There is no doubt that people’s religious beliefs often have political implications. For example, if your religious beliefs require you to live according to certain principles, and the actions resulting from those principles bring you into conflict with the law, then one has an obligation to work to change the laws. Typically this is done by advocating and lobbying for specific legislation or, in the case of civil disobedience campaigns, by defying the law and taking the consequences in order to show the unjustness of the laws and thus sway public opinion. The latter strategy was used with great effect by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. While Gandhi was secular, King was overtly religious and made no secret of the fact that he was driven at least partly by his religious convictions.
The key point is that although King was a deeply religious person, the policies he was advocating (equal rights for all people) were secular. He was not claiming any special rights for his religion. He was not even claiming that his demands should be met simply because they were based on the Bible. He was appealing to universal principles of justice and where religion came in was in the strength he drew from his faith to carry on a personally very difficult struggle.
And this is where people like King differ from the current evangelical movement in the US and the militant Buddhist movement in Sri Lanka. The latter groups assert that their particular religious beliefs carry a special weight and should form the basis of policies. In the US, this takes the form of saying that Biblical teachings should form the basis of policy. In Sri Lanka, it takes the form of saying that Buddhism should be the primary religion in the country.
There has been some media buzz recently about an op-ed in the June 16, 2005 issue of the New York Times, written by John Danforth, Republican Senator from Missouri 1976-1994 and briefly US ambassador to the UN in 2004. He is also an ordained minister in the Episcopalian Church. Reader Katie kindly alerted me to Danforth’s essay where he makes some interesting points, mainly that the public face of Christianity that is currently presented in the media ignores a huge body of believers whom he calls “moderates.” He calls upon those “moderates” to reclaim their place in the public debate.
It is important for those of us who are sometimes called moderates to make the case that we, too, have strongly held Christian convictions, that we speak from the depths of our beliefs, and that our approach to politics is at least as faithful as that of those who are more conservative. Our difference concerns the extent to which government should, or even can, translate religious beliefs into the laws of the state.
People of faith have the right, and perhaps the obligation, to bring their values to bear in politics. Many conservative Christians approach politics with a certainty that they know God’s truth, and that they can advance the kingdom of God through governmental action. So they have developed a political agenda that they believe advances God’s kingdom, one that includes efforts to “put God back” into the public square and to pass a constitutional amendment intended to protect marriage from the perceived threat of homosexuality.
Moderate Christians are less certain about when and how our beliefs can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith in God but because of a healthy acknowledgement of the limitations of human beings.
To assert that I am on God’s side and you are not, that I know God’s will and you do not, and that I will use the power of government to advance my understanding of God’s kingdom is certain to produce hostility.
By contrast, moderate Christians see ourselves, literally, as moderators. Far from claiming to possess God’s truth, we claim only to be imperfect seekers of the truth. We reject the notion that religion should present a series of wedge issues useful at election time for energizing a political base. We believe it is God’s work to practice humility, to wear tolerance on our sleeves, to reach out to those with whom we disagree, and to overcome the meanness we see in today’s politics.
This was the kind of Christianity that I admired and still admire. The religious tolerance Danforth speaks about were the standard views of the priests and clergymen who taught me when I was young. We were told to be humble, that we did not, and could not, know the will of God for certain. All that we could do was guess at God’s intentions using the Bible as a guide, treat other people as well as we could, and hope that if we messed up in some way, God would treat us mercifully.
I always viewed Danforth as a political hack, a dutiful party apparatchik who never seemed to take any noticeably courageous stand. I still view him that way. What is remarkable is that his essay, which represented safe, mainstream views back in the 1980’s and earlier, is seen as so unusual now.