06/18/2011 07:03 am ET Updated Aug 18, 2011

Carrying Christianity Beyond Left and Right

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's Mormon faith has become an awkward issue for some evangelicals who are uncomfortable with the thought of a Mormon candidate. In response to questions Romney recently stated, "I'm not a spokesman for my church." No doubt the Democrats are hoping to watch the religious right tear Romney's candidacy apart because of his membership in the Mormon Church. It seems like a savvy political move for Romney to do his best Charles Barkley "I am not a role model" routine, but is it realistic? More importantly, is it desirable? If this were a multiple choice question it might read something like this:

What role should religion play in politics?

A) No role, religion and politics must not be mixed
B) Minor role, I just want to know politicians have some moral structure
C) Major role, you need to be a serious Christian to get my vote
D) Total role, I'm voting for a theocracy

What's the right answer? The traditional American answer would be: A) religion and politics must not be mixed. If I were grading the test, however, I'd mark that answer wrong. Although Christians must begin any conversation about politics by saying we do not trust in governments to keep us safe and happy, we have to acknowledge government plays a role. Yet the one thing the Christian can never agree with is the notion that religion should simply be about privately held beliefs. To make religion simply a private matter which should not influence the way we organize our communities is to rob the Christian faith of its social nature.

Religion and politics are constantly intermingled in our society. If they were not so mingled, nobody would be asking questions about Romney's religion; nor would the scarcely mentioned correlative of the "birther" movement be the belief that President Obama is secretly a Muslim, this despite the fact that he's shared over and over about his conversion to Christianity. The question is not whether or not religion should play a role in politics -- it most certainly will play a role. The question is what should that role be? The end result of choosing any of the four multiple choice options above places the Christian in an unworkable contradiction.

If I had my way, I'd advocate for another option: E) none of the above.

The church cannot become the state, but the church has an obligation to bear witness to the state. In order to fulfill this role, evangelicals must rise above the typical left-right debate and learn to speak with a voice that is truly Christian -- not Republican, not Democrat, but Christian. We should never become beholden to a political party. We need to learn to speak with a voice which seriously contends against evil and injustice without pandering to partisan politics. There was a day when a Christian critique of laissez faire capitalism helped to create child labor laws and basic workplace safety standards. There could be a day again when a Christian critique of war would begin by taking seriously the call to love our enemies. But that day will never come if the first words out of our mouths are boiler plate rhetoric from right wing or left wing political camps.

The Christian faith and the call to organize our common life in such a way that we imagine God to all creation can never be co-opted by a political party, nor can it become conflated with any other ideology be it political, economic, or otherwise. This is especially true of American politics, where the end in mind is no longer to govern well but to win at all costs. Christians must never succumb to that kind of cynicism. Our voice must have the sound of hope, and our tone the tenor of peace, neither of which can materialize with a prior political party attachment. As an evangelical, I have obvious disagreements with liberalism, but I have just as many fundamental disagreements with conservatism. It is a chilling thing to watch evangelical Christians worship the American dream and baptize it with religious language and Christian symbolism.

If you are a Christian, you are a spokesman for your church. Evangelical Christians need to work on finding new ways to engage in political debate which transcend the traditional left-right split. If we are deeply committed to Republican, or Democratic Party politics, over and against the gospel as an organizing principle, then we have allowed our faith to be co-opted by a group which does not share Christ's vision of the world. The Christian faith cannot be conflated with a political ideology, but it must never devolve into something which is merely private. We can never forget that our role in society is to be a different kind of community in the midst of the world and to allow that way of being to find a hopeful and peaceful voice.