There is a fine line between name-calling and truth-telling: one is about tearing down the dignity of another human being and the other is about speaking a position or belief that helps move a body forward in positive ways. If we are going to move forward as a society, we must do all that we can to avoid confusing the two.
Nowhere has this tension been more evident than in recent conversations about the religious backgrounds of some of the Republican presidential candidates. Now, I know many people hate this time of year, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE it. Thinking about the intricacies of political campaigns, how best to deliver a message and how to get the people to engage in this amazing democratic system that transfers power by vote and not by violence gets me all jazzed up! Love. It.
What I do not love is the way in which religion usually plays a part in the conversation. I do not mean that religion should not be part of one's belief system and personhood, but more about how religion is talked about in the context of debating the qualifications of the candidates.
This week I was listening to a talk show that was profiling two candidates, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Governor Rick Perry (R-TX). As listeners called in and the guests responded, I kept hearing comments peppered with cries of "extreme," "lunacy" or "right-wing" in response to the religious beliefs of Bachmann and Perry. There was also some conversation about the negative role Mitt Romney's Mormon background might play determining his electability, but most of the religious talk was about the extreme nature of Bachmann and Perry's Christian backgrounds.
Far too often in day-to-day and political conversations, well-meaning people dismiss the arguments of the other by calling their belief system, whatever that may be, radical, fringe or extreme. In a religiously pluralistic world, we must be very careful in how we engage in political debate in respect to the faith of the candidates. As a progressive Christian, it would be easy --and it would feel really good, I might add -- to dismiss my brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I vehemently disagree by labeling them "right-wing zealots," thus trying to in some way define the nature of their faith and losing sight of the more important task: to make sure their actions are consistent with what I hope our government is to be. When we do this and/or allow it to happen, not only do we fail to see the complexities of the larger Body of Christ, but we advocate a litmus testing of what it means to be a "real" Christian, a tact used often by those with whom I would love to label as "right-wing zealots."
As J. Smooth says in his video about race and racism, "I don't care what you are, I care what you did." In the same way, when it comes to politicians, I am not so much concerned with the particularities of their faith -- radical, mainstream or atheist -- but rather the actions that are taken. All of us, legislators and citizenry alike, must be held responsible for our words, actions and affiliations, but must be able to do so without a preamble that too often includes castigating someone because of their faith?
Locking people into one-dimensional caricatures, liberal or conservative, or vilifying people who hold different beliefs is no more Christlike or faithful if it comes from a friend with whom I find great ideological affinity or from someone that I would rather eat glass than share a meal with. One's faith tradition must not in itself be used to wholly define or dismiss a person, especially a person who is passionate about his/her faith. Passion and conviction from either "side" of the aisle will often draw shouts of radicalism and extremism, but I am reminded that Christ, because of what he said and did, drew the same kind of accusations and persecution. After all, the nature of faith, especially in the Christian tradition IS precisely to live and breath a radicality of life and grace that upsets the very nature of death and brokenness in the world.
Now, this is not about being soft, having no back-bone or letting anyone of the hook. I simply believe that righteous indignation and justifiable anger does not have to be expressed by engaging in rhetoric that only serves to add fuel to the fire of grace-less human interaction. I often think about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other folks who helped to move the civil rights movement forward through civil disobedience and nonviolence. Powerful not because of violent words and actions, but because a different story was being told, a story of humanity that eventually moved people to action, socially and legislatively.
For instance, when Michelle Bachman says something that I think is C-R-A-Z-Y, like during a 2006 Minnesota debate, when she said, "...there is a controversy among scientists about whether evolution is a fact or not ... There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design."
Triple head shake, "What?!?!?!?"
Now, I am sure that this is not a lie, per se, because as we know if we polled the entirety of those who would call themselves "scientists" in the world, we could probably find 200+ to say that many questionable things are true [insert snaky comment about anything you want here]. So in response to such a comment, while it would feel really good -- and might even be a motivational rallying moment -- to take a huge swing at this theological softball and scream, "You, Ms. Bachmann, are a crazy right-wing Christian nut-job!" we must resist and simply respond by speaking an alternative truth, one that gets to the hearts and minds of those who are interested in the hard work of communal discernment.
Now I know that there are those out there who will say that none of these folks needs to be defended or spoken for. Politics is a mud-slinging endeavor. They can take care of themselves, and fire must be fought with fire. All true, except that Jesus calls us to a different way of engaging in the politics of the day. My speaking for their fundamental right to be treated with dignity even if they might not choose to do the same OR would even want me to is not about them but about my understanding of how Christ would want me to see and treat them. The "sinners" who Jesus defended or with whom he broke bread did not gain this treatment because Jesus agreed with them and they were nice people. Jesus did it because this is the kind of radical and extreme thing that he was called do to.
So, if my treatment of and response to Bachman, Perry and all the other fundamentalist, fringe, nut-job, radical politicians out there causes the same words to be spoken my way, I will not feel vindicated or persecuted, but I will know that I have been faithful and I have genuinely tried to see and treat my bother or sister with dignity and care.
And that's a kind of extreme faith that I can live with.
Follow Bruce Reyes-Chow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/breyeschow