Faith in action for the common good

By Tom Krattenmaker

(Originally published in The Oregonian, Nov. 4, 2007)

On a recent Saturday, about 150 Christian pastors, activists and politics-conscious college students gathered at a Northeast Portland church to hear a prominent theologian discuss the application of Scripture to public policy questions. Large printouts of key Bible verses were plastered on the vestibule walls, and the tables downstairs displayed the literature of various faith-based advocacy groups.

No, this was not another “values voters” event put on by the Christian Right, and barely a word was uttered all afternoon about abortion, gay marriage or “reclaiming America for Christ.” The conferees did talk politics between the prayers and God-themed songs –the politics of poverty, homelessness and economic inequities –and what Christians are called to do for a more just society.

“I wish everybody in churches would have a letter-writing campaign to say it’s a moral outrage that 47 million Americans lack health care,” declared Ron Sider, the featured speaker at this early October workshop organized by the Oregon Center for Christian Values. “We need a revival!” he added –not of outward piety, but of Christians putting their faith to work for a more just society.

Such is the changing sound of the religious voice in American politics. It’s becoming more progressive than what we’ve grown accustomed to during this past quarter-century, with strident moralizers such as Pat Robertson, James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell dominating the microphone, and presidential candidates shamelessly courting evangelical voters.

To paraphrase Jim Wallis, the leading Christian progressive evangelical, religious Americans are ready for a true dialogue to replace the “monologue” of the Christian Right.

What doesn’t work

But as Christian centrists and progressives raise their voices and project different faces of politically applied religion, will they simply try to out-shout their conservative co-religionists –fight biblical fire with biblical fire? Or will they model a different form of faith in public life, one in which religion is no longer wielded as a political weapon but as a unifying force for the common good?

Wait, some will say: Who says religion –conservative or progressive –should play any role in politics? Isn’t there a wall of separation between church and state?

It’s probably time for secular Americans to find a more nuanced stance on that matter. Religion has been part of our culture and politics since the beginning, and it probably will remain so as long as office-holders and activists base their political behavior to some degree on the contents of their hearts and consciences. The question is not whether religion will play a role in our public life, but what role.

I suspect we have a pretty good idea by now of how not to bring religion to policy debates. For that we can thank Bible-thumping conservatives who have seemingly reduced Christianity to a narrow set of hard-line stances on social issues and who have fought with a disturbing combativeness to enshrine them as the law of the land.

The pages of this newspaper furnish a prime, and recent, example of the misapplication of religion to a political question. In a recent op-ed piece (Sept. 16, “Blackboards and bullets: Disarming only amplifies the likelihood of violence”), radio host Lars Larson boldly cited Scripture in making the case that a teacher should be allowed to carry a concealed gun at school. Larson marshaled a verse from Luke (”If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one”) to make his claim that “if Jesus Christ had lived in this day and age, he would have advised his disciples to get a permit and carry a gun.”

Unfortunately, uses of religion as a political weapon have become far more common in the United States the past quarter-century, beginning with the Reagan administration. In his new book “The God Strategy,” University of Washington professor David Domke details how U.S. politicians and political parties invoke faith today in significantly more calculated and partisan ways than they did in the 1970s and before.

“Highest common denominator”

So, the question again: How are we to invoke religion in the debate in an appropriate fashion?

Carefully, I suspect. Humbly, for certain. And, perhaps most important, inclusively.

A passage from the Bible, or any other religious text, cannot be the sole basis for legislation in our religiously diverse society. It is simply not good enough to say that a particular amendment must be passed because it says so in the Bible, or that a particular candidate must be elected because God wills it. For our system of government to work, appeals must be made to something more universal: a principle or idea on which Americans of various religious stripes, or none, might agree. Our varying religious beliefs naturally will shape our values. But in our political rhetoric, our notion of “what God wants” cannot be the first and final word.

I proposed this recently to a progressive evangelical activist, who was generally supportive but expressed reservations. Wouldn’t this water down religious beliefs, she asked, reduce them to their lowest common denominator? I think of it another way, I told her: as a way of raising them to their highest common denominator.

The notion might not work as a mathematical concept, but it’s probably the best hope for accommodation in our religiously diverse society. For insight on how the highest common denominator might work in actual practice, rewind to that recent Northeast Portland conference of progressive Christians.

Running through Sider’s address and the various groups’ literature was the same ideal: for the common good. It’s a Christian ideal, to be sure, this notion of Jesus’ followers challenging social greed and working for a fairer society. But it is rooted in other faiths and resonant with the ideals of most secularists, too. You don’t have to be Christian –you don’t even have to be religious –to get behind the common good.

Cooperative action

And so it works with compassion, peace, security, environmental stewardship and many other ideals with a political dimension. Green Christians might be tempted to shout that Jesus would never drive an SUV (as indeed they did in a public relations campaign a few years back), but how can we really know? And what does that argument have to offer a would-be supporter who is not a Christian and couldn’t care less what Jesus would do? There is invariably a more universal case to make.

An example of religion in the public square done right comes courtesy of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and a coalition of other religious groups that recently stepped up strongly for Measure 50, the Nov. 6 ballot measure that would raise cigarette taxes to provide money for children’s health care and other health programs.

EMO Executive Director David Leslie framed it thusly in a press release: “The faith leaders . . . who have endorsed Measure 50 include Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders throughout Oregon. We may disagree on many articles of belief, but our diverse traditions agree on the need to care for all our children and on the right of all persons to quality health care.”

Sider, the author of “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” and other books, put it this way after the recent Portland workshop. “One should never claim that the Bible says a particular person should be elected president, or that a particular bill should pass. And even if I disagree with you on something, I want to be willing to have it shown to me that I might be wrong.”

Amen to that. Not because Jesus would advise it (though I suspect he might). But because in our religiously plural society and world, it is indeed our only hope.