Thoughts on Faith and Politics
The constitutional barrier between church and state is a good thing. The first amendment to our constitution prohibits congress both from enacting laws “respecting the establishment of religion” and from enacting laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion.
This is often misunderstood to mean “religion and politics don’t mix.” But that’s not how it was originally intended. The first amendment identifies a position but does not define a relationship. This said, a working relationship between religion and politics remains to be constructed. How do we do this?
Let’s begin by assuming that if your faith does not influence your political decisions, something is lacking in your understanding. We know that government can become totalitarian, fascist, and reactionary. At the very least, then, those of us in what used to be called “the Judaeo-Christian tradition” can agree to stand in opposition to such bad moves.
To do this we have to become politically attentive and, to some extent, active.
At the heart of every major religion is the search for human fulfillment. This may come as a surprise to those who look on the surface of religions and see only rituals and symbols whose meaning has faded with the passage of time and the loss of human learning. But look again. In Judaism, Passover – the original liberation festival – commemorates freeing the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt. This festival has had political meaning and social consequences throughout history. It has been the engine driving Jewish social consciousness.
The central ritual of traditional Christianity is Eucharist – thanksgiving. Some traditions call it Holy Communion, others the Lord’s Supper. We take bread and wine, creation’s gifts transformed by manufacture into products, and we offer them to God in thanksgiving. But what if the bread is produced under unfair labor conditions? What if the wheat or grapes were grown in tainted soil or treated with carcinogenic pesticides? What if workers who harvested the grapes were paid a subsistence wage? What about the conditions in the bakeries and wineries: are they sanitary? Do they conform to safety regulations in the workplace? Are there good labor-management relations?
You see how religious ritual has social and political consequences. The religious value of compassion translates into action on behalf of those who live and work in our communities. We cannot help but be concerned with the body politic. This concern is part of faith. It grows out of our central rituals.
Since earliest times, Jews and Christians and others pledged allegiance to the states in which they lived. Even in times of persecution we pray for the government, that we may “live a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty.” At the same time, we have also rebelled against conditions that troubled us from an ethical or a social perspective. The times in which we live, no less than every age in the past, provide us with many opportunities for both allegiance and for opposition.
It seems to me that we may be hoodwinked by the jingle “religion and politics don’t mix” into missing the connections for such cross-fertilization, a few of which I mentioned above.
As we approach elections both statewide and national, it’s clear that everyone must examine the issues, find out the candidates’ positions, and vote his values. We all must stand for what we believe to be right and good and just. For those of us who live with a commitment of faith, the task will be to tie together the teachings of our religious traditions with candidates who will best embody those values and virtues in our pluralistic culture.
PUBLISHED 19 SEPT 08