Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Relevance of Religion to Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Is religion relevant to politics? As long as I can remember, I was cautioned to avoid mixing religion and politics.  It has been a taboo topic in polite conversation, better left to newspaper columnists and others who were not subject to the decorum of polite society. 

            That should change.  Our religions shape our politics and we should discuss openly how they do that.  For believers, religion shapes their standards of legitimacy, or what they believe is right and wrong, and those standards govern their political views.  In a democracy where a majority of people are religious, their standards of legitimacy are a major factor in the making of laws and public policy, so that religion is as relevant to politics for unbelievers as for believers.

            Contrary to popular belief, the First Amendment does not require a separation of religion and politics; it only prohibits government from establishing or promoting a religion.  In a healthy democracy people of faith should openly discuss how their religion shapes their politics and avoid either proselytizing or condemning those of other religions.          

            Not all Christians have been reluctant to mix their religion with their politics.  Evangelical Christians gave Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz their enthusiastic support in the GOP Presidential primaries, and black Christians gave Hillary Clinton their support in Democratic primaries.  But mainstream white Christians had little impact on election results in either party, perhaps because they were reluctant to allow their faith to inform their politics.

            Black Christians have never been reluctant to mix religion and politics.  The separate but equal political culture of the Jim Crow South made the black church a place where blacks could comfortably discuss their politics, and since then the black church has produced many leaders and decided many elections.  White evangelical (fundamentalist) Christians began mixing their religion with politics in the 1980s as part of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, but mainstream Christian denominations have remained reluctant to mix their religion and politics.

            America’s diversity is its greatest strength, but in matters of religion diversity has been a weakness.  That’s because Christianity and Islam advocate conflicting standards of legitimacy, and fundamentalists in each religion seek to impose their standards of morality on others, doing more to divide us than to unify us.  That influences every aspect of democratic politics, from making laws to defining our individual rights and providing for the common good.  In Islamic cultures, apostasy and blasphemy laws effectively preclude the freedom of religion and speech.   

            Even in the U.S., democracy is a fragile fabric that can unravel with disastrous consequences.  That happened 156 years ago when U.S. democracy came apart at the seams, caused by the greed of slaveholding aristocrats and the fear of poorer whites that freed slaves would take over Southern politics and their livelihood.  The Civil War resulted because religion was unable to end the peculiar institution of slavery.  Today greed and fear again threaten the stability of our democracy, with the future of the middle class in jeopardy; and politicians exploit that fear and stoke the resulting anger, with religion often aiding and abetting their cause.

            In a pluralistic democracy, religious exclusivity and conflicting standards of legitimacy must be reconciled to maintain political stability.  When politicians exploit contentious issues of race or religion to motivate their constituents, the resulting fear and anger poisons politics, polarizes races and religions, and threatens the stability of democracy.  American voters need to consider how their religion should influence their politics and balance their individual interests and rights with providing for the common good.  The politics of divide and conquer must be replaced by a politics of reconciliation to preserve our democracy.

            In Islamic cultures, religion and politics are in transition.  While the media emphasizes Islamist violence, there are subtle changes in Islamic cultures that could have an even greater impact on world politics.  Islamic law (Shari’a) seems to be giving way to libertarian concepts of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law, and Secretary of State Kerry has emphasized the importance of religion to U.S. foreign policy objectives.        

            The ultimate standard of legitimacy for Jews, Christians and Muslims is the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, with our neighbors including those of other races and religions.  It is a common word of faith that can reconcile conflicting standards of legitimacy; otherwise, we risk being polarized by our religious differences, much as racial issues have polarized our politics in the past.  And if we allow our religions to become polarized, as has happened in Europe, we can expect unstable democracies and continuing religious violence.

            It’s time for Americans to recognize the relevance of their religion to their politics and promote a politics of reconciliation, making the greatest commandment the guiding principle of their faith and politics.  If most Americans were to embrace that moral imperative of faith, our racial and religious differences would no longer threaten the stability of our democracy, and political demagogues like Donald Trump would have little chance of being elected.  Let’s open our hearts and minds to the politics of reconciliation and reject the politics of division, strengthening our democracy by loving our neighbors—all of them—as we love ourselves.

References to previous blogs on related topics:          

See Religion and Reason, December 8, 2015; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love Over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 24, 2015; Liberation from Economic Oppression, May 31, 2015; The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing, June 7, 2015; Racism, Religious Exclusivism and Reconciliation, July 5, 2015; Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity, July 12, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, September 12, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015;  Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016; Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America, March 12, 2016; Religion, Democracy and Human Depravity, March 19, 2016; Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery, March 26, 2016; and Standards of Legitimacy in Morality, Manners and Political Correctness, April 23, 2016.

Another poll of the Pew Research Center indicates that Islam is in transition and that Muslims are divided over whether their national laws should strictly follow the Qur’an or Shari’a.  See

Secretary of State John Kerry has underscored the importance of religion to U.S. foreign policy.  See

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