Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Politics and that Ol' Time Religion

I guess those of us who favor mixing religion and politics will have to start responding to this kind of thing now.

Ari Melber does a fair job from the simply political side. But let's take Mr. Loconte at his word, and see where it gets us.

NANCY PELOSI, the Democratic leader in the House, sounded like an Old Testament prophet recently when she denounced the Republican budget for its "injustice and immorality" and urged her colleagues to cast their no votes "as an act of worship" during this religious season.
Well, I find nothing wrong with that denunciation. And neither did the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as the UCC , the UMC, the Episcopal Church, USA, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. I expect Mr. Loconte to say they've all gone from preachin' to meddlin', any day now.

This, apparently, is what the Democrats had in mind when they vowed after President Bush's re-election to reclaim religious voters for their party. In the House, they set up a Democratic Faith Working Group. Senator Harry Reid, the minority leader, created a Web site called Word to the Faithful. And Democratic officials began holding conferences with religious progressives. All of this was with the intention of learning how to link faith with public policy. An event for liberal politicians and advocates at the University of California at Berkeley in July even offered a seminar titled "I Don't Believe in God, but I Know America Needs a Spiritual Left." A look at the tactics and theology of the religious left, however, suggests that this is exactly what American politics does not need. If Democrats give religious progressives a stronger voice, they'll only replicate the misdeeds of the religious right.
This is, let us admit, a legitimate risk. Any time churches go from speaking truth to power to seeking to wield power, trouble immediately follows. But that is not Mr. Loconte's analysis. Because apparently, the history and tradition of Christian theology notwithstanding, religion is only about emotion, not about "reason." (Despite the fact that "Pietism" and its emphasis on a emotional religious state is a late-comer of Protestant theology, originating only in the late 17th century).

For starters, we'll see more attempts to draw a direct line from the Bible to a political agenda. The Rev. Jim Wallis, a popular adviser to leading Democrats and an organizer of the Berkeley meeting, routinely engages in this kind of Bible-thumping. In his book "God's Politics," Mr. Wallis insists that his faith-based platform transcends partisan categories.

"We affirm God's vision of a good society offered to us by the prophet Isaiah," he writes. Yet Isaiah, an agent of divine judgment living in a theocratic state, conveniently affirms every spending scheme of the Democratic Party. This is no different than the fundamentalist impulse to cite the book of Leviticus to justify laws against homosexuality.
I'm still trying to figure out: (a) how Isaiah "affirms every spending schem of the Democratic Party" ("Come, buy food without money, buy wine without price?" That's as close as I can get), and (b) Why, if this is true, it's a bad thing? And since Isaiah opens by advocating that we beat our swords into plougshares, and study war no more (Isaiah 2:4), I guess Mr. Loconte doesn't include Democratic support for defense spending in his opprobrium.

When Christians - liberal or conservative - invoke a biblical theocracy as a handy guide to contemporary politics, they threaten our democratic discourse. Numerous "policy papers" from liberal churches and activist groups employ the same approach: they're awash in scriptural references to justice, poverty and peace, stacked alongside claims about global warming, debt relief and the United Nations Security Council.
Again, I'm simply missing the problem here. Martin Luther King, Jr. did the same thing. His "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and "I have a Dream" speech are clarion calls for justice grounded firmly in scriptures and Christian teachings? Was his cause illegitimate because of that?

Christians are right to argue that the Bible is a priceless source of moral and spiritual insight. But they're wrong to treat it as a substitute for a coherent political philosophy.
Well, I agree, but again, I look to the example of Dr. King and ask: what do you mean, Mr. Loconte?

There is another worrisome trait shared by religious liberals and many conservatives: the tendency to moralize in the most extreme terms. William Sloane Coffin of the Clergy Leadership Network was typical in his denunciation of the Bush tax cuts: "I think he should remember that it was the devil who tempted Jesus with unparalleled wealth and power."
Because we all know, morality must keep to its place. And wealth and power have their place. Jesus never should have told that man to leave the dead to bury the dead, and go proclaim the Kingdom of God, or told that rich young man to sell all he had. Francis of Assissi never should have given up his wealth and privilege to become a saint of the church. As the man told my wife in disgust when she handed the beggar the few coins she had in her purse, "There has to be a limit."

But what does Mr. Loconte propose is the proper absolute, if not morality? Power, apparently.

This trend is at its worst in the misplaced outrage in the war against Islamic terrorism. It's true that in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, some Christian conservatives shamed themselves by blaming the horror on feminists and gays, who allegedly incited God's wrath. But such nonsense is echoed by liberals like the theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University.

"The price that Americans are going to have to pay for the kind of arrogance that we are operating out of right now is going to be terrible indeed," he said of the United States' response to the Qaeda attacks. "People will exact some very strong judgments against America - and I think we will well deserve it." Professor Hauerwas joins a chorus of left-wing clerics and religious scholars who compare the United States to Imperial Rome and Nazi Germany.
Of course, I happen to think Professor Hauerwas is right. But this is, after all, a political analysis; and politics is all about power. And what better way to maintain power, than to insist your opponents ape you, the better to claim they offer no difference, and are in fact pale imitations of the original:

Democrats who want religious values to play a greater role in their party might take a cue from the human-rights agenda of religious conservatives. Evangelicals begin with the Bible's account of the God-given dignity of every person. And they've joined hands with liberal and secular groups to defend the rights of the vulnerable and oppressed, be it through prison programs for offenders and their families, laws against the trafficking of women and children, or an American-brokered peace plan for Sudan. In each case believers have applied their religious ideals with a strong dose of realism and generosity.
Notice that all of these programs are of the "trickle-down" model. The rising tide lifts all boats (and yes, the same critique could be levied against many a "leftist" political solution.) But isn't this about religion? No mention here of Tom Fox, or the Christian Peacekeeping Teams. Which is all so terribly awkward, so let's move on.

A completely secular public square is neither possible nor desirable; democracy needs the moral ballast of religion. But a partisan campaign to enlist the sacred is equally wrongheaded. When people of faith join political debates, they must welcome those democratic virtues that promote the common good: prudence, reason, compromise - and a realization that politics can't usher in the kingdom of heaven.
Again, I agree: politics cannot usher in the kingdom of heaven.

But then which is more important? Politics? Or the kingdom of heaven? And which should be guided by the other? In the latter, the first are last, the last first, and I am commanded to proclaim that reality. Can politics do anything to further that principle of justice? Or is "justice" simply another word for "status quo?"

Let's ask the shade of Dr. King, shall we?

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