The other night, I gave a pretty well-attended lecture on “Religion and Politics,” and have been trying to shed some light on the subject in my internet and teaching ministry. What keeps me confused are the people who reprimand me for bringing up such a subject, not merely because Ms. Manners regards the two as impolite topics of conversation, but also because Jefferson and Madison established a “wall of separation” between religion and politics.
I'm a great admirer of Jefferson and Madison, and have visited both their homes. But at the end of the day, as a Christian, my final authority isn't any ex-president, but God. The Bible God has shared with us frankly seems keenly interested in politics. How could anybody who claims to be a person of faith not come to have strong feelings about war and peace, the plight of the poor, when life begins, or strangers within our borders? And is faith left on the pew or in the drawer at home when we vote?
I love the “wall of separation,” as I feel it protects the church from government control, and shelters the nation from manipulation by religious operatives. If anything, in the year 2008, those jumping over the “wall of separation” are not the churches, but the politicians. The meaningless photo ops, consultants hired to garner a larger share of the religious vote, bland assertions of piety: if politicians play the religion card, then faith congregations only underline their irrelevance and impotence if we say nothing in reply.
And if religion is going to be spoken of, let's be sure we know what we're talking about. Recent polls indicate a growing number of Americans, nearing 20 percent, believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, and half that many wonder if he is the Antichrist. Who's keeping politics and religion separate? Are religious people interested in facts? Or hysterical absurdities whose only authority is somebody seven steps removed pushing “send” on a laptop? In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof suggested that “religious prejudice is becoming a proxy for racial prejudice… Discomfort about race is sublimated into concerns about whether Obama is sufficiently Christian.”
I pray Kristof is wrong. But I do wonder why people of faith, when they hear “The Antichrist is a Muslim male in his 40's” (although not one person who's told me this has been able to find the verse in question, or to explain away the fact that “Muslim” wasn't even a word when the Bible was written) – why do we not rise up and declare “You cannot abuse in such a tawdry way the beautiful gift of the Bible God has given us!”
The problem is bipartisan, of course. I saw a campaign button that said “Attention Sarah Palin: Jesus Christ was a community organizer, Pontius Pilate was a governor.” Cute, but another kooky insertion of religion (in an inappropriate way) into the campaign.
The congregations of our city and country have more wisdom than that. Much wisdom, in fact – and our country is impoverished if we let ourselves be wheedled and seduced by religious themes from the side of those trying to get elected, or if we let a self-imposed silence rob our country of the moral imperatives and the divine aid we need so desperately simply because we have misconstrued what Madison hoped to get done.
I can understand why our citizens are either hesitant or repulsed when religion enters the conversation, since it's been done in such a pathetic, mean-spirited way. Former Republican Senator John Danforth, noticing the way religion seems to produce a hard-headed rancor that presses divisiveness to a fever pitch, suggests that we have the resources within our faith to be peacemakers, reconcilers, people who know how to disagree but listen, learn, work together, and above all retain a measure of humility. Instead of absolutizing my political preferences by attaching a God label to them, people of faith are called to be humble. “Such modesty is, or at least should be, Christianity's great gift to American politics” (as Danforth wisely suggests).