Religion (insert conjunction here) Politics

One of the many things I liked about the Democratic debate in Las Vegas was the merciful absence of religious pandering. Whew. The gas of religious propoundings had grown so thick and stifling around the presidential candidates that we all could have said “hey, it’s hot in here,” among other things. In comparison, wonky talk about fixing the economy was a breath of fresh air. Verily.

Sadly, within moments, it seems, Mike Huckabee went and threw religion back onto the table as centerpiece.

All the God talk this election cycle has made for confusion because faith doesn’t fit well into sound-bites, and even if one were to go out and give a full-blown speech on the topic, as Mitt Romney did, the sound bites rise to the top anyhow. Freedom requires religion, anyone?

The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr’s great insight (because it was so elegantly simple) is that the relationship between religion and politics (as a subset of culture) depends entirely upon the conjunction you place between the two.

In his classic Christ and Culture, published in 1951, Niebuhr distinguished five:

Christ against (or)
of (or)
above (or)
and (or)
in paradox with (or)
transforming Culture.

Reflecting 57 years on, it seems to me that we really need to look at two other conjunctions today: “within” and “addressing.” It’s also relevant to the discussion to broaden the first part of the distinction (“Christ” becomes “religion”) and narrow the second (“culture” becomes “politics.”)

One further clarification: “religion” as I mean it is distinct from faith, or spirituality, in the sense that religion is intended to be a vehicle, not a substitute, for faith. As we’ll see, trouble begins when such a substitution occurs, when religion no longer supports faith but becomes defined as faith.

Religion within politics reached its zenith in the Western World during the religious wars, persecutions, assassinations, and massacres of post-Reformation Europe. The First Amendment — if not the whole idea of a United States of America — was a decisive break from this bloody tradition. The vehicles — in Europe’s case, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Zwinglian, Anabaptist, etc. — became the focus of attention. Imagine Ford and Chevy owners shooting at each other, simply because they are a Ford or Chevy owner, while completely forgetting their destinations or why they were on the road in the first place. 

To be sure, masses of Americans have substituted religion for faith throughout our history. As Tom Lehrer sang it so snarkily some 40 years ago:

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week,
It’s National Everyone-smile-at-one-another-hood Week.
Be nice to people who
Are inferior to you.
It’s only for a week, so have no fear.
Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!

You can’t have a National Brotherhood Siblinghood Week unless the underlying problem — religion within politics — is resolved. This problem is so deeply set that it may take older generations dying out and new ones coming to the forefront for resolution to finally occur across America. Fortunately, the Constitution generally has kept religion from living within politics for most of our history. Yet the past seven years have taught us that we cannot take the First Amendment for granted.

In 2000, the Supreme Court, in Santa Fe v. Doe, ruled (with Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas dissenting, bwahahaha) against student led prayers at high school football games. The Santa Fe (Texas) Independent School District had argued that the prayers had merely brought some solemnity to the event. The Court, however, said

School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherants “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherants that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U. S., at 688 (1984) (O’Connor, J., concurring). The delivery of such a message–over the school’s public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer–is not properly characterized as “private” speech.

Of course, the background to the Does’ complaint went far deeper than merely a prayer being said before a football game. The “ancillary message” had been blunt:

In their complaint the Does alleged that the District had engaged in several proselytizing practices, such as promoting attendance at a Baptist revival meeting, encouraging membership in religious clubs, chastising children who held minority religious beliefs, and distributing Gideon Bibles on school premises. They also alleged that the District allowed students to read Christian invocations and benedictions from the stage at graduation ceremonies, and to deliver overtly Christian prayers over the public address system at home football games.

Whenever we hear “Christian nation,” we hear “chastising [those] who hold minority religious beliefs.”

Religion addressing politics is another matter altogether. Everybody believes something is good, true, and/or beautiful, and these beliefs come from somewhere. Paul Tillich identified these “somewheres,” these matters of “ultimate concern,” as faith. When religion addresses politics, instead of living within politics, the vehicle of religion is coming clean, as it were, regarding the kind of faith it’s carrying.

Consider these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts the human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

There is a subtle but major difference between this and Mike Huckabee’s assertion, the other day, 

…I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do — to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.

In the first place, Dr. King appealed to “natural law,” which by definition is the concept of universally apprehendable and applicable principles. Thomas Aquinas, in fact, distinguished between natural law and divine law. Huckabee, however, appeals to his own Southern Baptist interpretation of divine law.

In the second place, Dr. King offered his rationale as a contribution to to the discussion of justice. There is no reason why some objectivist couldn’t counter Dr. King with the argument that a just law is one that allows individuals to achieve all they can, and if the weak feel inferior, so be it. The power of persuasion and collective conscience would enable the better argument to prevail. Huckabee, in contrast, wants to amend the constitution; that is, he wants to make his Southern Baptist interpretation of God’s attitudes towards abortions and gays to become the supreme law of the land.

King: religion addressing politics.

Huckabee: religion within politics.

Big difference.

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One response to “Religion (insert conjunction here) Politics

  1. Pingback: Politics » Religion (insert conjunction here) Politics

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