For decades, when people spoke or wrote about the intersection of religious belief and political action, it was natural to refer to it in a kind of shorthand, “religion and politics,” with religion getting the more important seat at the table. More recently, though, it has become common to reverse the order: “politics and religion.” Perhaps it’s not a big deal, but it seems to suggest that the influence of religion has waned even as interest in politics has surged.
Religion and politics have squabbled forever, and sometimes gone to war against each other. Each has seen the other as a potential ally or at least an enemy that could be leveraged. At one time, every politician wanted to be thought of as religious. Harry Truman was a Baptist, as was Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower were Presbyterians. So is Donald Trump. Kennedy was a Catholic, H.W. Bush an Episcopalian, and W. Bush a Methodist. In the presidential campaign of 1992, the three principal candidates eagerly announced themselves “born again” (though, clearly, a couple of them had no idea what that meant).
Today’s politicians no longer see religious affiliation as a prerequisite to success. In some places, it is even regarded as a detriment. Though he called himself a Christian, President Obama did not attend church services – and suffered no political consequences. Investment in religion is, seemingly, paying diminishing returns.
The previous administration seemed to think religion was important, and its defense obligatory, but it belonged behind church doors. Take it home, if you must, but don’t take it into the streets. And, for crying out loud, keep it out of legislation! Religion is a private preference and should have no voice in the public square.
Even after eight years of shushing religion, when candidate Hilary Clinton warned that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed,” it sent chills through faith communities. Who is Hilary Clinton (or any other politician) to tell Americans that our religious beliefs have to be changed? Changed to what?
For modern Americans, at least religious ones, all this is new and unsettling. We liked it when the politicians were calling and inviting us to the dance. Now the phone isn’t ringing, and we’re worried. Maybe we’re getting old. Maybe we’re not pretty enough anymore.
But such is the long, strange story of religion and politics. For a thousand years in Europe, there was no clear line between the two (as is the case today in places like Iran and, to some extent, Egypt). Religionists were political and politicians were religious. That has changed, at least in the U.S. and in Europe. For a growing number of people today, politics is religion. It is their principal credo and their only hope for making life and society better.
Readers often overlook the role that politics played in the biblical narratives. Jesus was born into a world rife with political controversy. Rome allowed people to practice the religion of their choice, but only if it didn’t threaten Roman hegemony. If it did, it would be crushed. Jesus had friends (one was even part of his inner circle) who were affiliated with an opposition movement that sought to unseat the Romans from power.
The strange (and often strained) relationship between religion and politics is nowhere more evident than in an incident that happened during the week before Jesus’s execution. He was approached by some religious professionals, with political operatives at their heels, and asked a politically-explosive question: Should people pay taxes to the foreign occupational government?
Despite their mutual dislike, the politicians and the religionists were working together to achieve a common goal: get rid of Jesus. If Jesus answered, “Yes, people should pay taxes,” an outraged public would abandon him. If he answered, “No, people shouldn’t pay taxes,” the government’s representatives would arrest him. Instead he brilliantly replied, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Since he was not beholden to politics or religion, Jesus could speak truth rather than manage it. As politics and religion wrangled for power, and the world suffered on, Jesus (ignoring politics and religion) changed the world forever.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 1, 2017
A White House Facebook Page post showed President Obama with his family at a military chapel Christian service while on vacation in Hawaii. At the memorial service for Charleston shooting victims, he apparently went off script when he led the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace.” Just a couple of instances of his going to church or showing publicly signs of a Christian personal history. I suspect there were more, since I remembered these without searching online.
Thanks for reading and for commenting. I reread the column after seeing your comment and I think the point I was trying to make still stands, despite the anecdotal evidence for the survival of social religion in America, especially in times of tragedy. However, the article seems one-sided in retrospect, since the illustrations have largely to do with Democrats. I certainly did not and do not think that the Republican party fares any better. I believe we are living through the demise of social/civil religion, something Malcolm Muggeridge predicted more that forty years ago, and that Hauerwas and Willimon chronicled a quarter century ago.
I would say further that the demise of civil religion is not as harmful as the persistence of hypocritical religion, whether practiced by politicians or us voters.
One last thing: though in the article I wrote that President Obama did not attend church while in office, he has said repeatedly that he is a Christian, and I believe we ought to take him at his word, just as I would hope people would take me at mine. The attacks on Mr. Obama over this issue were outrageous and decidedly unchristian.