Religious Politics

Most evangelical Christians reliably vote republican. The stereotype is either that they vote this way because of abortion and gay rights, or that the Republican Party holds those positions to keep the “religious right,” but I think for most of them that’s just a justification. The religious right has just as much commitment to the rest of republican policy, the less obviously religious aspects of conservatism, as the other groups that make up the party. Some of these policies are not easily compatible with traditional Christian morality, so how did they get sold to the religious right? Why is the religious right comfortable with ignoring the first command in the bible, to care for the earth, in favor of supposed benefit to the economy? Why are they comfortable with ignoring the principle of concern for the poor to strip social services? Why are they happy to ignore the Old Testament prophets and various New Testament passages including most of the book of James to support oppressive corporate control of the economy and corruption of our government?

The so-called protestant work ethic gives some of the answer. The Christian tradition in our country has in it elements of economic determinism, ideas that wealth equals the favor of God and that that equates to an endorsement of both how that wealth was gained and any use to which it might be put. This has translated into a tendency to leave the poor to their own devices, few though those are. Christians tend to see this as good stewardship. We have abandoned all the rest of our moral imperatives to fixate on that one point.

This has to change. There are many moral issues that have nothing to do with money or sex and we have ignored them for too long. We have deep commitments to moral ends yet we do not seek to bring them into being through political means. Why not?

That answer comes from the American ideal of separation of church and state. In the way that this idea has played out in our modern world, the state rules over everything that can be considered public and is supposed to receive no interference or even input from the church. Meanwhile, the church is free to rule over whatever people want to give it in private and is supposedly free from any interaction with the state.

There are two problems with this division. First, the way we define public and private, and second, what constitutes influence or interference. We seem to have settled on “private” meaning whatever no one else has to see you doing, and “public” meaning just about everything else. Alternatively, “private can mean nearly everything in life, and “public” can be those things we think the government ought to control. The first definition seems the more popular, while the second is heavily favored by privacy advocates and libertarians. Either way, we can say that the private is essentially the not-public. With relation to religion, since either camp defines religion as private, this means both that we are expected to keep our religious beliefs to ourselves, making proselytizing a bit awkward, and that politics is supposed to have nothing to do with religion. That touches on the second problem. Private and public are not so easily separable as the words would seem to imply. The words are antonyms, yet the concepts, at least their applications in the real world, overlap. Private is taken to mean what goes on in our own homes, or what has no impact on anyone else, yet those things do have public implications. Similarly, public things have private roots. No one takes a public action without a private motivation.

Government tells people what they can’t do; religion tells people what they should do. As long as each sticks to its role, the separation isn’t that difficult to maintain. Where it becomes difficult is when we include politicians, the people who actually make up the government. They tend to tell people what they should do, although those instructions rarely come with the force of law. Every politician, like everyone else, has a religion, and here in America every religious person gets to vote. This makes the division between the two a little tense and causes people to take it to extremes.

Religion, supposedly, should have nothing to do with politics. Separation of church and state is one thing. The church should be free from government control, and the government should not be under the thumb of any one religion or denomination. That much is clear. We take it too far. I have heard people gripe about how President Bush talks about his religious motivations for some of his actions. What’s wrong with his communication of the source of his motivation? Religion is a perfectly good motivation, an excellent one in fact. For a politician to state that he favors a particular action because his religion says he should is fine. However, religion makes very poor argument. If another politician shares the religious values and his interpretation as favoring an action, then the argument of “because the Bible says so” is redundant except as a call to action, and if the other politician does not share those beliefs or that interpretation then that argument will never convince him. Religion as argument is always either redundant or hopeless.

Religion is, however, a perfect motivator in politics. I have many opinions on many subjects, and when I examine those opinions I generally find a religious value as the source. With regards to politics, I am neither a republican nor a democrat; I have opinions on issues that would place me on both sides of that divide. Neither am I a moderate; generally my opinions are extreme in whatever direction they lean. This leads me to assume that my thinking does not lie neatly on the traditional conservative-moderate scale of political values. I am a Christian, and that is also my political identity. God may be neither a republican nor a democrat, but he does make clear his will for our actions in many of the political issues facing the world today. Why do we settle for the Republican Party as the tool to attempt to do the right thing in the political realm? Why do Christians not have a party that acts from their religious motivation?

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