For a long period in the history of the United States, Christians understood that progressive political action for structural social change was a necessary means toward the end of living out the gospel. They understood that charity would never solve the nation's social ills. Their religious faith translated into a faith in democracy as the means to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Today the Salvation Army is hardly associated with progressive politics. But in the 1890's, Barrington Booth, commander of the Salvation Army in the United States, said that "To right the social wrong by charity is like bailing out the ocean with a thimble... We must readjust our social machinery so that the producers of wealth become also owners of wealth."
Many fundamentalist Christians in America in the late 19th and early 20th century were political leftists, and did not hesitate to use religious rhetoric in political support of the labor movement and legislative efforts to reign in the runaway power of corporate trusts and monopoly capital.
William Jennings Bryan was a fundamentalist Presbyterian who ran unsuccessfully three times for the presidency as the Democratic nominee. Hard to imagine today, but then he was attacked by the Republicans for being strident and public about his traditional religious beliefs.
His most notable uses of religious rhetoric were not based on fundamentalist dogma, however, but on spiritual imagery that could resonate with most Americans. He was a vigorous advocate of "bi-metallism," which would have allowed the U.S. central bank more flexibility in monetary policy that would have benefited farmers and workers. The business elite defended the gold standard. He famously declaimed: "If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
In the '80s, a revitalized conservative political movement allied itself with evangelical Christianity. This alliance began in earnest when fundamentalist colleges that refused to admit black students were penalized by the Internal Revenue Service, prompting a backlash against this perceived government intrusion against religion. Religion in politics became identified with fundamentalist Christian doctrine and the "pelvic issues" of opposition to abortion and homosexuality.
Many political progressives abandoned religious rhetoric altogether, for fear of being identified as biblical literalists. Meanwhile, conservatives began a relentless campaign to condemn and dismantle government as the enemy of freedom. The Republican Party backed up this characterization by governing badly when in power. The result? The demoralization of the electorate. A loss of faith in democracy. And, over time, a loss of faith in faith itself. 2014 marked the lowest voter turnout in midterm elections in 72 years, at 36.3 percent of the electorate. There is a corresponding exodus from evangelical and fundamentalist churches in America as young people in particular are dropping out in record numbers. This past weekend, I had long chats with two young women who graduated from a nearby evangelical Christian college. They were so disgusted by their college's discrimination against gays and lesbians that they have turned their backs on evangelical culture altogether.
President Barack Obama sagely diagnosed this "Catch-22" of recent politics in America. Of the Republicans, he said this past Oct. 29: "There has been a certain cynical genius to what some of these folks have done in Washington. What they've realized is, if we don't get anything done, then people are going to get cynical about government and its possibilities of doing good for everybody. And since they don't believe in government, that's a pretty good thing. And the more cynical people get, the less they vote. And if turnout is low and people don't vote, that pretty much benefits those who benefit from the status quo."
This cycle of cynicism alienates the American people ever further from their national institutions and symbols. Gerrymandering of legislative districts to favor the party in power has the effect of further demoralizing the electorate. Just before the recent midterm election, the public's approval rating of Congress was 14 percent (less than half of President Obama's approval rating), yet almost all incumbents were re-elected because their districts had been drawn to ensure their "safety." A growing number of Americans blame politics and politicians in general for their alienation, and that makes progressive change even harder to achieve.
Conservatives relentlessly advocate "personal responsibility." You are on your own. You owe nothing to society, and society owes nothing to you. At its root, this is a faithless, Godless, loveless political philosophy. It is unattractive, too. Republicans may have prevailed in the recent elections, but their political dogma landed with a hollow thud in the hearts of the 64% of potential American voters who didn't cast ballots at all.
What is needed? The politics of love. Politics that affirms democracy as the way we care for our fellow citizens in the thousand ways that they cannot possibly or practically take care of themselves alone. A political movement that is grounded in the spiritual and moral value of compassion, especially for the most vulnerable members of our society.
"The present crisis of authority is only one of a thousand consequences of the general crisis of spirituality in the world at present. Humankind, having lost its respect for a higher authority, has inevitably lost respect for earthly authority as well." These were the words of Vaclav Havel, the avant-garde playwright who became the first president of the Czech Republic after communism, in a talk to the National Press Club of Australia in March of 1995. Havel was not a religious person, but he believed that the future of democracy and of human civilization depended on deep respect for the transcendent. If we are humble toward the divine, we will be moved to treat each other with humility and kindness.
Havel gave America a hint of the solution to the spiritual crisis of democracy in his memorable address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in February of 1980. "Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed - be it ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization - will be unavoidable.... (what is required is) Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success - responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged." He believed that both capitalism and communism had lost this sense of responsibility to a transcendent order, and had been swept up in destructive hubris. Havel used spiritual rhetoric to move his nation away from a spirit of retribution against the oppression of the communists and toward a flowering of democracy and freedom. As an artist who understood the reality and power of words, he believed that this rhetoric was not only a tool to use toward these ends, but was the essence of the ends themselves.
Public expression of respect for the Transcendent is itself the foundation of social and political authority. Humility before the divine brings us together in compassion. Democracy is an essential means to act on this love. Let us find new ways to express it in language that most Americans can appreciate, in order to revive faith in democracy and engagement with politics - out of love for the Transcendent, and love for each other.