Politics at Prayer
Leithart, Peter J., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
Liturgy and politics don't mix. For two things to mix, they have to be separable; liturgy and politics are not. Participation in the Christian liturgy is always a political act. Worship, far from being a retreat from politics, embodies a new kind of politics, a genuinely Christian politics. Liturgy and politics are not like the salt and pepper that can be added to your scrambled egg; they are more like the scramble and the egg.
Our misguided assumptions about symbols and rimals explain why the political nature of the liturgy is not self-evident to Christians. At least since the Reformation, and especially among Protestants, it has gone without saying that symbols and rituals are marginal to the bread-and-butter concerns of life. Literal language is basic, but when we want to be poetic or persuasive we dress it up with tropes. A blank wall is the norm, but we might want, if we can afford it, to adorn it with pictures. Most days, we just eat, but when there's a special occasion we dress up our meal with special ceremony and ritual. So it is with worship: after we spend the week passing ourselves off as black-and-white Marxists and materialists, we spend the weekend embellishing life with a dash of colorful spirituality.
If Rush Limbaugh is to be believed, the same is true of our politics: the substance of politics is the rowdy give-and-take of elections, legislation, organizing, and swaying opinion, and we must beware of politicians who engage in "mere symbolism." But Rush Limbaugh--at least on this point--is not to be believed. Gaining and holding power has always been bound up with manipulation of impressions and images, and this has become even more evidently true now that the media have such a prominent role in driving politics. Much of President Clinton's popularity had to do with his habit of surrounding himself with the coolest of the cool--movie stars, pop musicians, sports personalities. Breathing the same air, he participated in their cool, and was transfigured into another pop icon. Likewise, John McCain's appeal in the Republican primaries had more to do with his informal style, his refreshing bluntness, his humor, his underdog status, and his legendary experience as a POW than with his policy positions.
Pointing out that politics is shot through with symbolism is not the same as proving that Christian worship is a political act. And asserting that liturgy and politics are inseparable is not the same as explaining how. My insistence on the inseparability of liturgy and politics is not an endorsement of trendy efforts to make Christian liturgy "more relevant." Liturgies for the homeless, for AIDS victims, for the oppressed peoples of the earth, for the whales, for an end to Florida's recounts, for whatever--these are objectionable not only because they are kitschy and not only because they bind worship to a political agenda. More fundamentally, they are objectionable because they assume that the liturgy itself is apolitical and needs to be made political. Those who wish to purify the liturgy of politics and those who want to inject contemporary politics into the liturgy share a common basic outlook: both assume that politics and liturgy are separable zones of life, which can be mixed or not mixed as we please.
For the apostle Paul, the connection of worship and politics was axiomatic, though the political import of his liturgical discussions can be obscure to modern readers. Paul's lengthiest discourse on Christian worship comes, oddly, in the midst of his answers to questions about eating meat sacrificed to idols, which he addresses in his first letter to the Corinthians. Now on our scale of concerns, what to do about meat sacrificed to idols ranks somewhere below decisions about whether to sod or seed the yard, but in Paul's day eating meat was a question about the limits of Christian participation in pagan culture. In a city like Corinth, much of the meat offered at the …
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Publication information: Article title: Politics at Prayer. Contributors: Leithart, Peter J. - Author. Magazine title: First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Publication date: June 2001. Page number: 14. © 2009 Institute on Religion and Public Life. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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