Quite a few folks I follow on Twitter are attending the Q 2012 conference in Washington, D.C. One of them just tweeted this, with credit to featured speaker Miroslav Volf:
"We need a thoroughly pluralistic politics informed by deep religious convictions."
I'm not at Q, so I can't say how precise the quote is. Let's talk instead about the sentiment. What does it mean for politics to be informed by deep religious beliefs or convictions?
We know what it's looked like for the religious right for the past 40 years, but the religious left is seldom critiqued for the lobbying it does on its own very deeply held religious values (most of which I share). I break company with the religious right on quite a few points, but I also break with the strain of religious liberalism that asserts a pro-choice politics with little or no nuance and often less flexibility than it's pro-life counterpart.
So I'm a pro-life religious progressive. I believe in the social gospel and I believe in social justice. I also believe in spiritual discipline, practicing the presence of God, the movement of the Holy Spirit. All those things that conservative and liberal Christians can and should do and experience together.
Why is it, though, that advocacy positions influenced by deeply held religious beliefs about poverty, hunger, disease, human dignity and related issues are seldom, if ever, critiqued from the left? If it's because Christian liberals and secular liberals agree about the government's role in mitigating these concerns, then fine. But if the religious and secular Left insist on critiquing the faith-based rationales held by many in the pro-life movement, they cannot faithfully do so from a point of trepidation about the influence of religion on American politics, can they?
I understand that there are some, maybe even many, in the religious right that proffer earnest belief in things like dominionism. I understand that many religious conservatives don't believe in the a priori good of pluralism that Volf and my friend and colleague John Franke assert. For Franke, pluralism is nothing less than God's intention, as outlined in his great work "Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth." Franklin Gamwell offers an explanation of the a priori good of pluralism from secular foundations in "Democracy on Purpose." I agree with both. And I understand that the intention of many on the right may well be to use a politics of deeply held religious conviction to do away with pluralism, and in that sense, I understand why the right is more critiqued. But I'm also asking that we keep things honest. Political activism informed by deeply held religious convictions about things typically associated with "liberalism" shouldn't get a pass on the "don't mix religion and politics" critique as it's often clumsily cited. If religion shouldn't inform the abortion debate at any point, it shouldn't inform our conversations about poverty or other kinds of injustice. It's often said that religion can or even should influence personal beliefs about abortion, but that those beliefs cannot be legislated onto others. It's seldom said, outside of Objectivist circles, that religious beliefs about our duty to each other ought not be forced on taxpayers who might not share them. Interesting, that.
I heard recently that nearly two-thirds of the members of mainline churches believe rather strongly that religion should not inform politics. Yet the things evangelicals have only recently embraced politically (creation care, social justice) have long been championed in very public and very political ways by mainline denominations. Consider also the unspoken, "soft" dominionism implicit in the mainline's stubborn insistence that God loves us all, no matter what. In its liturgical witness as presented in things like infant baptism, in the pesky use of words like "our" instead of "my" when speaking of the Lord. The mainline's by-and-large rejection of the kind of proselytizing cherished by many in conservative Christian circles is, itself, a radical statement about the sovereignty and Lordship of God in Christ. In the end, there's nothing soft about it. What's more subversive and politically charged: a Gospel that says you're going to hell if you don't know Christ in very specific ways and, by the way, the government has no business forcing people to help the poor, or a Gospel that says God just might draw us all to God's self in the end whether we like it or not, that precisely because everything (everything) is God's, the role of the political community in bringing social justice is just as great as the role of the Church?
These are broad strokes, maybe. But they're also, to me, essential reductions of two very prominent streams of religious-political identity in this country at this moment. Do many of us take a little bit from both? Of course. We're Americans, after all. We're made for political plurality, precisely because the Founders thought we were given, by God or by nature, an indisputable freedom of conscience. In other words, we're made for political plurality because we were Made to be pluralistic.
In my work as Director of Mission at a large, progressive mainline church situated between affluent suburbs and a blighted urban core poised for renewal, it's been my experience that the so-called religious liberals don't understand their faith as a function of their politics. Their politics are a means by which to bear witness to God's expectations of all communities and to assert that they as Christians are serious about that witness. In most cases, being "liberal" isn't even a cognitive category. It's a voting record based on our survey of a broken political system. Even if our politics were better, we'd always be faced with the provisional ethics the Apostle Paul wrote about in the first century. As we work out the faithful execution of our values and commitments in a pluralist setting, we'd do well to remember what so many of our evangelical friends have gone through much pain realizing: God is no respecter of parties. No party is perfect, and no party speaks for God. Neither any political platform.
People of faith must engage politically because the things we value are essentially political: food justice, power structures, freedom of conscience, war, peace, life, death -- these are essentially political not because the realm of secular politics has claimed them but because they involve us all, and we are called to order our lives publicly in such a way that our radical assertions about the Kingdom of God cannot be hidden. In a pluralistic polity, they need not be hidden. We need not, must not go to war about them, but they must be allowed to inform our activism. Anyway, there's no way that they can't.