America’s New God: When Politics Trumps Faith
By John W. Whitehead
“Nearly 30 years after religious conservatives decided to re-enter the political arena—after abandoning it as ‘dirty’ and leading to compromise—what do they have to show for it? The country remains sharply divided and the reconciling message they used to preach has been obscured by the crass pursuit of the golden ring of political power. In the end, they got neither the power, nor the Kingdom; only the glory and even that is now fading.”
—Cal Thomas, former vice president of the Moral Majority
It’s one thing for Christians—or any other religion, for that matter—to get involved in politics. But it’s a different matter altogether when religious individuals allow politics to take precedence over their religious beliefs.
This is most evident as the race for the White House heats up and vocal Christians such as James Dobson attempt to steer the outcome by endorsing a particular candidate. Yet I can’t help but wonder exactly what these Christians are really putting their faith in. Are they after greater power and influence? Do they think a Christian in the White House will solve the problems that plague our nation?
It hasn’t done us much good yet. As Frank Schaeffer, author of Crazy for God, pointed out in a recent editorial, “In 2000, we elected a president who claimed he believed God created the earth and who, as president, put car manufacturers and oil company’s interests ahead of caring for that creation. We elected a pro-life Republican Congress that did nothing to actually care for pregnant women and babies. And they took their sincere evangelical followers for granted, and played them for suckers.”
David Kuo, who served as Special Assistant to President Bush from 2001-2003, elaborates on this in his book, Tempting Faith, when he describes the way in which the Bush Administration manipulated evangelical Christians: “Rove’s Public Liaison office had a religious outreach team in constant contact with evangelical and social conservative groups about every facet of the president’s policy and political agenda…. As part of their outreach they held weekly—or more often, as necessary—conference calls to update that community on events and announcements while simultaneously soliciting their feedback.”
Kuo continues, “This network of people covered virtually every area of evangelical Christianity. The calls began with an overview of what the president would be talking about in the coming week. If necessary, participants were asked to talk to their people about whatever issue was pending. Talking points were distributed and advice was solicited. That advice rarely went much further than the conference call. There wasn’t any malice or negligence behind this. It was just that the true purpose of these calls was to keep prominent social conservatives and their groups or audiences happy. In most ways it wasn’t a tough sell.”
In fact, Kuo says, it wasn’t difficult to convince Christians that President Bush was on the right side of virtually any tactic. “It should have been a whole lot harder because Christians should have demanded a whole lot more. But all too often, when put before power, Christian leaders wilt.”
Thus, we get to the heart of the problem when religion and politics merge. Rarely can they coexist without one trumping the other. Unfortunately, all too often, politics will trump religion. The result, as we have seen, is that religious individuals—Christians, in particular—smother their faith and become servants to political power. Yet for the Christian, politics and faith should never be synonymous; they are not two equal loyalties.
This is not to say that religious individuals should not be vocal in matters of politics and other national concerns. Indeed, our nation is clearly in need of moral guidance. Regrettably, apart from its ongoing tirades against homosexuality, the Christian Right has little to say about anything other than politics. They seem to have forgotten that politics, by its very nature, stands in stark contrast to what Christianity is supposed to stand for. Politics does not operate out of love, speak truth to power or seek the best interests of people. Indeed, politics is driven toward division, compromise, deceit and, inevitably, corruption.
Jesus Christ rejected politics as the solution for what ails us. Read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), for example, and you will get a clear sense of his priorities. He was all about helping the poor, showing mercy (even to your enemies) and being a peacemaker. He did not bless the powerful; rather, he said, “Blessed are the meek.”
Neither did Jesus seek political favors or power. He was apolitical. In a sense, he could even be described as being anti-politics, given his tendency to attack and undermine political power. He had no qualms about getting in politicians’ faces, so to speak. Even with his back ripped open and bleeding, Jesus stood before Pilate, the man who had the power of life and death over him, and spoke truth to power: “You could have no power over me if it were not given you from above,” he admonished him.
Jesus understood that the legitimate use of power does not include using it to impose one’s will upon others. From the Christian standpoint, the proper use of power is to seek justice for all. Thus, if Christianity is to serve its true purpose and be a moral compass of society, Christians must remain clear of the constraints and compromises entailed in political affiliation and take stands for truth. Inevitably, speaking truth to power will mean standing outside the political establishment and criticizing the political Herods of this world, i.e., the government and its policies.
When it comes right down to it, the most appropriate role of religion in politics lies in its ability to define moral issues and speak truth to power. The voice of moral authority, enabled and enhanced by its spiritual roots and raised without dependence upon the legitimacy of the state, will always be the highest expression of true freedom.