Friday, January 04, 2008

The Prospect of Politics as Religion

Last night, in all the excitement of Iowa caucus results, I said that the possibility of a Huckabee-Obama match-up in the fall would be like an amusement park thrill ride. Today I'm not so sure. In fact, the prospect has forced me back into stewing over an issue I have spent 20 years never resolving.

What is the proper relationship between religion and politics?

Now, I am still skeptical that Huckabee can win the Republican nomination. The Republican establishment fears and detests his encroachment on their hegemony, and he's got to survive Super Tuesday on February 5 when 20 states hold their Republican primaries, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York. A tall order for someone who right now has little money and almost no organization other than church-related volunteers.

But what if it happens? Huckabee's nominated and so is Obama. Huckabee really is a preacher, and Obama often sounds like one. In fact, Obama has made a point of lecturing Democrats that they need to bring religious faith into their politics, and he has no qualms about talking about his own beliefs. See, for example his keynote address to a Sojourners conference in June, 2006. A Southern Baptist preacher battling it out with a scripture-quoting United Church of Christ liberal may be the kind of thing you want plenty of popcorn and Milk Duds for, but it also raises some of my worst fears and deepest conflicts.

Allow me to indulge in an little personal history here. Nearly 20 years ago, at a very desperate time in my life, I was seeking spiritual guidance and joined the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. What attracted me initially to Lutheranism was Luther's theology of grace, but I also quickly came to cherish his Two Kingdoms doctrine, namely, that the proper role of the church was to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments, and every other sphere of human life was secular and the province of the state.

Eighteen years ago I began teaching history and politics at a Missouri Synod college and remained on the faculty there until 2005 when I retired, let's say, by mutual agreement. I conscientiously taught Luther's Two Kingdoms in my History of Political Theory class, although I felt it necessary to point out that Luther himself violated his own doctrine on a number of occasions, most famously with his 1525 pamphlet calling for the extermination of the rebellious German peasants, and when he not very judiciously advised Philip of Hesse to go ahead and commit bigamy for political reasons.

My problem with all of this was that almost all my colleagues and students took their right-wing politics seriously, so seriously, in fact, that over the sixteen years I was there they increasingly included the most extreme brand of Christian Right ideology into their doctrine and more and more de-emphasized Luther's Two Kingdoms. By the end, being a political liberal was a deal-breaker almost as serious (maybe as serious) as denying the Trinity. The theologians on the faculty quit teaching the Two Kingdoms in doctrine classes. I will never forget the last time I taught History of Political Theory in 2004, and when we got to Luther, a very smart class just didn't seem to get it. They were all juniors and seniors who had already taken the required Lutheran doctrine courses, but when I asked them how many had even heard of the Two Kingdoms doctrine before my assigned reading, only one guy raised his hand--and he wasn't a Lutheran. It took me a few months, but I realized that I didn't belong there any more.

To be honest, strictly separating politics and religion as a matter of doctrine provided me with a convenient cover for a lot of years. To this day, I can't fully separate out my core belief from convenience. Nevertheless, I still today get very nervous when the two are combined, whether on the right or the left.

Let me acknowledge something from the start. Mixing religion and politics on an individual level is inevitable. We all form our political opinions and vote according to our values, and often those values are religious. We wouldn't want to prevent that even if we could. I've voted my religious convictions many times, although there may have been perfectly good secular reasons as well.

That is, however, very different from conducting, in the public arena, political debates and making policy decisions based on religious convictions. It's very dangerous territory, and here are a few reasons why.

1. "God/Jesus/Allah says" is usually a conversation stopper, not a conversation starter. To quote a bumper sticker popular in fundagelical church parking lots, "God said it. That settles it."

2. Strange things happen when policy debates turn into theological debates. Do we really want discussions of U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict revolving around which politician has the correct interpretation of the Bible? I have a sneaking suspicion that this has already gone on in the current Bush administration's mostly hands-off approach.

3. If policy debates become theological debates, then there's a very real way that the theocrats have already won. That's what they want--for all policy considerations to hinge on right religion. It they can make all issues about theological correctness, then they're always fighting on their home turf.

4. At least for now, there are a lot more right-wing evangelicals than liberal evangelicals. There are some hints that is beginning to change, and Obama may be able to tap into the evangelical vote, but I'll wager that at best only one-third of evangelicals will ever vote liberal in the next generation.

5. Our public discourse is already nasty enough, in some large part because of fundagelical input, but it can get a lot nastier if we play the fundagelical game and make our political debates about what God wants. For a hint of what could befall our polity, take a look at what happened in the little community of Dover, Pennsylvania during the controversy over teaching intelligent design in biology classes. It's described well in Edward Hume's book Monkey Girl.

6. Do we really want to choose our political leaders based on who seems to be more with Jesus? I hope not. I don't think that someone who thinks he/she knows the current state of God's mind should be running anything, let alone the country. We've had seven years of that.

There are, after all, perfectly effective and legitimate secular frameworks within which to make wise political choices. I personally prefer the late John Rawls' approach in his A Theory of Justice (1971) in which he develops the concept of justice as fairness (and further develops it in his 1993 Political Liberalism).

Engaged in a debate with a fundagelical right-winger, I'd much rather say "that's not fair, and here's why" than say "that's not what Jesus was about" or "I think you're misinterpreting what Jesus meant." Here's the problem. Much of my passion for Rawls' entirely secular political philosophy is derived from what Jesus said.


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