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.
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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.

This is where Volf splits from traditional views. Instead of “separation,” he argues, the role of government should be neutrality. Volf proposes a third alternative that is based on accepting that we live in a society with a great and rich pluralism of religions, faiths and world-views (comprehensive philosophies that may or may not be religious in nature).

He speaks of the role of religions in such a pluralistic society as to that of being, “One player on the field; one voice among many.” In other words, different religions or world-views may each contribute their voice in the public discussion. They have as much right to share their views (in a non-coercive and legal way) as anyone else. But they have no right to have their views privileged or established.

Volf accepts that religious (and other) communities in a complex, pluralistic culture will continue to disagree and argue. And that’s not a problem. He would agree with the great Jesuit theologian of the mid-twentieth century, John Courtney Murray, who said, “A good argument is a great achievement.” (When was the last time you heard a “good” argument?)

The problem or “the point,” says Volf, “is to help them [religions] argue productively as friends rather than destructively as enemies.” One can especially get Volf’s stake in all this when you understand that he came of age in the former, war-torn Yugoslavia during the social pathology of “ethnic-cleansing.”

Now, beyond theory and foundation to where the rubber meets the road. During the current campaign, Volf has been publishing a series on “Values of a Public Faith: A Contribution to a Conversation.”

What Volf is trying to do is both provocative and a welcome alternative to the mindless, overly-partisan way that religions and religious figures usually make their forays into politics (see above on Billy Graham).

Should you look at Volf’s “Public Faith” blog, remember that he writes as a Christian and primarily for Christians, so that they may participate constructively in public debate and decision-making. He’s not telling others what to think. He’s trying to help Christians to think clearly and speak faithfully.

For each of twenty values-driven topics, Volf gives a brief statement of what the value is, cites rationale from Scripture, frames the debate and offers questions to ask of a candidate. To date, with this four-fold script, he has worked through Freedom of Religion (and Irreligion), Education, Economic Growth, Work and Employment, Debt, the Poor, the Elderly, the Unborn, Healthcare and Care of Creation.

Under “Economic Growth” and “questions to ask,” we find, “Which candidate is reminding us that we diminish ourselves when we turn into money-making and consumption-obsessed creatures and that we flourish when we pursue truth, goodness and beauty, that we are truly ourselves when we reach out to others in solidarity and enjoy one another in love?” Idealistic? Sure. But shouldn’t we rely on religion to remind us that, truly, “It isn’t [all] about the economy, stupid!” or as Jesus put it, “Man does not live by bread alone.”

If it is true that, “Man does not live by bread alone,” it's also true, of course, that you don’t live long without it. So under “The Poor” Volf argues that the debatable point is, “How should we generate a sense of solidarity with the poor among all citizens?” and “For which candidate is overcoming extreme poverty (rather than fostering the well-being of the middle class) a priority?” As far as I can tell, the poor are invisible in this election (the 47 percent?): One party advocates for the middle class and the other for the super-rich.

Whether you agree with Volf or not isn’t the point, so much as that for one faith and its adherents he connects the dots between faith, Scripture and moral decision-making on the public issues of this election.

If any “player on the field” or “voice in the conversation” is going to get or merit attention, it will because he/she/it has something important to say. Miroslav Volf is helping Christians to have something important to say, and providing those who aren’t Christian with an example of what a serious and substantive religious contribution to public debate looks like. To that I say, “Amen.”  


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.