Monday, January 16, 2006

Faith and politics: a rumination

My fellow Philly-blogger Above Average Jane has challenged me and other of her fellows to celebrate King day in part by exploring the question of how our faith (or lack thereof) informs our politics. I tend not to talk about my beliefs much directly (or more via my frustrations than via my hopes), but think she’s right in her assessment that the conservatives have laid claim to the “values” realm for long enough. So here are my thoughts on the matter.

I was raised in a “mainstream” liberal Protestant denomination of Christianity, which taught me about this crazy wonderful guy who taught the revolutionary notion that God loves everybody. Reflecting this morning, it feels to me like this message had two main prongs:
  • That it’s not enough to love the lovable, but instead we are called to love the unlovable --- the diseased, the sinful, the mangy, even our enemies. I don’t really understand how so many Christians can make the leap from this to the judgementalism and self-righteousness that are the most common face of modern Christianity. To love the unlovable is not at all easy, but what it requires is clearly the opposite of passing judgement on others for not living up to our own standards. Instead I would say it encompasses
    1. understanding for what it means to be “human” (and thus flawed)
    2. compassion for real need, even when it results from poor choices
    3. forgiveness of others for their stumbles and errors (again and again if necessary)
    Jesus woodcutWas Jesus just a misguided fool to spend time with lepers and prostitutes? If not, then there’s a lot that needs doing, in terms of food and clothing for the poor, spreading compassion and human understanding for the sick and outcast, understanding the sources of hatred among our enemies and trying to make peace with them, and generally learning to treat the people near and far as “brother” not “stranger.”

  • Second, people who have accepted God’s love and acceptance for themselves are supposed to repay those gifts by living out their faith with joy and service to others. Note that this is not about getting ahead but about putting others first. There’s a creepy trend today toward overlooking the verse about “it’s more difficult for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle” in favor of a more Ben Franklin-esque “God helps them that helps themselves” and thus viewing wealth as a repayment for righteousness, but Jesus was more of a socialist, with his calls to give away all that you have and dedicate your life to service. Most Christians won’t become ministers or aid workers, but everybody can find ways to use the gifts in their lives to better the lives of the poor, raise up the dignity of humanity generally, work for peace, or just be a light/support to those around them. It amazes me that the same people can call America “a Christian nation” and yet think that it should be cutting social services, or squeezing people out of equitable treatment, or locking away potential enemies for all time. Perhaps I’m more likely to pass over Franklin for the quote from Lincoln which reads “I think not much of a man’s religion whose dog or cat is not the better for it.” There are a lot of sheep that need feeding, in body or in spirit.
Also, thinking about this question of faith and politics, I realize that I am a bit of an adherent of a civic religion too. That is, I have believed that we are a nation of laws and principles, and that we have been an example to the world in our acceptance of immigrants, our commitment (although not always perfect in practice) to equality of opportunity, our willingness to work with other nations for the common good, and our protection of an unusual body of rights for the individual resident/citizen. I didn’t realize how deeply these were connected with my image of the nation until I received the shock of how quickly others were willing to disregard almost all of the above. That they consider questioning national choices or even championing of national principles as threatening to America’s interests leaves me feeling morally rudderless to a degree that an atheist’s questioning of my religious beliefs never would. I think that our nation has a communal responsibility to its citizens and to those of other nations, not unlike the responsibility that I think Christians (or really all well-meaning folks) have to their fellow man, and the thought that the U.S. is abandoning that responsibility leaves me horrified. It also motivates me to be a force for political change, to restore not only a leadership that I can believe in, but the moral “soul” of the country, as one that thinks not only about brute force and its own short-term interests, but about the well-being of the weakest among us, the health of the world we all share, and the dignity of men and women in all nations and circumstances. It’s a huge motivation, and these days it feels like a calling as important and any religious obligation.

That’s my take. I also agree with Jane that the Democratic party needs to get over its discomfort with religion (and with framing many questions in ways that seem to pit it against religion).
The Democratic Party tends to discuss the separation of church and state not as a way of respecting all faiths and denominations within faiths, but as a way of keeping religion at bay as if it were an evil to be avoided. My faith makes me a stronger person, a better person, and it is sometimes hard for me to work in harmony with a political party that views it as a sign of a weak-mind.
Many of the party’s core values are congruent with those I mentioned above, and we should be comfortable with those who ground such principles in religious faith or find there the motivation to put their values to work in the world.

Dr. King, say

[For those interested in more perspectives on these issues, Jane is attempting to compile links to such ruminations in her post here. Thanks to her for the challenge!]


howard said...

You just reminded me of a great quote from G.K. Chesterton:

"Love means to love that which is unlovable; or it is no virtue at all."

Great post.

Fortuitous said...

Nice post, ACM. Thanks. Links and commentary are great fun, but I'll bet I'm not the only one who wants to read more from you like this.

Whenever I spend the time, I'm struck by the wisdom in the words and actions attributed to that JC guy. Compassion, sacrifice, non-violence. Who knew? Occasionally I’m prompted to reconsider some attitudes about the religious experience. Well, no, not really. But as a secular philosopher/ethicist, he ranks high on my list. I guess the next step is teaching republican fundamentalist moralists to read.

So what happened to the great Science, Faith, and ID post? Did I miss it?

(Burningman tickets onsale today . . . :)

Long-distance hugs,


ACM said...

yeah, I thought about that project too. I think it would be good, but it's mouldering in a desk drawer. some weekend afternoon I'll get the wind in my sails and move it from outline to post...

hugs back attya

Ellen said...

I am very impressed with this and all the other entries that I am finally catching up on.

Deborah Brown said...

Nicely expressed!

If you haven't had a chance yet, let me invite y'all over to Street Prophets, a Daily Kos spinoff where we talk about the interestion of faith & politics all day long (and all night sometimes, too!)

Your post here would be a welcomed diary! Stop on by!