REFRAMING THE POLITICAL INVOLVEMENT OF CHRISTIANS
Ruminating about the religious right, conservative columnist Cal Thomas has written a captivating piece (Religious Right R.I.P., Townhall.com, Nov. 6, 2008), in which he asserts that "[t]hirty years of trying to use government to stop abortion, preserve opposite-sex marriage, improve television and movie content and transform culture into the conservative Evangelical image has failed." Christian aspirations to improve America through political action, he maintains, have been frustrated and in reality misguided. The political arena has proven to be a "mixed" bag for ushering in the Kingdom of God. Christians who are concerned with the task of reforming culture, he advises, should not waste their resources on politics, but should concentrate instead upon practicing the moral teachings of Jesus.
Well, what can I say? Mr. Thomas's ideas about Christians' political involvement are flat wrong. He misunderstands, first of all, the relationship between religion and politics. Secondly, he does not appear to appreciate that, in the drama of history, we are invariably confronted with ambiguous choices, none of which represent a moral ideal. Thirdly, his evaluation of the influence of the religious right is prematurely short-sighted. The movement, while thirty years old, is still in its infancy. Negatively assessing its influence and significance is like predicting that a sapling will never become a towering oak. Let me briefly elaborate upon each of my objections.
Religion and politics are inseparable. One cannot ignore the many crucial points of overlap between politics and the practice of Jesus's teachings. How can a Christian, who loves his neighbor, not be concerned with the cleanliness of the environment in which we live, the life of a baby in utero, the asserted "right to die" of an elderly patient suffering with terminal disease, the sexual character of the marital union, the reasons for resorting to war, and what is and is not taught in public school curricula? One's religious commitment will always profoundly affect his positions on these and other issues. To argue that Christians should forsake politics naively assumes that it is possible to do so.
In response to Mr. Thomas's contention that such political involvement has met with only fragmentary success, I could not agree more. Of course! This is the nature of historical undertakings. Our reach always exceeds our grasp, does it not? The most for which we can hope in the here and now is a moral clarity about the choices at hand, which embody both virtuous and demonic elements. It is more than a bit ironic that Mr. Thomas would counsel us that what we need is practice of the moral teachings of Jesus, when the church's own history has been at best a checkered one, often characterized by moral failure. I would remind Mr. Thomas, in case he has forgotten, that the church is an all too human institution that exists under the conditions of history. I should further like to ask him if, because of its partial successes, the church should give up proclaiming the Good News. I doubt that he would think so.
Finally, we must be realistic in our assessment of the religious right's realization of its political objectives. Thirty years is not, in political terms, a long time. The positive secularism that has captured American public life in a viselike grip has been at least 135 years in the making, and this does not include its period of germination in Europe. The outlawing of public prayer, devotional Bible-reading, and the religious display of the Ten Commandments did not occur overnight. Nor was the "right" to an abortion simply discovered in the Constitution one day in 1973. All of these are the products of an historical development, in which – if I may audaciously say so – most Christians were satisfied to heed the advice of clergy who took the same position as Mr. Thomas is taking now.
No, no, no! Religious conservatives should not even contemplate forsaking politics. This amounts to moral forfeiture. The specific issues that America now faces, such as the looming prospect of economic collapse, the ever-present threat of entanglement in improvident wars, the massive immigration of poverty from the Third World, the breakdown of the traditional family unit, and the discounting of human life, imperil its 400 year-old culture, which is steeped in both the letter and spirit of Anglo-Protestantism. The many citizens who treasure the culture and yearn for its preservation (and in some respects its restoration), whether they be Jewish, Christian, atheist, or agnostic, have no viable choice other than to work against the forces inimical to it.
Perish the thought that Christians relinquish control over policy decision-making to those whose ideologies are socially destructive and spiritually loathsome. The words of Harry Emerson Fosdick's poignant hymn, "God of Grace and God of Glory," capture the spirit of the message which should be conveyed: "Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore."
Let me be clear about it. The political goal is neither to "evangelize" America nor to re-make it in the image of Christ; that is the church's unique calling. The political goal is to safeguard America's public faith, which in turn pervades and stands at the heart of its predominately English and generically Protestant culture. This faith proclaims a beneficent God who has given the country a mission of freedom to the world. True, it is a mission that has succumbed at times to the impulses of idolatrous imperialism and invidious discrimination, but Americans have also looked self-critically into the mirror, accepted judgment, and made amends. The abolition movement, the dismantling of Jim Crow, and the active participation of women in industry as well as the body politic are shining examples of America's prophetic public faith. There is no reason for anyone, especially Christians, to apologize for it.
This political goal, it should be emphasized, while actively enlisting the aid of Christians, cannot afford to exclude other groups of interested and concerned citizens. An atheist or agnostic, who is committed to American culture, with its religious antecedents and biblical influences, may wish to join in the struggle to preserve it. Such a person may, in fact, abjure every form of conventional religion, but still honor the Puritans' Calvinist spirit that is deeply imbued upon American culture, plus the Jeffersonian insistence upon the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" impressed on every human heart by "nature's God".
Contrary to Mr. Thomas's reckoning, now is the time to increase our political resolve and to continue our struggle to promote the best in American culture. This means not abandoning the political realm, but realistically reframing our understandings regarding it.
November 9, 2008