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Can religion and politics play nice?

What is the role of religion in public dialogue? Where Obama and Romney falter, prominent Yale theologian Miroslav Volf teaches by example.

Considering how much early kerfuffle there was about Mormons running for President (remember there were two: Romney and Huntsman), it is surprising how little — relatively speaking — religious issues and perspectives have figured in this election.

This time around there have been no attempts, as there were in 2008, to link either candidate to religious figures deemed “radical.” Then Obama was tied to his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, while John McCain labored to extract himself from the embrace of fundamentalist preacher John Hagee.

True, there is the Vice-Presidential race, where two committed Catholics are squared off. Joe Biden represents the more liberal wing of Catholicism and its historic teachings on poverty and social justice, where Paul Ryan appeals to Catholics who adhere to the bishops instruction on abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage. The Catholic Bishops have been a (small) factor, with their agitation against Obamacare and what they claim to be its implications for church-related medical facilities.

Billy Graham did recently weigh in by endorsing Romney, which was interesting in that, for years, Graham has labeled Mormons as a “cult.” Until last week, the Latter Day Saints were listed on Graham’s site as a non-Christian cult along with groups like Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But suddenly, after Graham met with and endorsed Romney last week, the “cult” designation for Mormons disappeared from Graham’s site. Who knew that Billy and Mitt would both be so adept with the old “Etch-A-Sketch,” redrawing the lines as circumstances change? Meanwhile, as The Guardian wrote last week, the elder of Graham’s sons, Franklin, can’t seem to get over the idea that Obama is really a Muslim.

Locally, many progressive churches are supporting R- 74 and gay marriage equality. On Sunday, 10 Western Washington United Methodist congregations declared their support for R-74, in defiance of the national United Methodist Church.

Leslie Braxton, the influential Renton pastor of New Beginnings Christian Faith Center, has been a vocal advocate of the measure to legalize marijuana (I-502). It’s not that Braxton is pro-dope, but that he sees this as a way of reducing incarceration for minor drug offenses, which disproportionately affect African-Americans.

Some of the more interesting conversation around religion in politics this election year is coming from the brilliant Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf. Volf is following up on his award-winning 2011 book, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good with his blog, “Values of a Public Faith.”

Before moving to particular values and their implications, it may be helpful to put some foundations in place. Prevailing conventional wisdom tends to see two options for how religion operates in public life and debate: roughly "all or "nothing.

“All,” Volf terms “totalism,” (others might call it totalitarianism). Religious totalists want one religion, their own of course, to be legally established and in power, governing all aspects of a society’s life. This is true of radical forms of political Islam as well as for some versions of right-wing Christianity. It is what is sometimes decried as “theocracy.” Totalism, however, relies upon coercion, which Volf claims, “violates the central command [of God] to treat others as we would like them to treat us.”

The second big option is “nothing,” or “secularism,” which asserts that religious convictions really don’t belong in public debate at all. Believers, according to perspective, are to keep their faith “private,” limited to personal and family matters. In public and politics, religious conviction should be put on “idle.”

This is the Jeffersonian “separation of church and state.” Secularism is also the argument of the “New Atheists,” like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. The problem here is that, in the name of liberalism, some world views are ruled “out of order,” and secular liberalism becomes in its own way coercive.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 7:44 a.m. Inappropriate

If not "religion", politics today is full of dogma. Those true believers are as close-minded and dangerous as any religious extreme.

BlueLight

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

“A good argument is a great achievement.”

It is not much of an argument when:

"I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." — Richard Mourdock, Indiana Republican senate candidate.

How does one respond to that? There is no God? That is not what God intended? God does not intervene in that kind of affair?

I believe Jefferson was on to something smart.

andy

Posted Sat, Oct 27, 1:49 p.m. Inappropriate

The current role of religion in US politics is as a bludgeon sued by those who seek to impose a theocratic government.

Steve E.

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