The Use and Misuse of Faith in Politics

On Tuesday I wrote this on my Facebook wall:  “I want all my Facebook friends to know that as a committed Christian I deplore the political hijacking of my faith by ignorant, intolerant, racist and misogynistic extremists.”

As of this morning I have received 34 “likes” and about a dozen approving comments.  But I was uneasy about it.  Those of you who know me know that though I rant pretty easily about this and that I do my best to avoid self-righteousness.  And part of what I deplore these days is the tone of political discourse, and I worried that my frank cry of the heart was yet another ideology-driven screed.

I am no happier when liberal Christians become “the left wing of the Democratic party at prayer” than I do when evangelicals become “the right wing of the Republican Party at prayer.”

I was also pleased to see that some of my “likes” came from conservative evangelical friends.  And many of them came from young adults in my children’s generation.  That is heartening.

My sister-in-law Annette, a faithful Roman Catholic, wrote this comment:

I gather that you love the sinners but hate the sins of willful ignorance, intolerance, racism and misogyny. But do we really love these sinners? And what do we do, as faithful, for or with these sins? We are sinners, too, by other measures. I’m feeling confused. It’s Lent and I’m breaking this down for my daughter with an intellectual disability and some things don’t add up when I look at the fundamentals.

She got right to my uneasiness, because I know myself to be a sinner as well, and not only by other measures, but even by the very sins I deplore in “the extremists.”

“Love the sinner, but hate the sin” is the proper Christian admonition, but here Annette is savvy, too, as she knows how hard this is to do with any consistency.

To keep such self-awareness from becoming a counsel of despair I find comfort in the Reformation insight simul justus et peccator, that we are at the same time sinners and justified by God. “Redeemed sinners” is the way I like to think of it.

And something I had to learn in three decades of pastoral ministry is that there are some people who are just plain unlovable, so you have to turn them over to God who does love them.

But where I come down in the end is that just because we know we are sinners too, and perhaps share in some of the same sins, we are not exempt from speaking out about the things we deplore.

And I would assert that intolerence, racism and misogyny should be deplored by all people of good will, religious or otherwise, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat.  And the use of these sins to raise fears for political gain is a double sin.

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6 thoughts on “The Use and Misuse of Faith in Politics

  1. Despite identifying myself as a believer, I have so many problems with religion and churches, as opposed to the direct practice of compassion in daily life and work. And the last thing I want in government is any step toward theocracy. The very need to put faith out front and center as a selling point for votes automatically disqualifies any candidate from my support. If Jesus had any confidence in political solutions, he would have talked about taking power from the Romans.

  2. Good thoughts Mikey. Most of us, even those who work in the church, have problems with religion and the churches, but on balance I think they do a great good for society. But I totally agree about the dangers of theocracy. The folks who want a Christian nation mis-read history and the intentions of the Founders. And who gets to decide who is a Christian? I’m not sure I would make the cut. Our faith should surely inform our politics, but the separation of church and state is an important principle. It protects the state from the church (and this is often overlooked) the church from the state.

  3. Here is where Niebuhr becomes helpful for me – making the clear distinction between “moral” (or as he later chided, less-immoral) man and immoral society – wherein he suggests that individuals can by grace and commitment follow the love ethic of Jesus. There is both justification by faith and sanctification, yes? Not so with groups – for a host of reason – because groups need outward direction and even force to help them follow the rules of society. Hence his insight about personal grace becoming social justice – always imperfect – but essential: it is a lower form of grace but important for creating safety in the public realm.

    When public religion gets reduced to so-called personal salvation alone – as it has been redefined by the Right over the past 30 years – our call to social justice not only falls on deaf ears, but can appear self-righteous. But, in fact, Richard, you were appealing to the standards of integrity and kindness as “declared through the prophets and apostles.” And I am grateful.

    (BTW there is a story about Niebuhr from his later years re: calling out Billy Graham for sacralizing the West Wing that I have recently come across. The heart of the story is: Reinie had a modest appreciation for the evangelical work that Graham did but needed to remind him of the social implications of their shared faith so that it became neither the Left or Right at prayer.)

    • Yes, thank you. Reinhold Niebuhr was important for me when I started my theological education forty years ago. I was both a pietist and a pacifist and wrestled mightily with his ideas. The book you refer to “Moral Man and Immoral Society” is one of his best. He knew the dangers of both sentimentalism and cynicism, and once said, “I think there ought to be a club in which preachers and journalists could come together and have the sentimentalism of the one matched with the cynicism of the other. That ought to bring them pretty close to the truth.”

  4. I’m feeling a little guilty because I read you blog faithfully but never comment. So, here’s my response: I think it would be better if we would call ourselves “Christian liberals” or “Christian conservatives”, or “Christian Progressives” rather than liberal Christians, or conservative Christians, or progressive Christians. It would be less of a temptation for us or others to define our faith by our politics rather than the other way around.

    • Hi Mick, thanks for the good comment and for being a faithful reader. As for “feeling a little guilty” go in peace and sin no more 🙂 And I guess if I have a faithful reader I ought to get back to blogging more regularly!

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