions of people.” Politics can be a means of grace when religious leaders seeking a policy change through the political process refuse to overlook or seek to explain away the divisive comments and the immoral conduct of political leaders that conflict with everything their faith traditions teach and espouse.
Politics becomes a means of grace when religious leaders understand and work within the laws of the United States. That means that members of the clergy cannot endorse a political candidate from their pulpits or when operating within their official capacity as the leader of a non-profit and tax-exempt organization. It means careful attention to Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees that no religious test will be required as a qualification for any candidate for any political office.
Thus, no candidate needs to adhere to any views about the divinity of Jesus, the authority of scripture, the teachings about human sexuality, marriage equality, or women’s reproductive rights based upon the teachings of any religious group. Religious leaders should not use politicians to achieve by legislation any social policies or privacy issues that cannot be achieved by moral suasion even within the faith community itself.
Politics becomes a means of grace when religious leaders practice strict adherence to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees religious liberty within society, and that does not use the power of the state to favor one set of religious practices over another. Christians in particular must understand that according to the U.S. Constitution, the United States is not “a Christian nation” even if it happens to have a Christian majority within its national population.
As Stephen Prothero writes in his book, Religious Literacy “Thanks to the establishment clause, American government is secular by law. Thanks to the free exercise clause, American society is religious by choice.” These two dimensions of the First Amendment, the establishment and the free exercise clauses are at the center of the intersection of religion and politics.
The words, separation of church and state do not appear anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. This concept was introduced in this country by Thomas Jefferson in a letter he wrote in 1802 to a Baptist group in Danbury, Conn., and it is especially relevant at this point. The principle of separation asserts that the church should never seek to use the government as an agency through which to proselytize or evangelize. Conversely, the state should never use its vast powers to regulate, limit, or otherwise influence any aspect of religious life in this country.
Citizens of the United States are under no obligation to live according to the doctrines or beliefs of any particular religion or a subset of any religion whether that be conservative Christianity with its views on restricting and even outlawing abortion, or the strictest form of Islam with its “sharia laws” that impose penalties on anyone that does not conform to those teachings. Similarly, citizens of the United States cannot be denied the right to vote, the right to hold public office, or the right of equal protection under the law simply because they do not adhere to any particular set of religious beliefs.
Politics can be a means of grace when people of religious faith use their moral suasion to encourage the government to act in accordance with and in pursuit of the highest values of our nation; equal protection under the law for all people and the inherent assumption that all people are created equal. That is how religious leaders lobbied for voting rights for all citizens after years of voter suppression based upon race or gender. It can occur in today’s environment when religious leaders allow the teachings of their faith to inform the national conversation about immigration policies, a fair and impartial criminal justice system, enforcement of voting rights laws, and affordable and accessible health care for all citizens.
Here are Beth Gerhardt‘s views on the topic. Gerhardt is professor of theology and social ethics at Northeastern Seminary (part of Roberts Wesleyan College). Her professional and academic focus is the relationship of historical theology, social ethics and justice, particularly in the areas of politics and global violence against women and children.
It is nearly impossible to listen to any news cycle without encountering yet another political conversation that lacks common civility, respectful dialogue, and deep listening. The world of politics appears to be divided by political ideologies that are void of nuance or understanding of the complexity of the social and economic issues that we face. How do people of faith approach politics? Does a faith commitment have anything to do with politics during this divisive time?
To some, a personal faith in a transcendent and eternal God encourages a separation or withdrawal from the temporal issues that we encounter in the political sphere. Nearly all religious traditions emphasize this separation to a greater or lesser degree, e.g. monastic communities in Christianity, Eastern mysticism, Hasidic Judaism, and others. In these traditions, faith is about a personal connection to ultimate reality, “God” in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Politics, by being rooted in temporal reality, is wholly separate.
My faith perspective rejects that separation. I believe that faith cannot be only concerned with my personal relationship with God. Yet while I believe that faith should inform political views, faithful people risk conflating political views with the principles of their faith and demeaning their faith commitment under a political platform.
To the extent that we identify political positions solely with our faith, we risk judging the faith of those with whom we disagree. If one political party is identified with “faithful people” then what does that make others who reject that political ideology? Unfaithful?
Associating political positions with a faith commitment can also lead to demagoguery by political leaders and a tendency to use religion as a tool to secure a political objective. During the past 30 years American evangelicalism has become associated with right-of-center political ideology, thus dividing people of faith over political differences. Other faith traditions conflate their faith with left-of-center political ideology. When the political objective is primary, then faith has become a tool for influence rather than a guide to understanding and faithful living. The mindless identification of a faith position with a political faction can turn faith into an instrument of evil.
I believe that a reflexive association of faith and a political faction demeans and belittles the ways of God at work in our world. It stifles our creative energy and curtails our communal imagination to solve social, environmental, and political problems. Faith offers us an orientation toward our neighbors and our environment that can empower us to delve into and explore new possibilities and ideas for change. When we are walled off from each other into political camps it becomes nearly impossible to engage in open and safe conversations that may provide new opportunities for communities to solve problems together.
What’s the answer? I believe that people of faith must be politically engaged. We must vote: Not voting is “voting” for the status quo. If we complain about present social, economic or political positions but don’t express these views to our elected leaders, we are effectively supporting the very positions with which we disagree. I believe that I am obligated by my confessions of faith, sacred texts, and relationship with God to care for my neighbor, serve every human being by lifting oppressive systems, share my goods, care for creation, and enter into God’s mission of reconciliation in the world.
This has practical implications. Engagement in, or silent collusion with, policies and social structures that support racism, economic oppression, environmental destruction, misogyny and sexism are simply, in theological language, sin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about faith as our “point of departure” for ethics and difficult political decision making. Reflecting on our confessions of our faith is an important starting point.
So what is one to do when both political parties engage in policies that violate tenets of our faith? First, recognize we don’t live in utopia. Political parties are temporal creations created to achieve political ends. History is replete with examples of injustice that are supported by association with religious people and institutions. And this applies at both ends of the political spectrum: People on the right often emphasize personal responsibility but ignore also the need for structural social change and justice. Those on the left may acknowledge the reality of structural injustice that allows for racism, poverty, and sexism, but underestimate the importance of individual and family responsibility.
We need to rise above old paradigms of American politics and create new political conversations that reach above and across the two-party system, recognizing the complexity of our social and economic realities. Second, people of faith have an obligation to consider how our faith and values recommend policies that provide for our neighbors, care for our environment, and for those outside our borders who may suffer as a result of our global policies.
Our starting point for reflection and action is not a political ideology, but rather, faith and values that shape our understanding of our relationship to others. Catholic social teaching emphasizes a “preferential option for the poor” as a point of departure for reflecting on temporal actions. This faith commitment does not mean that God loves the poor more, but rather, that all are called by God to first always consider the needs of the poor.
We must vote our conscience, recognize we engage in political acts every day, and understand that no political party has the answers to the world’s problems. Then we can abandon the hyperbole, the loud divisive rhetoric, and recognize the human in each other. As people of faith we need to practice spiritual humility and create imaginative ideas that can lead to useful, practical solutions reflecting care for all of God’s creation.