The Common Good

Mal-Engagement, Disengagement, and Wise Engagement

I understand the sentiments shared by many voters in the recent Pew poll on faith and politics. The Chicago Tribune reports:

Social conservatives are growing more wary of church involvement in politics, joining moderates and liberals in their unease about blurring the lines between pulpit and ballot box, a new study found.

Churchgoers across the country are looking at the ways in which religious leaders and communities have been used by political parties – and have used them as well -- and they think, “Let’s just pull back and not talk about faith and politics in the same breath any more.” As the survey's overview states:

Some Americans are having a change of heart about mixing religion and politics. A new survey finds a narrow majority of the public saying that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters and not express their views on day-to-day social and political matters.

One key term in both of these statements is “church,” along with the related terms “pulpit” and “houses of worship.” The other key term is “politics," with related terms “ballot box” and “social and political matters.”

If people are saying they’re tired of pulpits and churches becoming the field for proxy battles between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, I couldn’t agree more. And if they’re saying that pastors and other religious leaders should try to throw their weight around in the political arena, bypassing normal debate and discourse by making theological pronouncements, again, I couldn’t agree more.

But if they’re saying, “Let’s go back to the good old days where in church we talked about ‘us and Jesus’ and nothing more,” I couldn’t disagree more. To talk about “us and Jesus” alone is unfaithful to Jesus, who linked love for God with love for neighbor. To exclude from our circle of concern the well-being of neighbor and enemy means that we aren’t following Jesus’ way, but some other way under “Christian camouflage.”

I grew up in those “good old days,” and I can tell you they weren’t so good. It wasn’t good when racism and concern for the planet were excluded from consideration because they were “social and political matters.” It wasn’t good when poverty couldn’t be addressed directly or in a sustained way – in spite of the fact that the Bible says so much about it – because it was “political” and “social.” It wasn’t good when we couldn’t talk about peacemaking in a violent world because to do so was “too political.”

It’s true: when you let your faith be trimmed, stretched, and shrunk to fit as a nice rug on a party platform, you’re being a faithful partisan but not a faithful Christian (or Jew, Muslim, or whatever). And it’s also true: when you limit “church” and “pulpit” and “house of worship” to private personal piety, to “us and Jesus,” you have a safe, domesticated, irrelevant, and unfaithful religion -- not the way of life Jesus launched.

The misadventures of the Religious Right are many, and their consequences are far-reaching. It would be doubly sad if in the aftermath of the Religious Right, we add another negative consequence: to react to an unwise mal-engagement of faith with social and public life by choosing unfaithful disengagement, instead of wise and proper engagement.

Brian McLaren is an author and speaker and serves as Sojourners' board chair.

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