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Moses1-244x300One hears it all the time; the notion that religion ought to be kept out of politics. I’m torn by the suggestion, because it is commonly used in response to the politics of conservative Christians, …and I have little sympathy for their politics. But the fact is, that just isn’t where I would draw the battle lines. If most people frown at the likes of Pat Robertson or Rick Warren, I suspect they are frowning for reasons that differ significantly from my own.

Religion IS politics as far as I am concerned; it’s bad politics, but politics just the same. I don’t quite mean to suggest that religion is simply a crass tool by which some folks seek to enhance their own power and influence.

….seriously, I don’t QUITE mean to say that.

…at least not as a general rule.

No. What I am suggesting is that religion consistently presents folks with a vision of order in the cosmos. That vision answers questions about how one ought to behave, yes, but it also contains answers to questions about the nature of authority and the social expectations that go with it. These traditions may tell us about Heaven and Hell, Karma, etc. all visions of a cosmic order, but they also tell us a little about how one ought to treat others, assess other people’s character, and what we may fairly do in response to the virtues or vices of those around us. The notion that all of this is supposed to stop short of addressing real political questions strikes me as a rather improbable.

…it’s also unreasonable.

To put it in more concrete terms, it makes sense to me that someone who believes in the Ten Commandments would (when stepping into the voting booth) bear in mind the likelihood that a political candidate was going to follow them as well. It makes sense to me that folks would bear such things in mind when making in countless other decisions of a political nature.

Which is part of what makes the role of religion in American government (and perhaps other settings as well) so completely absurd. On the one hand, religious teachings are all about precisely the sort of questions that one must address in politics; on the other, it is separate from and distinct from those institutions, limited in some respect by the establishment clause and re-enforced by the free exercise clause. Religion has a potentially absolute absolute claim on every aspect of life, and yet while protecting the rights of believers, we expect them to stop short of weighing in on the most important questions of the day. The whole situation is at least a little odd, to say the least.

Far from the natural order of things, this feature of American politics rests in our Constitution and popular culture like a fault line running through a population trying its best to ignore it and get on with life.

…which I think is the real reason people want to keep religion out of politics. If they can keep folks from putting the two topics together in the same conversation, then they can avoid dealing with a mountain of contradictions even Mohammed would be hard pressed to move about.

The history of religion certainly doesn’t teach us to expect its proponents to stop short of political commentary. The God of Abraham in particular has played an overtly political role in each of his major religions. It is only with the decline of ancient empires that Christianity and Islam have come to be defined as something distinct from politics. Each of these traditions became mere ‘religions’ when the moral order they espoused lost its connections to the political order in which they once flourished. Institutions that we think of today as religion were once unashamedly political. Few if any thought twice about it.

What distinguishes religious traditions from those of modern politics is less of an ontological divide than a range of social conventions, not the least of them being a clear discordance between the visions of authority contained in each. Indeed, the notions are so far apart that people often fail to recognize them as different answers to the same question. The end result is a rather marked failure to notice something very interesting about the relationship between religion and politics in modern life. You see, there is something highly ironic (and more than a little tragic) about the sensibilities of those who speak of a Lord in world wherein we elect a President (or, for that matter, a Congressman or a Parliamentian).

And this is what I mean by a fault line that the public does its damnedest to ignore. Most people don’t even pause to think about this, but the notion of a ‘Lord’ has not always been so divorced from the social order. The language about which one spoke of God was not always so completely severed from the language about which one thought about their own government. There was a time when that term, ‘Lord’, would have pointed not merely to a benign old man in the sky, but also to the nobility of Europe. The implication was neither accidental, nor trivial. Indeed, the point of such language was to draw a clear parallel between the loyalties that men owed to each other (or more to the point, that commoners owed to the aristocracy) and those that they owed to the keeper of cosmic justice. A reference to the ‘Lord’ would have meant for many in past times a role reflected in both their religious discourse and in the social realities of their daily lives.

How weird it must be to live in a world in which one answers to a Lord in Heaven but votes for politicians down here! At least it would be weird if we paid more attention to the way either of these institutions actually handle questions about how people ought to behave.

But of course the problem is not merely a function of this one word. When Conservative Christians speak of power, they almost invariably invoke a range of metaphors ill-fitted to the realities of a republican style government. They speak of God as a sovereign, all the while operating in a public life wherein the people are assumed to be sovereign. They speak of the Ten Commandments in a world wherein laws are deemed in some sense to be created by the people (albeit indirectly). And how strange that we (and by ‘we’ I mean mainly Christians) want Children to pledge allegiance to one nation (under God or not), as if such an oath had much bearing on modern notions of citizenship! It cannot mean nothing that people who live in a participatory democracy envision so much of their lives through the language of aristocracy.

Does this mean that Conservative Christians do not understand democracy?

No it doesn’t.

…at least  not in principle, but I can think of a few folks!

It does suggest a certain tension between the nature of authority some folks encounter on Sunday and those they are called upon to use in the voting booth. This sort of tension might even have some positive benefits, though I suspect that would require people to be more aware of the difference than they generally seem to be. It probably should not surprise us too much when the language of one sphere creeps into that of another. I think we can see this in the way that many conservative Christians speak of the founding fathers in reference to a broad range of constitutional questions. So much the more so on litmus test politics such as gay rights which so many use to discern the loyalties of those around us.

I could field a number of polemics at this point, but perhaps that is not really where I want to go with this. The divergence between modern visions of political authority and the archaic language with which conservative Christians approach that same subject is an interesting point in itself. What to make of it is another question. And of course this returns us to the original question of whether or not one can reasonably expect religious leaders to keep their noses out of politics.

If I am reading the popular culture correctly, I think most people expect a natural division between these spheres of social (and political) life, as if some great natural boundary separates them. For my own part, I think it’s little other than history. Indeed, I don’t think the term ‘religion’ denotes a clear and well defined body of institutions, beliefs, or practices, certainly not any that fall neatly outside the boundaries of political life. As it happens, the modern world has developed a range of political expectations which simply differ from those of the institutions we now call religion. That difference does not lie in the nature of the institutions in questions, it lies in the particular approach that each takes to the deeper moral questions of social life.

What keeps conservative Christianity from enjoying a more direct role in American political life is its political anachronism. It’s vision of authority is not (thankfully) that of our own government.