The Common Good
January-February 2001

Each Side is Right. And Wrong.

by Amy Sullivan | January-February 2001

In the Old Testament lesson at my church one Sunday, we read, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem...

In the Old Testament lesson at my church one Sunday, we read, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem....May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels," even as bloodshed continued to bring sorrow to that holy city. Like many churches, we also prayed for wisdom and strength for our president, who would that afternoon fly to the Middle East to see if some reconciliation could be reached. Unlike other churches, however, we had a congregant for whom these words held special meaning, a man who most Sundays sits in the third pew from the front on the right-hand side, just another member of the congregation and yet always more — President Bill Clinton.

Should Clinton cease being the president when he enters Foundry United Methodist Church? Should he cease being a Christian when he engages policy challenges in the White House? Public opinion seems to support the idea that a president's faith should inform the way he approaches decision-making. Problems arise, however, when what is religiously right is not only politically unpopular, but perhaps even politically impossible. This is one of many tensions at the heart of Stephen Carter's latest book, God's Name in Vain.

The intersection of religion and politics raises concerns and challenges for people throughout society, from the president to grassroots activists to lay people. In God's Name in Vain, this Yale law professor attempts to answer the question raised, but left unanswered, by his 1993 book The Culture of Disbelief: "If religion is to be actively involved in politics, what is the proper form of that involvement?"

No blueprint exists to show precisely how the religious should become involved in politics. And Carter does not present one here. But he does provide a few suggestions and attempts to "set out some sensible limits," concluding that perhaps the most important way of dealing with these questions is through an ongoing dialogue that constantly re-evaluates the relationship between religion and politics and provides a critique of both sides.

Carter describes the current extremes of these two sides as "those who treat the merest scintilla of religion in our public and political life as an offense against the American idea" and "those who believe it to be the responsibility of government to use its power to enforce as law the moral truths of their religion." Carter responds to the first group with a forceful historical recitation of the ways in which politics and religion have always been inseparable in America. Abolition, prohibition, campaigns for the rights of workers, nuclear disarmament, civil rights, abortion, and the death penalty all have roots and leaders in the religious communities.

To the second group, Carter provides the admonition that "religion, when it engages in the public life of the nation, must do so with care." He argues that conservative religious organizations such as the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority may have faltered when they adopted too many of the traits of the world they were attempting to critique. They failed to ask themselves the questions Carter posits as essential for maintaining religious integrity: "If we win, what are we winning? And at what cost?"

Carter's writing is most compelling when he returns to the themes of The Culture of Disbelief—charging that the morality of secularism is being imposed on all citizens by those same people who raise alarms about the separation of church and state. The fragile balance that lies at the heart of the First Amendment is threatened, he argues, by those who believe that the constitutional separation was developed to protect the state from religion, and not the other way around.

"A politics without religion is empty of meaning," Carter proclaims. And yet politics can be treacherous for the religious. The solution, Carter concludes, is not to divorce religion from politics, but to maintain constant vigilance to ensure purity of belief and of motive.

Amy Sullivan is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C.

Renewal in the Garden
An excerpt from God's Name in Vain by Stephen L. Carter

So much of American religion today has become so culturally comfortable that one can scarcely find differences between the vision of the good that is preached from the pulpit and the vision of the good that is believed by the culture. If a religion wants to be just like everything else, it needs no guarantee of religious liberty. After all, both breakfast cereal manufacturers and automobile companies manage to transform themselves constantly into images acceptable to the culture without the benefit of a constitutional right to do it.

If the Constitution or the culture or the two in combination do manage to carve out the spaces in which religionists can freely build communities preaching meanings sharply at odds with those that dominate our era, religion must take advantage of that opportunity. In America today, so many traditions are politically identifiable. In the Protestant churches, the problem is especially acute. Denominations that make common cause with the Right have learned to mute the Gospel message about the dangers of wealth. Denominations that make common cause with the Left have learned to cast aside New Testament teachings about sex. As we have seen in earlier chapters, the pull of political involvement, if it is heeded, invariably alters the content of the message….

American religion needs more time in the garden, less in the wilderness, more time for prayer and discernment, more time for renewal, more time for community, more time to discover what it is that God is calling it to be. Prophetic witness, the distant, transcendent voice that calls on the nation to repent and return to righteousness, is impossible if religion is comfortable. The religious voice is destroyed when religion yields to the temptation to be important, to shape the outcome of elections, to fit snugly into the culture, to make filling the seats on the Sabbath day the highest goal. And without the religious voice, our politics will be nothing—which means, in a democracy, that our nation will be nothing.

And religion: Without renewal, without a retreat from the wilderness and a return to the garden, without more time spent listening to the voice of God and less time spent drafting position papers or fighting over who gets to be in charge of what—without these necessities, religion will be nothing too.

From the book God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics. © 2000 by Stephen L. Carter. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books. All rights reserved.

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