The temptation and peril of theologized politics

The question of the proper interrelationship between religion and politics in this country is a complex one.  There are those who argue that, essentially, there should be no relationship between them—that religion should be kept rigidly separate from politics; but as I wrote last month,

There’s a certain superficial appeal to this suggestion, but a little more thought shows it for the discriminatory idea it really is. Why, after all, should non-religious people be permitted to vote on the basis of their deepest convictions, but religious people be forbidden to do the same? Any attempt to make religion the problem is ultimately an attempt to privilege one mode of thought (the secular) over others, and thus is essentially antithetical to the nature and purpose of the American experiment.

That doesn’t mean, however, that an uncritical fusion of the two is a good thing, either; as I also noted in that post, that tends to result in religion becoming the handmaiden of politics. When our faith becomes “a tool to advance a political agenda,” and as such is no longer “free to critique and correct that agenda,” what we have is in fact a betrayal of Christian faith; we have the political heresy that I labeled “theologized politics.”

Now, it should be obvious why politicians encourage such a thing and seek to make every use of it they can; the short-term political benefits are undeniable.  This approach essentially seeks to mobilize Christianity, with its adherents and their assets, as a political force to accomplish the political purposes of one party or the other. The goal is to deploy the church (or as much of it as possible, at any rate) as foot soldiers for the party in this or that political struggle. It’s an effective way to rouse people to active political participation, and to win not merely votes but enthusiastic and committed support. The theological side of the equation, however, is problematic, because the political side is primary; this results in a purely instrumental view of Christian faith, one which “make[s] men treat Christianity as a means,” as C. S. Lewis put it. It moves us from valuing social justice (or any other good) because God demands that of us, which is a good thing, to “the stage where [we value] Christianity because it may produce social justice.” This is a serious problem, because

[God] will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop.

The problem with theologizing politics is that it can be a good political strategy in the short term, but in the long term it has a toxic effect on both the church and the political process. One negative consequence for the church should be obvious: if Christians come to value their faith primarily for the excellent arguments it offers for their chosen political agenda, they will value it less for everything else—and this is not good for the church. Beyond this, it’s bad for our spiritual health, in that it’s essentially a replacement of true faith with something else. It’s bad for the community life of the church, because that “something else” is something outside the church, and fundamentally distinct from it. It could well also be financially bad for the church: if the primary goal is the advancement of a political agenda, then contributions should primarily go to that agenda, rather than to the local congregation. And finally, it’s bad for the witness of the church, because when the church becomes identified with one party, then those who don’t support that party will view the church as the enemy and respond to it with hostility.

The toxic effect of this approach on our political system in this country may be less apparent, but it’s still very real. The problem is that good politics requires a mix of passion and dispassion. One must care about one’s own positions and believe in one’s own ideas enough to want to articulate them and fight for them; one must be passionate enough about the problems in this country and committed enough to one’s proposed solutions to be willing to put the work in to address those problems and implement those solutions. At the same time, however, one must have the necessary dispassion to be able to step back and evaluate those ideas and solutions when they aren’t working; to be able to disengage from one’s own positions enough to consider what may be learned from someone else’s; and to be able to work with those with whom one disagrees, to come to compromises when necessary, and to make common cause when the time is right. When religion is brought uncritically into the political mix, only as a way of supporting one’s own positions (and not as a means of critiquing them), it is excellent at stirring people to passion, but not so helpful in creating the dispassion necessary to balance that passion. The result is something which has been aptly called “the politics of inflammation.”

At this point, again, someone might argue that the solution is to remove religion from politics; and again, the response needs to be made that the true solution is not to break that connection, but to repair it. What is needed is 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.

Posted in Faith and politics, Quotes.

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