I remember listening to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” It thrilled me. It stirred my soul. I was a teenager and idealistic. I liked Dwight Eisenhower. His temperament was reassuring to me as I was growing up. But Kennedy, wow! He made me want to run out and immediately sign up for the Peace Corps. It was like I was now hearing from the Oval Office what I had been used to hearing from the pulpit.
Bernie Sanders is kind of like that. Especially for young people, he lifts up a vision of the future that is appealing to young adults who haven’t yet had the idealism squeezed out of them. In that way, he is very Christian. The first community of Jesus’ followers were communists, not Stalinist communists to be sure, but they did hold everything in common. In fact Ananias and Sapphira, according to the Book of Acts, were killed by God because they held back some money for themselves instead of sharing all of it with the brothers and sisters. And you think Bernie is too far to the left!
Then there’s Donald Trump. He’s kind of an anti-idealist. I didn’t say realist because he seems to come from a place where folks have become cynical about any kind of dreaming — the American Dream or the one Dr. King lifted up. He revels in being politically incorrect and so do many of those who vote for him. And, in a strange way, the religious drama Christians just experienced last week confirms Trump’s cynicism. In part it’s a story about religious leaders who didn’t get it; a political leader who was paranoid; police and soldiers who tortured prisoners and got away with it; and friends who abandoned the one who loved them. You could say that Donald is coming from a very biblical place.
The problem with both of them is that politics isn’t religion. We are all living east of Eden, and both those who claim that they can get us back in the garden and those who blame a group for taking the garden away from us are trying to make a religion out of politics. Politics isn’t about achieving heaven on earth. It’s about making life on earth a little more just and equitable.
Bernie may stir your soul, and Donald may give voice to how you really feel. Bernie may be inspiring and Donald may be therapeutic, but neither one is behaving well as a political leader. I’m not saying that political leaders should not be good motivators, nor should they be unwilling to give voice to the voiceless. What I’m saying is that there are limits to what government can do, what politicians should promise, and who candidates should blame for life not being like it was in the Garden of Eden.
The founding fathers were worried about religion having too much influence over politics. They couldn’t foresee the danger of it going the other way, of politics becoming a religion. They couldn’t foresee the apocalyptic fear-mongering and the utopian promises politicians use to portray themselves as political messiahs.
They say that all politics is local, so let’s shift the focus to Forest Park. On the one hand, I don’t see any inspiring idealists among our elected officials in village government or on boards. On the other hand, I haven’t noticed much blaming or demonizing either. What I see are limited, human neighbors who have both egos to defend on the one hand and a genuine desire to serve on the other. The same is true, of course, for columnists and most of the rest of us.
And that’s one reason why I love this village. We don’t have many Bernies or Donalds. We don’t have many people so full of themselves that they declare, “It’s my way or the highway.” And we don’t have many folks who are into blaming individuals or racial groups or socio-economic classes for the problems they are facing. We’re not as progressive as some villages, but neither are we as pretentious or contentious. We’re not as prosperous as some communities, but we’re doing OK. Some residents and businesses are right near the economic edge, which in a free market some will always be. They deserve our concern, but on the whole we’re doing OK.
We don’t expect village government, the police department, the park district, the schools, the churches and, I might add, condominium associations to create heaven on earth for us. The leaders I know in each of the above should do better and in most cases want to do better, but they and we have a pretty firm grasp on the reality that politics is about figuring out ways to meet competing needs in a fair and equitable way. And that’s all.
What’s more, the Holy Week narrative should remind us that religion isn’t God either. Religious leaders sometimes get it and sometimes don’t, but in either case they don’t have the power or wisdom to save us. That’s what Islamic terrorists don’t get, and every Muslim I’ve talked to feels the same way.
In my opinion, we need religion. Just like we need institutions like the family and government and ways of exchanging goods and services, we need institutionalized ways of thinking about God and connecting with the divine. Those who imagine they are flying solo spiritually — read: I’m spiritual but not religious — are really flying on wings borrowed from centuries and centuries of religious folks struggling to connect with God.
Religion isn’t God, and politics isn’t religion. Thanks be to God for people who know what both can and cannot do.