Politics is a true American idol, and the 2012 election will dramatically demonstrate that reality.
People of faith should never worship at the altar of politics, because we worship God; the kingdom of God is never the same as the kingdoms of politics. Our worship of God should shape our engagement with politics. When politics shapes our religion, it distorts our true worship.
Rather than becoming the chaplains or enablers of political idolatry, the faith community should confront it. The idols of politics are many: the idol of money over democracy, the idol of celebrity over leadership, the idol of individualism over community, the idol of ideology over civility, and the idol of winning over governing. Both sides take a problem and do two things: make us afraid of it, and then blame it on the other side. What they don’t do is work together to solve our problems, finding solutions for the common good.
What caused me to rethink these questions of faith and politics was my encounter earlier this year with a lion in a monastic community overlooking the Pacific Ocean at the beginning of my sabbatical. Entering into solitude and silence with monks, punctuated only by Vigils, Lauds, Eucharist, and Vespers, can alter a person’s perspective. In the monastery’s guest kitchen library, I spotted the Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, and decided to reread them. Aslan the lion is the creator and leader of Narnia, the true and good king, and the stories’ Christ figure. Because I was beginning to write a book about the common good, with Jesus as the inspiration for it, I was again drawn to Aslan.
Aslan overcomes evil with good, shows the power of unconditional love, and is the cause of transformation. The lion confronts the bad but invites everyone into the good—friends and enemies alike. Aslan exemplifies the common good—making every decision and action in the best interest of the people and the land, but always paying special attention to the weakest and most vulnerable creatures. Sometimes it felt as if Aslan were walking beside me, up and down the coastal hills to the sea, teaching me again what it means to be a Narnian.
The lion helped inspire my hope to write a biblical and theological defense of the common good, something that has been almost lost in our age of selfishness. Yes, we need better public policies, but our deepest need is more spiritual than political. It’s time to move beyond our superficial and even hateful politics and media—to dig down to the places that renew our faith, clarify our priorities, and set a moral compass for our economy and politics.
The 2012 election will likely be the ugliest in many years. The amount of money that will be spent, with little transparency, will fuel the politics of attack and should teach us that we will never be able to put values back into politics until we take the money out of it. The check writers now control the law writers in Washington, D.C., and the super- PACs that dominate politics are enemies of democracy.
People of faith, whether Republican or Democrat, should not be rallying around the “king” of their party with the uncritical support that the political elites urge. We should instead be raising our voices to defend and advocate for the people and principles that are essential to our faith and our true worship of another king.
That means we must care most about what happens to the poor and vulnerable, while both parties make their appeals to the middle-class voters and wealthy donors they desperately need. It means actually protecting human life and dignity and promoting the real health and well-being of families instead of just substituting rhetorical devices around hot-button social issues to get votes.
It means lifting up the people who suffer because they have no political influence: Undocumented immigrants living in the shadows. Low-income families and children losing their nutritional and health- care support. The poorest of the poor who will die of hunger and preventable diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, or tuberculosis.
It means defending the policies that make for peace and practical solutions to the international conflicts that continue to divide and kill so many people, rather than bellowing how righteous and strong America is and should always be.
Elections make a difference. Yet, ultimately, how we live and what we do for the common good are more important than how we vote. Political affiliation with candidates, parties, and structures is waning—especially among young people—and that’s good news. The big question is, what will replace the traditional structures? Will it be the overwhelming power of money? Or might these changes lead to a new dawn of social movements and social media for the common good—focusing on people, principles, and values in a post-candidate politics? That’s what Sojourners will work for.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.