Using faith for political ends

I’ve written a couple posts now on the dangers of what I’ve called “theologized politics,” which may be briefly defined as the appropriation of religion and religious believers by political parties as tools to be used to achieve political ends (chiefly, winning elections).  A good illustration of this would be recent Democratic efforts to draw religious (primarily Christian) voters away from the Republican party. Most such efforts have been rooted in the work of George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at the University of California-Berkeley, and particularly his book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.

In Dr. Lakoff’s view, the reason for the political success conservatives had been having through 2004 lay not in conservative ideas and policies but rather in conservative manipulation of language. As he put it,

Conservatives, especially conservative think tanks, have framed virtually every issue from their perspective. They have put a huge amount of money into creating the language for their worldview and getting it out there. Progressives have done virtually nothing.

Dr. Lakoff’s response was to found a think tank of his own, the Rockridge Institute. The purpose of this think tank, as he described it, is “to reframe public debate, to create balance from a progressive perspective,” by asking, “What are the central ideas of progressive thought from a moral perspective?”

Dr. Lakoff first published his book in 1997, but his ideas really began to catch on following the 2004 presidential election. Ellen Goodman’s column of November 7, 2004 in the Boston Globe, which explicitly cites his work, provides one example:

This is the time for the losers to go back to basics, to restate their views into a basic simple, straightforward language of values and morals. It’s the time to parse what we believe in. Especially right and wrong.

The title of Goodman’s column, “Taking back ‘values’,” makes the point clear: following Dr. Lakoff, the issue wasn’t Democratic policies, but only the language in which they were presented. Explain to Republican voters that poverty is a moral-values issue, and raising taxes is a moral-values issue, and so on, and they’ll vote Democratic instead. This is the assumption on which the Democrats have been working ever since; thus for instance we have Howard Dean’s complaint that pollsters “have largely missed the story [in the 2008 primaries] because they’re using an outdated script, which leaves the impression that religion and faith matter only to Republicans . . . this bias . . . has in turn shaped news coverage, making it appear that one party has a monopoly on religion in this race.”

There is much that could be said in response to and assessment of this approach; for starters, Dean was certainly correct to point out that there are a lot of Christians in this country who vote Democrat, even if this fact does seem to elude most members of the American media. For present purposes, however, the most important point to note is that this is yet another instance of theologizing politics. Rather than subjecting political positions and platforms to theological scrutiny, this approach seeks to take existing positions and apply a veneer of religious language; rather than reflecting on them theologically and seeking to evaluate them accordingly, it assumes a positive evaluation and simply presents them as positions supported by Christian teaching.

Now, this should not be taken as a partisan criticism, for this is not something of which Democrats alone are guilty. Indeed, Dr. Lakoff has at least this much right: the Democratic Party came late to the game on this one. For all the biblical language used in Republican rhetoric, and for all the identification of American evangelicals with the Republican Party, there’s really very little in the way of meaningful theological engagement with much of the party platform. Some issues, certainly, are grounded in biblical and theological statements (most notably abortion), but the argument at these points tends to be issue-specific, not part of any coherent whole with the rest of the platform; on issues such as tax policy or immigration policy, there has been a strong tendency among evangelical Republicans to baptize conservative positions as the properly Christian thing to believe without really evaluating them.

This set the stage for the Obama backlash among a certain subset of self-identified evangelicals in the 2008 election. He didn’t actually gain many evangelical votes, but the ones he did attract tended to be very loud; he also managed to appear sufficiently unthreatening that many other evangelicals felt it safe to indulge their displeasure with John McCain and stay home instead of voting.  Among both groups, there was the sense that the Republican Party has been happy in years past to pay lip service to evangelical concerns in order to raise money and turnout, but has done little or nothing to actually address those concerns in a meaningful way; party leaders haven’t taken voters’ faith seriously, but have only seen it as something to be used and manipulated to their own ends.  This sense has been growing stronger for some time, and in 2006 and 2008, it manifested in voter defections that returned the Democratic Party to power.

In my view, that sense is entirely fair, and entirely unsurprising.  The thing about theologized politics is that it essentially amounts to the subversion of faith for political ends, leaving the political platform—and party—in the dominant position; religious folk are welcomed at the fundraising counter and the volunteer meeting, but when it comes to the actual making of policy we’re expected to just shut up and soldier.  This is what evangelicals found with the GOP—which is why so many of us are backing away from the party, even if we’re just as conservative as we ever were (or maybe especially so, since the party definitely isn’t)—and it’s what those who bought the rhetoric and voted for the candidate of Hopeychangeyness are now finding with the Democrats as well.  It is, after all, in the nature of political parties to use whatever they can with as little return commitment as they can; anything freely offered will be freely taken, with no sense of reciprocal obligation.

As a matter both of faithful Christian discipleship and of intelligent political engagement, then—and make no mistake about it, the former requires the latter—the critical need at this time is for Christians in America to break out of this pattern and assert a new model for the interaction between faith and politics; and to do that, we must begin with ourselves.  We must begin, as I wrote last time,

to break ourselves of the habit of using the language of Christian faith to support what we have already decided we believe, and to teach ourselves instead to use our faith to critique our politics, and ultimately to rebuild our political convictions on the ground of our faith.

And on that ground and no other we must assert ourselves in the political life of this nation, not as docile sheep to be shorn for the advancement of the agendas and ambitions of politicians and parties, but as independent agents for the glory of God and the advancement of the work of his kingdom.

Posted in Faith and politics.

Leave a Reply