Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Public Space and Religion

Last week I killed some time at Barnes & Noble by looking at two books that, in recent weeks, have been mentioned a lot in those circles/corners/nooks/crannies (what to call them?) of the blogosphere that I frequent: The Wisdom of Crowds and God's Politics. Some time later, I'll have some things to say about the former; for now, though, I want to talk about Wallis' book because, as long-time readers know, I've been concerned for some time now about the place of religion in contemporary American political life. In the post I linked to above, though, I seemed to imply that Democrats have a stronger claim to a moral/religious high ground because of their traditional stances concerning human/civil rights and the aiding of those less materially-blessed. Looking at Wallis' introduction, though, reminded me that such statements actually run the risk of doing religion a disservice--that religion shouldn't choose sides, and certainly shouldn't ally itself with government, if it wants to remain a truly effective witness to its vision.
"Vision," here, is distinct from "issues." The religious Right is pretty clearly issues-driven, as is clear from James Dobson's essential blackmail of the Bush administration in his threat to withhold support for Social Security reform if Bush does not push harder to get approved a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. But by being issues-driven, the religious Right places itself at the mercy of politics. The recent partial publication of tapes made by a former Bush aide make clear that, on the one hand, Bush refuses to "kick gays" to make fundamentalists happy but, apparently, IS happy to say just enough of the right things--such as literally phoning in a speech to the recent anti-abortion rally in Washington or mentioning his support of that constitutional amendment in his State of the Union address--to gain their votes. They are hungry for a larger voice in American life, so much so that they have hitched their wagon to a President who pays lip-service to their take on these issues but whose administration seems quite content to pay benign neglect to the implementation of those policies. Even something as potentially-positive (I'm being sincere here) as faith-based initiatives has lukewarm support from the White House. And in the meantime, because of the religious Right's visibility, its narrow agenda, whether one agrees with it or not, ends up constricting the public's image of religion generally, what it is or should be about. The religious Right's close marriage to particulars and political agendas--opposing same-sex marriage, abortion, the teaching of evolution, etc.--recalls rather strongly the Gospels' depiction of the Pharisees as Law-obsessed priests whose obsession had caused them to forget the very human needs for forgiveness and who were blind to how their alliance with the Romans had compromised their authority as the religious leaders of Israel. Even a cursory reading of the Gospels tells us that Jesus had some problems with the Pharisees on precisely these grounds. And it's telling that whatever scriptural foundations the religious Right cites for its stance on those issues are found in Mosaic law or in Paul's letters . . . and not in the Gospels.
Anyway. Wallis' stance is, as near as I can tell, very close to that of my denomination (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America): that the church should be essentially apolitical--allied not with any party or government but with its vision of the Gospel. Such a stance is the only way the church can retain its integrity as an effective critic of governmental policies and of culture by revealing the larger, human consequences of such policies. Here, then, the church's appropriate place in public space: Whatever regulating of behavior the church should speak to should occur at the level of the individual. As for larger, societal concerns, as Martin Luther King, Jr., argues in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," if the law creates an unequal civil relationship between/among citizens, its injustice should be revealed and should be opposed, either through legal means or via civil disobedience. Here, too, the church should oppose the law/behavior but should not seek to legislate.
Wimpy-sounding? Sure--this is decidedly NOT the Second Coming of the Church Militant. But it IS saner, and it IS, at the same time, very much in keeping with the church's call to be a witness to Jesus' two central commandments: to love God and to love one's neighbor.

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jennifer said...

It is interesting how organizations that should not be part of the State policy or are intended to balance State power become increasingly co-opted by it.
I am a practicing Buddhist and I have read much on the way that Buddhism presents itself as entirely apolitical religion. Yet there is even division in that view as you have Buddhists who practice what they call "Socially Engaged Buddhism" where they act on behalf of disadvantaged groups but adopt no specific political stance. Consequently, this group was the most persecuted group during the "Vietnam" war. There's a fantastic essay on the co-optation of Human Rights NGO's into State politics by Robert Hayden that I highly recommend. Also a professor/advisor at BSU has done extensive work on the relationship between Church and State, specifically during Vietnam.
Once again, (as usual?) I'm probably veering wildly off your original topic but I just thought I'd add my two cents. Peace!

Alex said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog. The longer I live the more I realize that everything has been said and pondered by people in preceding generations that are a lot brighter than me. Didn't Jesus say "Render onto Caesar what is Caesar's and onto God what is his???" I seem to recall this sentence is popularly related to money but it seems to me that God isn't particularly interested in being dragged into Caesar's Palace (I couldn't resist!!")