The Strange Dance of Politics and Religion

It has been said that there are two big topics that should be avoided in polite conversation: politics and religion. I guess I’m not very good at taking that advice, since those are two of my favorite topics, not because I delight in argumentation, but because they are so central to the dynamics of human interaction. Each topic, by itself, has the potential to be rather divisive. But together, they engender a strange attraction, yet repulsion, like magnets in constant motion, if slightly out of phase.  Together, the mix becomes volatile, i.e., when politics impinges on religion, or religion attempts to hijack politics. Each has its very important role in life. But maintaining a healthy distance between them is essential for balance. Perhaps that is why the founders of this country, soon after crafting its unique Constitution, wrote in the first great amendment to it an assurance or guarantee that the Congress would neither make a law establishing a state religion, nor would it infringe upon the right to the exercise of religion.

That right to freedom of religion is central to the American freedoms. It is the first among the near sacred rights, and first among the firsts of that first amendment. It is established before the freedom of press, assembly, or speech. It is first before the right to bear arms, or any other right in that list.

That being said, why is there conflict and controversy over the role of religion in government? One vocal segment of the population apparently would like to see what could only be described as a theocracy established, enshrining Christianity as the official guiding influence of government. One big problem with that—beyond the fact that it violates the First Amendment—is, which brand of Christianity would be embraced? With hundreds, even thousands of Christian denominations, which would rise to supremacy? Christian denominations range from ultra-conservative to quite liberal. The conflict would likely not go away, and may even intensify were religion to encroach upon government. And that doesn’t take into consideration the many citizens who practice non-Christian religions, or no religion at all.

Conversely, the greater danger in my estimation would be the imposition of the government’s will on religious bodies. The separation of church and state must go both ways. If politics is to remain unsullied by the burden of religion, then religion must be protected from the imposition of government influence. This will become more and more difficult to maintain as social norms shift in this nation.

I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. However, I cannot embrace the position held by many of the luminaries of the Restoration Movement’s early years that held that Christians must not serve in the military, and should not participate in government. That position relegates the Christian to the same level of society as a person who, though he lived under Roman rule, was not a Roman citizen. Some say to vote for a particular candidate is to condone every position held by that candidate. These people are likely to become single issue voters, which presents its own set of dangers. I disagree with that position, because I am compelled to look at the whole candidate, i.e. his or her position on on all issues. Since I opened my eyes to the vast array of political positions and opinions, I have not been in total agreement with any candidate for any office. I have tried to consider broader impacts as I assess a candidate’s potential, not embrace or dismiss them based on a single issue.

Of course, it can be argued as to whether the United States remains a representative democracy. Indeed, it has been suggested that we are no longer that, but rather an oligarchy run by a select cadre of shadow leaders from the military industrial complex or perhaps even more insidiously, just big industry. That’s all a little too conspiracy-theory-laced for me. I choose to give the nation the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that participation in democracy is neither right nor privilege, but a solemn responsibility or obligation, in that the will of the people must truly be an expression of all people, not only those with money enough to buy an election.

When religion is forced upon a people, it does not remain the positive influence that an expression of faith out of free will provides. Rather, it becomes another weapon of power and control. When religion is forcibly denied to people, it may become a rebel’s rallying point, which ultimately strengthens the government’s resolve to stamp out its last vestiges.

The conscientious exercise of faith, however, can and should become a positive force, in that the life of the faithful is one guided by enduring principles. In this way, religion does not control, but informs and instructs. A principled life should lead to principled decision-making, involving an examination of all aspects of an issue, not merely knee-jerk responses prescribed by adherence to some collection of dogmas.

Of course, it may be argued that a principled life directed by morality and ethics need not be encumbered by the trappings of religion. There are many ethical and moral atheists. I understand that. However, I am not here arguing the validity of atheism. I hope to impress the idea that politics and religion can peacefully and productively coexist.

To that end, I assert that Christians need to be involved in government, from active participation in the electoral process to the active pursuit of elected office. Good people are needed to counter-balance the weight of the unprincipled. People of good will must rise to be the light of goodness and Godliness without forcing an overtly religious view. This in no wise compromises one’s duty or privilege to always be ready to give an answer for the hope that he or she possesses. It does mean, however, that one must be able to determine the appropriate time for each.

Too often, politicians use the mantle of religion as a stage prop, demonstrating their piety with frequent appeals to observe the exercise of their faith. I have seen many modern day Pharisees among the conservative movement’s ranks, praying loudly in the market place, ordering God to commend their righteousness, not petitioning him for his mercy. These kinds of leaders would use religion as a weapon. But the shepherd’s staff was never meant to beat the sheep: it serves to direct and to protect.

Few topics are as volatile and divisive as religion and politics. Both are deeply ingrained in the human experience. Both are rooted in deep conviction. But they can coexist as long as people are willing to maintain the appropriate balance. I know there are good people who can achieve that. Finding people willing to withstand the scrutiny and attacks on character…that may be more difficult.

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