Neutering the Gospel

Pope Francis

Jon Stewart recently skewered Fox News’ Stuart Varney. Varney disagreed with the pope’s recent critique of capitalism; Stewart’s sharp satire exposes the intellectual and moral vacuity of Varney’s protests against the pope’s comments. (If you haven’t seen it, you can find the link to Jon Stewart here.)

One of Varney’s moves is to attempt to separate the political from the spiritual. He says, “I personally do not want my spiritual life mixed up with my political life. I go to church to save my soul.”

In this context, separating the political from the spiritual is a way to nullify an essential part of Jesus’ teaching and ministry: the building of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was not strictly, nor even primarily, concerned with saving souls: the prayer that he taught his followers is, “… thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven….” The Lord’s prayer expresses the desire that the world be put in order, and that that order be under the authority of the God who is always on the side of the widow and the orphan; on the side of the outcast and the poor.

Those who claim that the political and the spiritual do not meet may be, in fact, followers of one of the world’s great religions– but it isn’t Christianity.

There are good reasons why we have “the separation of church and state,” but Varney is not supporting the continued prohibition of state-sponsored churches. What he is supporting– and anyone else who dismisses the political dimension of religious conviction is also supporting–  is the tight-banded neutering of the gospel. It’s a convenient way to avoid the claims that God makes on our communal life together– of which the political is part– and thereby to avoid questions of conscience.

via AOL Mail – Message View.

Huckabee’s Right, But He’s Confused

Mike Huckabee has come to represent how conservatism has come off the rails, and become reflexively (rather than thoughtfully) illiberal. This is unfortunate, because America needs a good dose of a thoughtful conservatism that is current. Huckabee’s reactionary agenda continues to include one-size-fits-all positions on abortion, immigration, and Israel, for example.

This is too bad, because what makes Huckabee worth the time to write about, and to think about, is his correct assessment that much of what bedevils American society is spiritual. Where he goes wrong, is to believe that this situation can be remedied by adopting policies– the ones he advocates– that are godly. This belief is worse than having the cart before the horse: “having the cart before the horse” is a simple confusion, clarified by reversing the order, whereas Huckabee’s mistake is confusing the kind of thing politics is, and the kind of thing religion is, in a 21st-century pluralistic democracy.

In the excerpt below, Huckabee trots out the tired memes of “government is bad” and “the Democratic party is godless.” While these memes play successfully to a certain audience and score points for his side, they do nothing to promote the healing of the social body, or to solve political problems. Huckabee’s deeper confusion is to think that politics is a suitable place for people of faith and parties of principle to express their faith and rectitude.

The authentic religious perspective for our time with regards to politics begins with a much larger dose of humility. Not timidity; not (moral) relativity– but a humility that recognizes the limits of any human– or group of humans– to possess the complete and final picture of what is good and true.

That’s the religion Huckabee ought to look toward, as his starting point.

Here is Huckabee in the immediate aftermath of the November election:

There is a lot to be disappointed by in the election results this evening and I am disappointed, but not despondent.

Tonight’s results only remind me that our country has slipped into a deeper state of dependence on government than I wanted to believe. Where the Goliath of government has grown so too has our dependency.

It’s also increasingly apparent to me that our real problems are not political, but spiritual. Both parties have failed to acknowledge that. Democrats have not wanted to even acknowledge the need for God in our public institutions, but sadly, many of the Republican leadership will acknowledge God, but not because they believe we should be humble before Him, but to use God in our speeches and platforms. We wear our love of Israel like a badge of courage but on the issues of life and marriage too many of our leaders are more like lambs than Lions of Judah.

Well now maybe our Republican Party will look at itself in the mirror. I feel that we shouldn’t pack up and quit, but gear up and get ready for the next battle. That’s what we do as people of faith and a party of principle. We don’t stop believing what we believe. We do a better job of doing what we’re supposed to do. That’s how you attract voters and win elections. And that is how you save America from herself.


via Statement On The Election – Mike Huckabee News – News – Mike Huckabee.

Save Us A Vote, Mitt

I saw a hand-painted political road sign this morning– all caps, no punctuation, black lettering on a white-painted square of plywood: SAVE US A VOTE MITT. I briefly wondered if Mitt were somehow hogging all the votes, before realizing that the message was: Save USA– Vote Mitt.

Any use of the word “save” in the political arena arouses my suspicion, and reminds me of the times in Biblical history when the people of Israel cried out for a leader (divinely ordained) to “save” them. Didn’t work then, won’t work today. The story that unfolds in the Christian Bible is a story of the ultimate triumph of a power different from political power– the power of self-emptying generosity and grace, which appears to this world to be weakness and foolishness.

The Biblical account also reminds us that the saving of the USA will come in the most surprising and astonishing ways– in ways that flip our expectations and change our minds beyond any change we think is possible. As unlikely as it seems, saving the USA might come in the contemporary equivalent of a figure who is sold into slavery and then forgives the sellers (Joseph); of a figure who is not a lawyer or businessman but a poet and musician (David); or of a figure whose serpent-like wisdom confronts hypocrisy with truth, and whose childlike innocence heals enmity and brokenness (Jesus).

3 Debate Questions from RIB

Here are three questions Religion in the Balance would ask Barack Obama and Mitt Romney tomorrow night:

1. Define the American dream, for this time in our history. If you use the phrase “pursuit of happiness,” define “happiness.” You may refer to economic prosperity and/or income growth no more than once.

2. Formal offices of power, such as President of the United States, confer great power upon the office-holder, but they also constrain the office-holder from certain kinds of bold action and bold truth-telling. Reflect on the limits of presidential power to make the changes America needs. You may refer to Congress and lobbyists no more than once.

3. What period in American history is most closely analogous to our own time, and therefore has lessons for us today; and, on the other hand, to what extent do we face unprecedented challenges/opportunities (unparallelled in history) that require creative, adaptive learning?

What Is of Concern

The Capitol, Washington DC

Two years ago, I ran into a highly-respected former member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, whom I knew through church. We got to talking. “The partisanship and shenanigans are getting out of hand,” I remember him saying. “Really?” I said, “Is it really getting worse?” Oh yes, he said– much worse.

I’m not too concerned about attack ads anymore, or about negative campaigning in general. Truth (frankness, openness) is almost always a casualty in political speech, whether it’s campaign season or, after the campaign, when it’s spin season and those who have been elected are trying to look good in front of the camera. This has been the case since at least the time of Cicero.

Of concern is not what you and I are presented by candidates for consumption, but the inability of politicians– once elected– seriously to consider policy options and to act in the best interest of the country. It’s as though they actually believe the fatuous pablum of the campaign, and can’t adjust to the reality of governing– a reality that requires reasonableness, and the skill of compromise. Both of the major parties are guilty.

If politics is always a zero-sum game, we will lose (if we haven’t already) the domestic tranquility that is the result of good governance. The exercise of politics does not determine the meaning and worth of an individual life, or even the meaning and worth of a society: politics is too clumsy to be that fine. As the preserver of a public order in which individuals and communities can thrive, however, politics is important; and more wisdom in our political life– even (perhaps especially) if it’s behind the scenes– would be helpful.

Believe in America?

“Believe in America” could be as simple as a call for the nation to buck up and find a new resolve to face its problems unafraid. However, for a culture that despairs of transcendence (its many outward appearances of religiosity often masking that despair, rather than seriously meeting it), “Believe in America” can be read as an invitation to pledge allegiance to the god of nation. This is an idolatry that a certain strand of triumphalist American Christianity– in thrall to the idea that America has God’s special favor– has aided.

The larger observation is that theological language is increasingly part of political discourse. One reason this is happening is that a large group of people see god [the small “g” is intentional] as being on their side– their party, their candidate– and so theological language seems natural and appropriate; another reason is that a different large group of people have no religious grounding, and so their deepest longings for purpose and meaning get projected into the political realm. For them, politics serves as a substitute religion.

The problem is obvious: no human being– no party of human beings, no nation of human beings– can fill the need we have for hope, for belief, for restoration. Meanwhile, parties and politicians will continue to appeal to our willingness to believe that, yes, they can deliver the new life we long for– even as we become increasingly angry when they inevitably cannot.