SMU’s Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics Robin Lovin told a full audience that there’s nothing new in American history about religious groups using politics as a tool for social transformation. “The abolition of slavery, temperance campaigns, the civil rights movement and a whole variety of antiwar movements all have had their roots in religion,” he said during his 2008 Maguire Public Scholar Lecture Sept. 24. The lecture is presented by SMU’s Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility.
“It is in some ways a peculiarly American idea, with a characteristically American confidence that good intentions and good organization inevitably lead to good results.”
He also urged listeners to consider the intersection of religion and politics in terms of temptation, tool and task, no matter what their religious preference.
“In some ways we all share the problems that Christian history has created for American religious life, and there will be no solutions to these problems unless all the communities that now make up our commonwealth can find their own ways to participate,” he said.
States of confusion
Americans, I think, have never quite been sure what they think about politics, and religious Americans have been as confused about that as anybody else. We have a heritage of religious reflection that is older than the country itself, and yet we don’t quite know what to make of politics from the perspective of faith. Or, to put the matter more precisely, we don’t agree on what to make of politics from that perspective.
In North Carolina a couple of years back, there was a Baptist minister who confidently told his congregation that you can’t be a Christian if you don’t vote Republican. I don’t know what that did for Republicans, but I’m reliably told that it increased the number of United Methodists. So there are some people, perhaps a growing number, who believe that their faith tells them exactly how they ought to vote. And there are others who believe that their faith tells them not to vote at all, and their numbers are growing, too.
The many different religious ways of looking at politics return, I think, to a few major themes. And as so often happens in American life, those themes tend to become polarized. We have people who say politics is a temptation, a distraction that people who care about the eternal truths ought to avoid. We have people who say politics is a tool, an instrument to advance those eternal truths, and it ought not to be passed up. Both positions have been well represented in American history, and the tension between them has been a healthy one on the whole. Our tendency to mix religion and politics has protected us, until quite recently, from the kind of political conflict over ultimate questions that has been such a destructive force in other parts of the world.
The political and religious polarization may be making us vulnerable in a way we’ve not been before to that kind of extreme interpretation of politics. Both sides – those who see politics as a temptation and those who see it as a tool – are acquiring a zeal for their views that makes it more important than ever to recover a middle ground, in which religion puts politics into its place as a task – a task that can’t be evaded and can never be completed.
That’s the direction I want to go: thinking about politics in terms of temptation, tool and task. I invite you to consider these three ways of thinking in light of whatever traditions you participate in. In some ways we all share the problems that Christian history has created for American religious life, and there will be no solutions to these problems unless all the communities that now make up our commonwealth can find their own ways to participate.
Politics as temptation
Political life is full of temptation, and that is evident in the number of stories in the press about politicians who have yielded to it in one way or another. But the greatest moral risks in politics may not be the ones that come out in tabloid scandals. We send corrupt politicians to prison because they’ve betrayed the public trust, but those who keep the public trust are also tempted – and perhaps they are tempted most when they keep the trust best. The leader who charts a successful course in difficult times and protects the nation against dangerous enemies is always tempted to put the party or the plan or the nation in God’s place. In extreme cases, political leaders are tempted to put themselves in God’s place – or perhaps we are tempted to put them there.
Christians have always suspected that the greatest temptation in political life is not dishonesty or theft, but idolatry. When politics turns idolatrous, the temptation goes public, and we’re all tempted to join in. The corruption is worst when everyone is most openly engaged in it.
Politics as tool
Others tend to stress the potential benefits of politics, and they see it as a tool, as an instrument that people of faith can use to ensure that God’s will is done. It’s this way of thinking about politics, especially among evangelical Protestants, that has generated much of the excitement and worry in American political life in the past couple of decades. The emphasis in this movement is on effectiveness, on using politics as a tool for winning rather than converting or persuading. Jerry Falwell helped launch this evangelical politics in 1979 with the creation of the Moral Majority.
But it was Ralph Reed who had the key political insight: In a democracy in which most people don’t bother to vote, you don’t need a “moral majority.” A well organized minority will do. It doesn’t take 51 percent of the adult population to change high school textbooks or elect a legislature that will vote for more restrictive laws on abortion and gay marriage. If only 30 percent of the people vote, 16 percent is sufficient to accomplish your purpose.
While the candid emphasis on electoral strategy is perhaps new, there’s nothing unusual in American history about religious groups using politics in the hopes of social transformation. The abolition of slavery, temperance campaigns, the civil rights movement and a whole variety of antiwar movements all have had their roots in religion. The idea of politics as a tool doesn’t belong exclusively to liberals or conservatives, and it’s certainly older than the Christian Coalition. It is in some ways a peculiarly American idea, with a characteristically American confidence that good intentions and good organization inevitably lead to good results.
Nevertheless, the idea of making bad people do good things is in some tension with equally American commitments to individual freedom and democracy. The result is that it’s hard to know whether people who use politics as a tool are passionately committed to democracy and politics or whether they actually place no value on politics at all – whether its good is strictly instrumental. Certainly those who take this approach to politics are rather easily disillusioned with it. And discontent has been growing among the rank and file of conservative Christian movements, because the give-and-take of politics has not produced the clear victory they thought they’d earned. They may not have yet learned that politics is always ambiguous, that victories are not always clear and that they’re never permanent.
A third way: politics as task
There is a third way that I think speaks a little more directly to the lessons of 20th-century experience and to the new realities of our present situation. Politics as a task is a new shape for the public role of religion in response to a new kind of politics. The new kind of politics is what we saw in the 20th century as early as the Russian Revolution of 1917. It is a politics that seems itself to make claims that are religious in their scope and power. It proclaims that there is a special moment in history in which particular political decisions taken now can seal human destiny for the indefinite future. The point of politics, then, is not the ambiguity of the choices but the certainty of the commitment itself. The point of politics is to compel people to push every political choice until it becomes an ultimate decision from which once it is made, there can be no turning back.
This politics to end politics may seem to be an extreme idea associated chiefly with Lenin and Stalin and Hitler, the totalitarian movements that threatened Western democracies during the last century. And in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, I think there was a tendency in the Western world to breathe a long sigh of relief and to proclaim the end of ideology and look forward to a long future of moderate, secular, pragmatic politics.
But it is apparent now that the 20th century has not faded so completely from the horizon, and that we’re just beginning to understand how deeply the legacy of ultimate, apocalyptic politics has become embedded in our emerging global consciousness. What people expect from politics and what they want from their political leaders now bears the marks of this belief in a defining political moment. Political choice and messianic expectation are no longer easily distinguished.
Under those circumstances, the theological task is not to choose among political ideologies as though we were looking for the best tool to accomplish some ultimate religious purpose. It is to return all forms of politics to the distinctive place they occupy among human activities.
The theological separation between faith and politics must be drawn not because politics is a temptation to be avoided, but because it is a responsible human activity that people of faith are called to undertake. Politics is neither a temptation nor a tool, then, but a task – a vocation, a calling, part of what it means to live a full human life.