God on the ballot: faith and politics in America

Published October 1, 2007

Both read the Bible day and night, But thou read’st black where I read white.’

(William Blake, c. 1818)

The trouble with invoking religion in the political arena is that it is too often done by those who are certain God is on their side. With that presumptuous certainty comes bellicosity, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness. At least, that is what the unholy alliance between some Christian fundamentalists and the Republican Party has yielded in American politics in recent years. Two new books address that phenomenon (one that has brought discredit upon people of faith and political leaders alike) and argue that instead of asserting that God is on “our” side, we ought to be asking if we are on His. God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis challenges liberals and conservatives alike by reminding us that our religious faith should manifest itself in public life through patience, humility, reflection, and accountability: “God’s politics reminds us of the people our politics always neglects – the poor, the vulnerable, the left behind. God’s politics challenge narrow national, ethnic, economic, or cultural self-interest, reminding us of a much wider world.”

[pullquote]Faith-informed politics should be about spiritual values and social change, about ameliorating the plight of the poor, about resolving conflicts peacefully, about responsible stewardship of the environment, and about ensuring that the liberty, security, justice, and opportunity which we take for granted are also available to the rest of the world. Instead, it has become obsessed with issues of sexuality and abortion – to the exclusion of all else: “How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American?” As an American (and a self-described conservative) who is also an evangelical minister and a teacher, Wallis offers a persuasive answer to that question: “The real theological problem in America today is no longer the religious Right, but the nationalist religion of the Bush administration, one that confuses the identity of the nation with the church, and God’s purposes with the mission of American empire. America’s foreign policy is more than pre-emptive, it is theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral, but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant, but rather bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous.” In place of leadership, it seeks to dominate. It (rightly) condemns conventional terrorism, but it seems to condone acts of terror committed by the state. It overturns fundamental legal and ethical norms – against torture, the deliberate bombing of civilians, and the use of weapons of mass destruction. It embraces the language of “righteous empire,” even daring to invoke the name of Jesus for war-making instead of peace-making. And it neglects the imperatives of economic justice, at home and abroad, blithely ignoring the fact that “the biblical prophets say that a society’s integrity is judged, not by its wealth and power, but by how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

For Wallis, the real struggle is not between belief and secularism, but between cynicism and hope. It’s a sentiment that the Quaker theologian and writer Linda Seger echoes in Jesus Rode a Donkey: Why the Republicans Don’t Have the Corner on Christ. Her approach is somewhat less substantive (and a tad more partisan) than Wallis’ rather overlong study, but her point – that spiritual values transcend political parties, and even nationality – is just as persuasively made: “We are told … that we must not critique our government … If we do, we are unpatriotic and un-American. Yet Jesus consistently questioned, critiqued, and denounced the establishment of his day.” He also called us to a radical gospel – to love our neighbors, all of our neighbors, as ourselves. That’s a gospel that “stretches us, and asks us to think differently, to think against our human nature.” It means not answering one injustice with another; not succumbing to fear, but, rather, living in hope; and not failing to respond with compassion to the poor and all those who need our help.

For both writers, 9/11 presented a wasted opportunity – for Americans and for the rest of us in the West – to recognize and come to grips with our own intrinsic vulnerability. If we had chosen to accept that being vulnerable is the common lot of all humankind, we might have foregone the instruments of power, violence, and domination in favor of reconciliation, peace-making, and multilateralism. Faith and politics need not be a suspect combination, if we would only remember what our faith really stands for – little things like hope and love.

A former diplomat, who represented Canada in London and Prague, John Arkelian is also a writer, lawyer, international affairs analyst, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.

(c) 2007 by John Arkelian


  • John Arkelian

    John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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