Why can't we talk about religion and politics? These are the two topics you are not supposed to discuss in polite company. Don't break up the dinner party by bringing up either of these subjects! That's the conventional wisdom. Why? Perhaps it's because these topics are too important and too potentially divisive, or because they raise issues of core values and ultimate concerns that make us uncomfortable.
All over the country I feel the hunger for a fuller, deeper, and richer conversation about religion in public life, about faith and politics. It's a discussion that we don't always hear in America today. Sometimes the most strident and narrow voices are the loudest, and more progressive, prophetic, and healing religion often gets missed. But the good news is about how all that is changing.
Abraham Lincoln had it right. Our task should not be to invoke religion and the name of God by claiming God's blessing and endorsement for all our national policies and practices--saying, in effect, that God is on our side. Rather, as Lincoln put it, we should worry earnestly whether we are on God's side.
Those are the two ways that religion has been brought into public life in American history. The first way--God on our side--leads inevitably to triumphalism, self-righteousness, bad theology, and, often, dangerous foreign policy. The second way--asking if we are on God's side--leads to much healthier things, namely penitence and even repentance, humility, reflection, and accountability. We need much more of all those, because they are often the missing values of politics.
Martin Luther King Jr. did it best. With his Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other, King persuaded, not just pronounced. He reminded us all of God's purposes for justice, for peace, and for the "beloved community" where those who have been left out and left behind get a front-row seat. And he brought religion into public life in a way that was always welcoming, inclusive, and inviting to all who cared about moral, spiritual, or religious values. Nobody felt left out of the conversation.
The values of politics are my primary concern. Of course, God is not partisan. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God or co-opt religious communities to further political agendas, it makes a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both the Right and the Left from a consistent moral ground.
"God's politics" are therefore never partisan nor ideological. But God's politics challenge everything about our politics. God's politics remind us of the people our politics always neglect--the poor, the vulnerable, the left behind. God's politics challenge narrow national, ethnic, economic, or cultural self-interest, reminding us of a much wider world and the creative human diversity of all those made in the image of the creator. God's politics remind us of the creation itself, a rich environment in which we are to be good stewards, not mere users, consumers, and exploiters. And God's politics plead with us to resolve, as much as possible, the inevitable conflicts among us without the terrible destruction of war. God's politics always remind us of the ancient prophetic prescription to "choose life, so that you and your children may live," and challenge all the selective moralities that would choose one set of lives and issues over another. This challenges both the Right and the Left, offering a new vision for faith and politics in America and a new conversation of personal faith and political hope.
People concerned about social change and hungry for spiritual values can actually combine those two quests. Too often politics and spirituality have been separated, polarized, and even put into competition with one another. …