Abraham Lincoln had it right. The task of Christians should not be to invoke religion and the name of God by claiming God’s blessing and endorsement for all their national policies and practices—saying, in effect, that God is on their side. Rather, Lincoln said, believers should pray and worry earnestly whether they are on God’s side.
Those are the two ways that religion has been brought into public life in American history. The first way—God on our side—leads inevitably to triumphalism, self-righteousness, bad theology and, often, dangerous foreign policy. The second way—asking if we are on God’s side—leads to much healthier things, namely, penitence and even repentance, humility, reflection and even accountability. We need much more of all these things, because these are often the missing values of politics.
God is not a Republican nor a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their agendas, they make a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both right and left from a consistent moral ground.
So is there a politics of God? Many of our politicians give a lot of lip service to God these days, but do they really understand the public implications of belief in God? We don’t typically hear much about the politics of God, even from our pulpits. Powerful forces would keep God private, or under control, or as an endorser of ideological agendas, or of the political status quo, or (worse yet) of fund-raising activities. Today, religion usually serves more to silence the politics of God than to announce it to the nations.
In the face of suicide bombers who utter the name of God with easy blasphemy, television evangelists who claim God has made them (and could make you) prosperous, and those who use religious institutions to hide hideous crimes, many search today, almost desperately, for true religion and good faith.
Dare we search for the politics of God? It’s much easier to just use God to justify our politics. Yet, if we look, really look into our biblical and other holy texts, we find a God who speaks about “politics” all the time, about what believing in God means in this world (not just the next one), about faith and “public life” (not just private piety), about our responsibilities for the common good (not just for our own religious experience). And here’s the big news: The politics of God calls all the rest of our politics into question.
The place to begin to understand the politics of God is with the prophets, the ancient moral articulators in the Scriptures who claimed to speak in “the name of the Lord.”
What were their subjects? Quite secular topics, really—land, labor, capital, wages, debt, taxes, equity, fairness, courts, prisons, immigrants, other races and peoples, economic divisions, social justice, war and peace—the stuff of politics.
Whom were the prophets often speaking to? Usually to rulers, kings, judges, employers, landlords, owners of property and wealth, and even religious leaders. They spoke to “the nations,” and it was the powerful who were most often the prophets’ target audience; those in charge of things were the ones called to greatest accountability. And whom were the prophets usually speaking for? Most often, the dispossessed, widows and orphans (read: poor single moms), the hungry, the homeless, the helpless, the least, last and lost. Is God into class warfare? No, God wants the “common good,” but speaking for the common good can get one accused of calling for class warfare—usually by the elites who control the political discussion and do not want too much conversation about what God thinks of our political priorities.
But don’t take my word for it. Just look at what the prophets say about the substance (or lack thereof) of our politics today. Clearly the politics of God is different than ours—from the Republicans and the Democrats, the liberals and the conservatives, the Left and the Right. The politics of God makes them all look pretty bad and points the way to some very different directions—but some very hopeful ones. Again, the famous biblical proverb says, “Without a vision, the people perish,” and this is exactly what’s happening to us right now. It’s pretty obvious to see that it’s time for new vision, and people across the political spectrum seem to agree with that. For many years, poll after poll has reported that many think we are headed in the wrong direction.
An incident in my church left an indelible impression about the private versus public meaning of faith and permanently altered my own life’s direction. My church was all white, as was my neighborhood, my school and my whole world. I began to notice this homogeneity as a young teenager, and for some reason, it bothered me. I became a Christian at the age of 6 years, and later, teenage questions about the realities of race in Detroit led to a “second conversion” and, indeed, led me out of the Church. I was now regularly making the pilgrimage into inner-city Detroit, taking jobs in the city alongside young black workers my own age, and visiting black churches.
The incident came one day back in my home church when I was arguing with one of the elders about racism and the things I was learning in inner-city Detroit. I will never forget what he said to me: “Christianity has nothing to do with racism; that is a political issue, and our faith is personal.” I knew that the questions that were tearing at my heart were not going to go away, and if Christianity had nothing to do with them, I wanted nothing to do with Christianity. I left my childhood faith behind (and many in the church were glad to see me go) and found my new home in the civil rights and student movements of my generation.
But there was a deep lesson learned in my banishment and return to faith. And it would become the foundation for everything I would do thereafter. The lesson is this: God is personal, but never private. If God is not personal, there is little meaning to faith. It merely becomes a philosophy or a set of teachings from religious figures who died long ago. Without a personal God, there is no personal dimension to belief. There is no relationship to God, no redemption, salvation, grace or forgiveness. There is no spiritual transformation without a personal God, and no power that can really change our lives beyond mere self-improvement. In today’s world, there is one overriding and key distinction in all of the religion that is growing—a God who desires relationship with each person. Much of liberal religion has lost the experience of a personal God, and that is the primary reason why liberal Christianity is not growing. And without a personal God, liberal faith will never grow.
However, that personal God is never private. Restricting God to private space was the great heresy of the 20th-century American evangelicalism. Denying the public God is a denial of biblical faith itself, a rejection of the prophets, the apostles and Jesus Himself. Exclusively private faith degenerates into a narrow religion, excessively preoccupied with individual and sexual morality while almost oblivious to the biblical demands for public justice. In the end, private faith becomes a merely cultural religion providing the assurance of righteousness for people just like us.
Such righteousness can quickly become self-righteousness, as I learned in my own church tradition. One of the things I am proudest of my father for occurred long after I left my home church. A great crisis arose over a sexual transgression (most of the big ethical issues in our church had to do with sex—a consequence of an overly narrow private God). Two teenagers in the church had got themselves into trouble. The girl was pregnant, and both she and her boyfriend were being ostracized by their Christian community. The elders convened an emergency meeting to decide what to do. “Bring them up before the whole church, and we will denounce their behavior!” said most of the church’s spiritual leaders. My father, who was the chief elder, objected to such harsh treatment. Why would such a thing be necessary? he asked. People need to know where we stand, the elders declared. Do you think anybody doesn’t know where we stand? my father replied. These two people need to know how wrong this was, asserted another elder. Does anyone here doubt that these kids know they’ve made a terrible mistake and what a mess they’re in? answered my dad.
The argument continued, and all the other elders were insistent on a very public rebuke of the young people. OK, OK, my father agreed, we’ll do it. Really? his surprised colleagues asked. Sure, he said. Let’s bring them up in front of the whole church and declare their sins before everyone. Then let’s bring everybody else up too, one at a time, and declare all our sins. And since I’ve done so much counseling with so many of you and the families of the church, I’ll make sure nothing gets left out. At that, the plans for confronting the young couple were dropped, and a discussion followed about how to support them in their perilous situation. A purely sexual transgression of boundaries (and an important one if one takes the real problem of out-of-wedlock births seriously) became also a matter of community equity and compassion. The personal sin was opened up to a social context. The private was held accountable to public ethics. The event reminded me of a certain Gospel story about a woman about to be punished for adultery and Jesus’ suggestion that those without sin throw the first stones.
Most of the biblical prophets (whom we pass over week after week in our congregations) would offer a quite searing indictment of contemporary American society. Specifically, that we have become a nation of endangered souls and that our society and politics are governed by values quite foreign to the heart of our religious traditions, no matter how religious we like to think we are. Whether conservative or liberal, or members of other faith groups, or just spiritual seekers, Christians are all guilty of succumbing to a diminished religiosity that is characterized by privatized belief systems, devoid of the prophetic and social witness of Jesus and the prophets—ultimately, nothing more than “small-s” spirituality that is really only ad hoc wish fulfillment or a collection of little self-help techniques they use to take the edge off their materialistic rat-race lives.
What is needed is nothing less than a renovation of our souls and the soul of our politics. Christians are all—Right and Left—pursuing their innocuous spiritualities (“following our bliss,” as the saying goes) as if religion meant nothing to their life together. Whether attending Zen/Christian retreats as “progressives” or “seeker-sensitive” megachurches as “conservatives,” many have abandoned the heart of “capital R” Religion. Our souls and our society are in great need of transformation.
But this is not a spiritualized critique. It is instead grounded in the politics of the Bible, in what authentic faith/belief creates in terms of actions and lifestyle. Society and politics both shape and reflect our spiritual values, and these values are increasingly empty. How does a nation of endangered souls recover an authentic faith that is true to the Gospel, the example of Jesus, the witness of the prophets and the crushing needs of our times? What would such a recovery mean for evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, seekers, and everyday people? What if everyday people made the politics of the prophets their litmus test for political candidates, and for fiscal, social, corporate and foreign policy issues? Church and state can and must be separate in a modern democracy, but spiritual values still undergird everything and are reflected in the society we live in, the social and political directions we choose and the candidates we select. People now very commonly say they aren’t “religious,” just spiritual … and never with any challenge from any quarter. But the problem for well-meaning “spiritual folks” is that many have lost the social, unifying and liberating aspects of biblical faith. Quick to scrub off the ossified forms of irrelevant denominationalism, they’ve thrown Jesus and prophetic biblical faith out with the bathwater! We all need, in a very real and dire sense, to get some old-time Religion! Politics can’t save itself. Nor can it rely for its salvation on the debased spirituality so prevalent in the culture. We need a transformation of our religion and our politics that acknowledges that the old ways don’t work. But we need more than critique. We must ask what’s wrong, but also what the answers are. At its heart, we must offer a challenge to hope, which is the only real path to change.
Our private religions have failed, but we must not lose a personal God. Instead of trying to strike an elusive “balance” between private piety and the social gospel, we must go to the heart of prophetic religion itself in which a personal God demands public justice as an act of worship. We meet the personal God in the public arena and are invited to take our relationship to that God right into the struggle for justice. Indeed, without that personal relationship we will lose the political struggle. That shift—bringing the personal God into the public arena—is at the heart of the prophet’s message and will transform both our religion and our politics.