Faith and Politics

Few topics are as difficult or complex as the relation of faith and politics. When I took the job at Protestants for the Common Good fifteen years ago, I knew that there would be many people who would not easily engage with us in our mission.

What I have been heartened to find is in every congregation, there is a core group which takes on the task, with joy and fidelity. It is around these people that we have built our organizing strategy: reach out and listen to them; draw upon their strengths; and connect them to each other.

Yes, politics brings controversy, and that can be uncomfortable. Yes, policy issues are complex, and mastering them takes work. Yes, separation of church and state is a central tenet of our democracy.

But none of these are a reason for silence.

As we look ahead to what promises to be a long, heated, complex election season, I thought it might be helpful to list some of core reasons why faith and politics do mix.

1. The theme of justice is central to the Bible. It courses throughout the Old and New Testaments. Said the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24). From Jesus: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites. You…have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matt. 23: 23).

2. God cares what happens in this world. Salvation is not reserved for something beyond this world. Jesus himself taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.” He recognized that we need bread and should pray for it, and should seek it for others. Everything that happens in this world matters to God.

3. God is not neutral. In fact, God is partial to the poor. This does not mean God cares for the poor more than the rich. But God addresses the needs of the rich in the context of their ability to recognize and respond to poverty. God is as concerned about helping the rich to move beyond hard-heartedness as he is in seeing the poor move beyond poverty.

4. Politics is unavoidable. Our silence is a vote in support of the status quo. It tacitly endorses the strongest party in any debate, for good or evil. As Bishop Tutu has observed, “If an elephant has his foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

5. If we do not seek justice we cannot know God. Isn’t this what we are told in the Parable of the Last Judgment? “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? …Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt 25: 37, 40). We come to know God by loving our neighbor, and we cannot fully love our neighbor without seeking justice.

6. Charity is no substitute for justice. Charity will never be sufficient to provide adequately for those in need. Despite all the good work of churches and aid organizations, one in every five children in Illinois lives in poverty. It is inconceivable that charity health care could ever meet the needs of those served by Medicaid and Medicare, nor food pantries become a substitute for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps).

7. We can only confront injustice by addressing its causes. If our economic system isn’t working, or our state budget fails to provide services for those in need, our goal must be to change the economic system, or repair the budget. The failure to recognize the need for systemic changes makes more charity necessary.

8. Separation of church and state pertains to government, not individuals. The first amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It has no relevance to whether individuals draw upon their religious faith as a guide to political action.

9. Public policy is complex. No more than anyone else in our society can people of faith claim to be right with absolute certainty on issues such as tax policy and education reform. We can never argue that particular proposals or bills are to be identified with the will of God. Always we must be eager to analyze and debate in the search for better “answers.”

10. We must take a position and we must act, in accord with our best “lights.” The failure to do so is to abdicate our responsibilities as citizens in a democracy. And, again, this cedes power to those who do act.

The Great Commandment calls us to love our neighbor and thereby to love God. We cannot love our neighbor if we do not engage in politics. If we think carefully about what the Gospels call us to do in this world, we will realize that faith and politics do mix. Indeed, they are inseparable.

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