Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Religion and politics

At the end of a long excerpt from Doug Banister's God on Earth, from The American Street, a gang-busting Christian and activist says:
“I’ve been reading a speech Vaclav Havel gave on politics at New York University. Listen to this,” he begins. Quoting the Czech poet and president, Chris continues: “Politics should be principally the domain of people with a heightened sense of responsibility and a heightened sense of the mysterious complexity of being.”

Maybe Pharyngula will disagree, but I don't object to religion in politics per se. As I've said before, the normative has to play a central role in politics, and religion offers a set of agreed-upon norms which guide you in the right direction on complex questions. Genuine religious seekers are fascinating and fun. They want to explore complicated ideas.

What I object to is blind obedience to any ideology. It sounds like Chris does too.

“Modern Christianity is too utopian,” he says. “The Christian life is really about the ordinary, not the ideal. Place is important. The land is important. Politics is putting morality into practice. It’s a pragmatic dealing with life in a particular place, a community, our community.”

“What is a community?”

“A community is a place that supports our growth and wholeness. A community holds us, helps us feel alive.”

“And the goal of Christian politics, then, is…?”

“To build a place that works for everybody, a real place, a community with social equity, a community where everyone has economic access, a community that is economically sound and livable.”

That doesn't sound so bad. That sounds like the sort of thing that I can talk about, that Paul Myers can talk about, that conservatives can talk about, that hippies can talk about. Parents want that, teenagers want that. Red states want it, blue states want it. It's the ideal barrio, neighborhood, or planned community.

This is how to talk about values. And I suppose this is why the West Wing is wrong. Religion is relevant to politics, in the sense that a religious person has subscribed not just to a bunch of policies, but to a coherent set of beliefs which people have experienced in practice. Actions speak louder than words, but both are signals. Religion tells people what those actions signal.

A president is a set of policies, but policy is fungible. A president is a leader, especially in a crisis. Policy is a camel, a horse designed by a committee. People want a purebred horse. How do you separate the committee's work from the candidate's desires? Deeply seated religious values. That's how people know what the leader will do when it comes to the tough choices, the choices where a committee can't tell him what to do, when there aren't polls, just a big red button.

I don't know what that means for those of us who don't wear our faiths on our sleeves, or those with faiths that are off the beaten path. Can we run for office and win? Can we send strong clear signals about our motives without trotting out what we see as our most private thoughts?