Tuesday, September 19, 2006

John Danforth's "Faith & Politics"

There's an old saying that there's three things you're not supposed to talk about in public: faith, politics, and sex.

John Danforth, former Republican US Senator of Missouri and an ordained Episcopal priest, dares to tackle two of those topics in his new book, "Faith and Politics."

And the third topic gets mentioned. In an interview with Danforth in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Danforth recalls his Yale divinity school dean telling him that studying both religion and law was like "being a striptease saint."

His dean raises an important question: Is religious faith incompatible with politics?

Danforth asserts in his book, "No political agenda can claim to be God's will."


Danforth's statement is directed at the Religious Right. But if it's true, it equally applies to the religious left. Try telling the people of the liberal United Church of Christ that, "no political agenda can claim to be God's will." My denomination has never been shy to leave their faith behind in the sanctuary when they go out in the public square--take for example our President and General Minister's John Thomas protest in Washington DC that the proposed 2006 congregational budget was immoral. His presence sprang out of not just a political, but also religious conviction.

Here's the problem with Danforth's claim:

It implies that discernment of God's will is not possible when the issue in question concerns something of interest to government. What are religious people to do? Relegate discernment of God's will to life's smaller matters, like deciding what clothes to wear? Please. God's will is much bigger.

Maybe what Danforth is really getting at is this: If God's will about some political matter is discernable, it shouldn't be expressed or packaged as such. To this end, I'm in the crowd that Danforth speaks of when he says there are some "people who do not believe that the kingdom of God can be reduced to a political platform."

While God's kingdom agenda should never be reduced to a political platform (God's program is much, much bigger), we shouldn't make the opposite mistake and think it excludes any political platform.

It's better to say, "No political agenda can claim with absolute certainty to be God's will." This revised statement retains the assumption that God does indeed have an interest in the decisions made by government--decisions that hopefully make the world a better place. And, it retains the notion that Christians can and should humbly seek God's will in the political arena.

Do Christians do politics well? Of course not. Should we then sweep all mention of God out of politics? Absolutely not.

I suspect what Danforth doesn't like is the views of religious conservatives on issues like abortion and marriage--and also the fact they use the democratic process to win at the polls.

All Christians--liberal and conservative--have a responsibility to seek God's will and, yes, express that conviction by getting involved in the political process.

That's responsible discipleship and good citizenship.

UPDATE: Jim Wallis and Ralph Reed trade barbs on religious liberal and conservative politics at Beliefnet.com

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