The Common Good
April 1994

Not In Polite Company

by Jim Wallis | April 1994

Not in polite company. That’s where you were not supposed to talk about either
politics or religion. Remember?

Not in polite company. That’s where you were not supposed to talk about either politics or religion. Remember? Perhaps it was because these two subjects were too important and would interrupt the small talk. Or maybe because they were potentially so divisive that they might spoil the party.

Well, that has changed over the years. Both politics and religion are hot topics these days. But now the discomfort seems to be discussing them together.

I recall, painfully, being an evangelical teen-ager who was told by my church that Christian faith had nothing to do with either racism or war. (In truth, most of the good church people quietly supported both, succeeding in keeping their religion separate.) But my heart was rising to the moral challenge of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war.

The intuition that my faith did indeed have something to do with "politics" was the principle cause of my separation from the little church that had nurtured and raised me. Now in exile, I found a new home in the black community and among the black churches. There I learned what the relationship between the two forbidden topics in polite white society really was.

The civil rights movement was built on the foundation of the black churches. The illuminating oratory of Martin Luther King Jr. and the other preacher-activists of the movement made the integral connection between faith and politics clear.

THE TOPIC HAS BECOME more complicated. The evangelical folks I grew up with finally became involved in politics, and now insist that faith indeed has real political implications. The issue that drew them in was abortion and the cultural breakdown of American society.

Their political involvement became quite alarming to many liberal Christians who had long insisted on the rightful relationship between religion and questions of public policy. It was one thing to support the religious call of black ministers to the barricades of civil rights. It was quite another to accept the "Religious Right" mobilizing on behalf of the unborn.

In his provocative book The Culture of Disbelief, Yale law professor Stephen Carter reflects on this thorny problem. Carter contends that a prejudice against the influence of religious commitment upon political issues now characterizes many sectors of American society, including the media, academia, the law, and the corridors of political power.

Religious conviction is trivialized and becomes quickly suspect when it seems to be affecting matters political. While disagreeing with many of the conclusions of the Religious Right, Carter defends their being "religious" and seeking to impact politics from their faith perspective.

An African American and a constitutional lawyer, Carter claims that the American doctrine of the separation of church and state forbids the establishment of any religion by the state, but not the influence of religious values in the public square. Along with others, such as Garry Wills, he suggests that religious faith has always helped shape American politics and that such influence can be very positive as well as negative.

Emory University Scholar-in- Residence Eugene D. Genovese recently remarked on the same subject. Genovese, a widely respected Left intellectual, said, "Liberalism is over. The Left is dead. Politics will be principally shaped by religious communities. The only question is, will they be repressive and totalitarian religious communities or lucid, progressive ones."

In an equally surprising development, the left progressive Z Magazine declared in its January issue, "It is long past time that the American Left re-evaluated its judgment that religion is unadulterated superstition." The article goes on to describe the historically religious roots of today’s progressive egalitarian movements and the radical character of Jesus Christ!

Z’s writer suggests that progressive Christian movements could be "the salvation of the secular left. Only a religiously based radicalism can succeed in winning a major sector of American sympathy....The American people will not sacrifice their lives for a secular utopia that does not fulfill their emotional and spiritual needs."

That faith should influence our perception of and participation in politics was a founding principle of Sojourners. But while religion belongs in the political world, religion and ideology are not good partners. Stephen Carter warns against reaching conclusions on political grounds and afterward finding religious justification for them, instead of letting genuine religious conviction shape honest political judgments.

Perhaps the best test of the religious integrity of our political commitments is their predictability or unpredictability. Religious perspectives on political matters must not be predictable on the basis of prior ideological biases. We have seen enough of that on both ends of the political spectrum. To be honest, most of us have fallen into such predictability from time to time, especially during the height of the contentious Cold War years.

But this is a new time. The spiritual nature of the many crises we face is increasingly clear to many people. The failure of ideology on all sides, and the now dysfunctional character of old political categories, is also increasingly apparent. If discerned truthfully, Christian faith will not be squeezed into predetermined positions of Left, Right, or Center—or whatever new ones may emerge in the changing world of secular politics. At its best, religious perspective and conviction will transform categories by bringing independent moral values and social conscience to the public square.

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