The following is a guest post from Adam A. Kirby, a teacher at Little Rock Central High School, an ordained United Methodist minister, and my brother. If this one doesn't get you talking, nothing will.
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Benjamin Franklin in 1749 spoke of “the necessity of publick religion.” What is the state of public religion? What is the responsibility of public religion?
In my book club this month we are reading Politics, Religion, and the Common Good by Martin Marty and Religion in the Public Sphere by Jurgen Habermas. Both of these works focus on my two favorite things: religion and politics. The Marty piece approaches the topic almost like a how-to manual. He admits readily and freely that religion and faith play integral parts in our political system. Marty argues that not only do our politicians have to proclaim a faith, they must be seen as living that faith. The argument evolves into how people of faith engage responsibly in the political sphere. Marty does not claim a conservative or liberal bias but a scriptural one that calls for an adherence to sound biblical principles when engaging in politics. Marty’s writing and style are easy to follow and designed for a lay reader of both religion and politics.
Martin defines public religion as the places where it will have an "identifiable and potentially extricable influence on public life." Martin defines politics as:
"political activity which is a type of moral activity; it is free active, and it is inventive, flexible, enjoyable, and human; it can create some sense of community and yet is not, for instance, slave to nationalism; it does not claim to settle every problem or to make every sad heart glad, but it can help some way in nearly everything and , where it is strong, it can prevent the vast cruelties and deceits of ideological rule."
For me, this is a great definition of politics; it seems to encompass the best aspects of our political system. Martin defines religion as:
accomplishing many of the same ideas: it focuses on an "ultimate concern," it builds community, it appeals to myth and symbol, it reinforces through rites and ceremonies, and it demands certain behaviors for its adherents.
The overlap seems to be promoting the common good at every turn.
Martin ends with these theses to stimulate the conversation on public religion and its role in society:
...public religion can be dangerous; it should be handled with care; public religion can and does contribute to the common good; individual citizens energized by an awareness of possibilities based on their beliefs and the effects of those beliefs provide hope for improving the republic; traditional institutions-congregations, denominations, and ecumenical agencies-provide an effective public voice for religious people, but the political power of such groups has decline;, for the foreseeable future, religious people will most commonly funnel their political energies into special-interest groups, voluntary associations, and parachurch organizations; it is important for the common good for religious people to join the political conversation-and get involved.
I do not want to truncate Reverend Marty’s book to these few thoughts; however, I believe one can get a sense of what he is calling us to in our struggle with public religion.
Habermas does not differ much in his general assessment, though unlike the Lutheran minister Marty, Habermas is writing from a philosophical standpoint gearing his argument towards intellectuals. Habermas is questioning "this ongoing strong religious consciousness" in America (one of the more modern states). Habermas is attacking the same issue that Martin is, only for Habermas he seems concerned that the growth of public religion is pushing America towards fundamentalism, which he draws parallels to Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, where this neglect of modernity and rise of fundamentalism creates conditions ripe for zealots and terrorist. A brief part of his argument:
Two days after the last Presidential elections (2004), an essay appeared, written by a historian, and entitled ‘The Day the Enlightenment Went Out’. He asked the alarmist question: ‘Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation? America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of the Enlightenment values... Though the founders differed on many things, they shared these values of what then was modernity... Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more, when a poll taken just before the election showed that 75% of Mr. Bush’s supporters believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11. Irrespective of how one evaluates the facts, the election analyses confirm that the cultural division of the West runs right through the American nation itself: conflicting value orientations—God, gays and guns—have manifestly covered over more tangibly contrasting interests. Be that as it may, President Bush has a coalition of primarily religiously motivated voters to thank for his victory. This shift in power indicates a mental shift in civil society that also forms the background to the academic debates on the political role of religion in the state and the public sphere.
Habermas ends this line of reasoning by saying this shift in civil society is what forms "the background to the academic debates on the political role of religion in the state and the public sphere." Habermas seems to squarely nail the problem with religion and politics. There is deterioration of both religion and politics when they are corrupted by political strategists. Though both parties perpetuate this ill, below is a section from an interview with Atwater about the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” which they have used in form or fashion since the late 60s early 70s.
Atwater: As to the whole Southern Strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn't have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he's campaigned on since 1964 and that's fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.
Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
Today the strategy is carried out with religious voters instead of racially motivated ones but the goal is the same as is the effect. Rove and Atwater and many of the talking heads of the Republican establishment believe that to maintain political power they must manipulate the electorate through religious or racial fears. BEFORE I LEAVE THIS SECTION TO BE FAIR, DEMOCRATS PLAY THE SAME GAME IN TERMS OF PANDERING TO VARIOUS DEMOGRAPHICS: UNIONS, BLACKS, AND LATINOS. Exploiting the fears and faith of individuals for one’s political gain is sick. It's a corrupt type of politics that fosters the worst in Americans, and creates a division that takes all that's good in humanity and rips it apart. Our nation was certainly founded on devise and passionate ideas represented by people on both sides of the spectrum. Recently those passions and divisions have been exacerbated by people whose soul purpose is the maintenance of their own power.
Religions, whether they are of the Abrahamic traditions, or Buddhism, or Hinduism, or even many tribal religions, at their core are humanity-defining, and work out concepts like love, community, togetherness, faith. When religion gets exploited by people who have no truck with it and desire only to gain and maintain political power it not only hurts Religion it also hurts our political system. In his blog at Sojourners, Jim Wallis said, "Christians must never worship at the altar of politics. It is not our primary vocation and faith should not be squeezed into its narrow categories — that always misshapes our faith." He went on to add, "People of the kingdom should not serve politics; but we should serve the common good — seeking the welfare of the city we are in, as the prophet Jeremiah instructed. And we only engage politics when it is necessary to help the common good." If politics and religion both serve the common good how should one separate their actions/involvement? Does the exploitation of religion only deepen the culture wars?
The silver bullet in the conversation is education (which I have written enough about education and DO NOT want to get sidetrack on it BUT PROBABLY WILL). Habermas reminds us of this in his article. One of his major thrusts in his paper is twofold. One is to make secular and religious citizens alike aware of their cognitive responsibilities. Another is to make citizens apply the same epistemic attitudes to their counterparts. Habermas in other words is saying, that one must be able to stand outside their faith and examine it critically realizing that what counts in the political realm is "neutrality towards competing world views."
The ways the parties use their power to exploit those of faith rest on the maintenance of the status quo. One way to achieve the status quo is education. Test this premise by looking at the following maps. Look at the counties which elected Bush, and then study the map of college degrees by counties in this country; it doesn’t take a political junkie to see where political parties are striving to gain votes.
What is going on here? To me it seems obvious that to win elections Republicans split the Roosevelt coalition and now to hold their own they must wage a war not on religion but on education. Religion is the tool used to "trick" or "manipulate" the southern voter into supporting policies they otherwise might be against. If education continues to wane particularly in the south then Democrats are in political trouble and those of us who consider ourselves thoughtful people of faith will remain like Sisyphus rolling the rock pointlessly up the hill.
40 years ago, Republicans realized what they needed to do to become politically viable. And to their credit they did it. Now when will the Democrats have that epiphany?
The intent of the First Amendment is to prevent that state from establishing a religion (like the Church of England); it is also protect the free exercise of whatever religious beliefs one may hold. These two ideas should not be held as opposite. Both can co-exist, but how? Politics has become Machiavellian and corrupted what faith should be. Jim Wallis is probably right that faith is too big for the narrow confines of politics, but part of the religious covenant is to strengthen community in a democracy the best way to do that is through a political process. Has the exploitation of religion by those who hold less then "holy" goals in mind some how ruined faith and politics? Ben Franklin said public religion is necessary. How do we live with that in this day and age?