Religion in Politics: A Theory
I. Religious Ideology vs. a Religious Disposition
I’ve spent a few weeks trying to figure out what bothered me about Amy Sullivan’s May 11 Washington Post article on the rise in leftist religious rhetoric, and—after a few conversations with friends—I think that I’m getting close. The faith-based leftism in her article sometimes sounds like a mirror image of the modular, narrow-minded Christianity of the Religious Right. It takes religion as a source of political content, rather than a comprehensive way of understanding the world.
Sullivan argues that liberals are now every bit as adept as conservatives at drawing upon religion in their public arguments:
American politics is rife with religious rhetoric—but in the modern era, it has almost always been deployed on behalf of conservative positions…[BUT] Democratic politicians now unabashedly cite religion when making their case, and GOP leaders sometimes find themselves in the unusual position of justifying—rather than merely stating—their religious claims.
Somewhere out there, E.J. Dionne and Jim Wallis are smiling. Some years ago, in Souled Out and The Great Awakening, respectively, each argued that leftists were on the cusp of a religious revival. And insofar as that’s true, it’s great news for the Left.
And this brings me to what bothers me about Sullivan’s piece. Parts of the article treat faith as a foundational mine where politicians dig for rhetorical content. In other words, instead of leaning back on Rawls or secular foundations for human rights, leftists now make the same arguments—but with new and improved faith-based justifying power! For reasons I’ll get into below, I think that this approach is unprofitable. There are at least two ways to bring faith into the public square. Let’s take them up in turn.
The first option looks to religion for substantial political content. Call it “Ideological Religion.” People who approach politics in this way troll their sacred texts, papal encyclicals, past sermons, and other religious documents in search of specific policy preferences. They try, in other words, to build the content of their political convictions from the content of their faith tradition. What, they ask, does the Pope tell us about how to treat criminals? What does the Bible teach about homosexuality? Or our relationship to the environment? Or eating shellfish? Or growing facial hair? Ideological Religion reduces a faith tradition to an encyclopedia of moral information—to find out how to govern, we need only dig up the (purportedly obvious) right positions and bring them to our public arguments. Problem(s) solved, neat and clean! This is, I think, largely what Sullivan and many other religiously-minded leftists have in mind when they talk about resuscitating the Social Gospel tradition, etc.
The second option takes religion as a stance for approaching the world. Call it “Dispositional Religion” (an ugly term that I’d happily replace—suggestions?). Instead of looking to their faith for crisp ideological positions, people who approach politics in this way ask a different set of questions: How should a person of faith understand urban poverty? Or God’s Creation? Or the facts of human sexuality? They do not expect that religion provides specific and conclusive solutions to political problems, but they shape their attitude towards human social life in reference to their faith.
Dispositional Religion isn’t just a better fit for the Left. It’s superior to Ideological Religion in a whole host of ways. No matter what, though, leftists should resist imitating the Christian Right’s theological rigidity and polarizing religious rhetoric.
II. Theological Respectability
First of all, there’s little doubt that Dispositional Religion is more theologically respectable. As badly as we might want easy answers to our problems, most faiths don’t offer those. For example: don’t kill…except, except, except, except, except, and etc, etc. Or: free markets and private property are sacred…but so are decent living wages and public checks on market power. Few faiths speak conclusively or univocally on any particular policy question. Their content is rarely clear enough to crisply resolve legitimate human ethical quandaries.
What’s more, Ideological Religion’s adherents have to wrestle with the pride problem. In most non-humanist faiths, God transcends human things–including human understanding. What’s more, in most of these same faiths, the world is known to be a broken, conflicted place that confounds easy ethical solutions. If we know ourselves to be broken, humble, fallible, and sinful creatures, we ought to be wary of those who profess to know God’s will. Indeed, whenever someone tells you they know specifically what God wants us to do about something, keep an eye on your soul, a grip on your heart, and a hand on your wallet.
Meanwhile, Dispositional believers accept that their faith does not solve political questions, though it may help in guiding them to a subset of possible answers. It informs an approach to problems without presuming to skip lightly over their actual complexity. They may still ultimately conclude that their faith compels them to take a particular position, but they will usually resist sanctifying it as the only available position for a believer to adopt.
III. Bringing Political Polarization to the Altar?
Beyond theological viability, Dispositional Religion also avoids the political problems that have plagued conservative religious ideologues for years. If fundamentalists proved the political utility of sharp religious rhetoric, they also demonstrated its shortcomings. For a spell, the Religious Right could whip up a winning electoral coalition by simplifying their faith into a set of sharp ideological rallying points. Eventually—and inevitably—their supposed “moral high ground” hardened into a moral bunker. Their coalition, built on bigoted and narrow foundations, took its power from exclusion-driven purity. Coalitions built upon inflexible hatred will not stand for long. Coalitions built upon crisp, certain convictions cannot maintain their appeal.
Religious polarization isn’t just dangerous to political movements—it can be even more threatening to religious institutions. You don’t need to read J.S. Mill or Alexis de Tocqueville to know that it’s exceedingly risky for a religion to ally itself to a particular political position. At its best, faith can provide us with a stable ground to rely upon when transient, earthly matters fail us. If, however, our religion implicates itself in a political cause, it links its credibility to the most transient of moorings. If we tie parts of our faith to particular political content, we risk polarizing and sundering that which ought to be safe from human meddling.
If you ask Christ’s party affiliation, you’re asking the wrong question. If we conclude that the Sermon on the Mount and Christ’s treatment of the moneylenders go to the Left, while the Right gets Leviticus—if, in other words, we decide that both sides don’t read the same Bible or pray to the same God, we will have allowed our current paralytic crisis to erode one of the few areas of common ground that yet remains. There is nothing worthwhile to be gained by allowing our political factions to spill into religious life. We already have quite enough religious sectarianism as it is.
(Incidentally, for more on this, read David Sessions and his wife Alisa Harris. Both have each written eloquently on how evangelicals’ hard-line social conservatism is costing them with younger Americans.)
IV.The Political Calculations
The other side of the polarization coin can’t be ignored. If Ideological Religion leads to sharper, more exclusive divisions, Dispositional Religion helps identify shared ground. For instance, though Christians may disagree about what their faith dictates regarding premarital sex, euthanasia, state-sponsored violence, interreligious dialogue, foreign aid, and much more—they can all agree that they are called to compassion for the world’s weak, poor, sick, and hungry. Though their faith does not provide simple policy solutions, it demands that they be disposed towards ministering to the needy. Leftists (and conservatives, for that matter) can appeal to a broad array of believers if they take a less ideological approach. It goes without saying, I hope, that broader is better when it comes to democratic elections.
Consider an example from the early twentieth century: theologians Walter Rauschenbusch (pictured above) and Reinhold Niebuhr disagreed on many political questions, but they agreed on the fundamental problem of human community life. In Christianity and the Social Crisis, Rauschenbusch argued that Christianity is a progressive, fighting faith—but he also wrote, “The really grinding and destructive enemy of man is man.” In all of his books, Niebuhr argued that humans were always more enmeshed in the particular blindnesses of their historical moment than they realized—and he also wrote “Man is a problem to himself.” Despite their theological and political differences, both men agreed upon humans’ core challenge. It goes without saying that many other theologians of multiple faiths (and political convictions) would also agree.
Whatever else it means to have a Christian view of politics, it can’t mean prioritizing revenge over compassion. It can’t mean privileging human pride or selfishness. It can’t include fetishizing hatred or celebrating the killing of our enemies. Those simply aren’t available for those who believe in a divine savior who demanded—above all else—that all humans love one another. Those simply aren’t part of what it means to take a Christian view of politics—and the same is similarly true for most other (non-satanist) religions. Garrison Keillor once put it this way (and I’m paraphrasing): “if you’re a Christian, and you find yourself arguing against forgiveness, you have to know that it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be changing sides.” Leftists who’d like to reinvigorate their side’s treatment of religion ought to take that to heart. The United States is full of believers (Christians and non-Christians alike) who are dispositionally inclined to agree.
 If any of this seems ethnocentrically (or otherwise insufferably) Christian, let me first offer a apology. It’s genuinely not my intention to offend. I promise. Secondly, I suppose there are at least three reasons for the post’s narrowness: 1) I’m not comfortable theorizing the theology of traditions with which I’m not especially familiar, 2) for better or worse, Christianity is the dominant religious thread within the American political tradition, and because 3) a good chunk of this argument leans heavily on hunches—so it’s best that I avoid substantive adventuring.
 Yes, the category names are hokey. Think of it as organizational shorthand. For a while, I was thinking of them as “content-driven political religion” and “the religious attitude in politics.” Not much better, I’m afraid.