06/07/2011 02:29 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2011

Religious Identity and the Public Square

The big hit on Broadway is a fun-poking musical called The Book of Mormon, which sings the adventures of a couple of Mormon missionaries in Africa. The religion of the Church of Latter-Day Saints is lifted up as a good excuse for a laugh, and from all accounts it is entertaining and is likely to win a Tony for Best Musical.

The Book of Mormon contrasted recently with another Broadway show featuring Mormons that played just three blocks away. While Tony Kushner's Angels in America was also not sanctioned or approved of by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, it represents a markedly different approach to the treatment of religion in general. In one telling scene a gay man with AIDS named Prior is helped to the hospital by a Mormon woman named Hannah. As they wait for the nurse, the man confesses that he believes he had a vision of an angel, and Hannah responds:

Hannah: "One hundred and seventy years ago, which is recent, an Angel of God appeared to Joseph Smith in upstate New York, not far from here. People have visions."

Prior: "But that's preposterous, that's ... "

Hannah: "It's not polite to call other people's beliefs preposterous. He had great need of understanding. Our prophet. His prayer made an angel. The angel was real. I believe that."

Prior: "I don't. And I'm sorry but it is repellent to me. So much of what you believe."

Hannah: "What do I believe?"

Prior: "I'm a homosexual. With AIDS. I can just imagine what you ... "

Hannah: "No you can't. Imagine. The things in my head. You don't make assumptions about me mister, I won't make them about you."

This exchange between two characters of very different backgrounds and convictions joined together through vulnerability and compassion offers a lesson on how religion will hopefully be approached in our personal, communal and national conversations. The exchange cautions us to be careful about what we think we know about someone when we know their religion (or lack thereof). Lived religious experience is never a cut-and-paste affair and cannot be easily understood through a superficial acquaintance with the basic tenets, scripture or theology of a person's religious background.

Every person processes and embodies their tradition in an original and organic way that is complex and embedded in the person's experience of joy and suffering; loss and loves. When talking about religion we are always treading on delicate and intensely personal ground and an authentic religious conversation involves listening more than speaking in order to fully understand and appreciate another person's religious background.

Religious matters become more complicated when individuals and groups bring core beliefs into the public square. Moral questions around the budget, the environment, gay marriage, abortion, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq inspire religious people to take stands inspired by their own traditions. This is a normal part of American civic life and should not be surprising or objectionable to us.

I recently had the chance to speak with Senator John Danforth about the role of religion in our public life and he reminded me of the long history of religious people speaking out on political issues: "We have a very long tradition of religious people speaking out on politics back to Moses and the Prophets. It spans the political spectrum; now it is largely social conservatives but it also includes Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Sloan Coffin."

However, when individuals bring religion into the public square, they must expect that their religious convictions can and should be examined and debated. This debate will often happen with others within the same tradition who might question whether the political conclusions accurately reflect the religious tradition. For instance, many Christians are now insisting that any programs that would adversely affect the poor must be taken off the table in the upcoming budget discussion in what they are calling a Circle of Protection. Yet, there are other Christian legislators and voters who no doubt will question this policy recommendation and we should expect a vigorous exchange of views on the subject.

But this one example underscores the point from above that just because a person adheres to a religious tradition does not mean that one can know how they view the world. As the joke goes, two Baptists (or Jews, Muslims, etc) three opinions -- just look at Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Harry Reid.

Religious conversations may intensify over the next 18 months as the election campaign captures our focus and the religious identities of candidates become scrutinized by the media and voters for clues as to who they really are. It is fine for people to talk about their religion if that is important to them, but let them go deep enough to be truly helpful in revealing their core convictions and how that will influence the way they will govern, and not use religion as a trump card to garner votes; or use religious language in a way that raises suspicion about people of other traditions.

Whether a candidate is Mormon, Muslim, Pentecostal, Catholic, Jewish, any other religion, or no religion at all is not grounds in itself for judgment about the commitments or character of a candidate. Like race or cultural background, to vote, or not vote for someone based on religion is prejudice, pure and simple. Remember the Mormon mother's words: "You don't make assumptions about me Mister, and I won't make them about you."

If and when candidates do get elected, Senator Danforth has some crucial advice on the role of religion and politics in actually governing. Remember that:

The language of politics is different than the language of religion -- politics is not religion. The language of religion is based on creedal affirmation, while the language of politics, when it works, is the language of compromise. To confuse politics for religion results in gridlock from the political perspective. To confuse politics for religion from the religious perspective is idolatry.

Follow Paul Brandeis Raushenbush on Twitter @raushenbush.