Several of my friends gave rave reviews about the Mr. Rogers movie [A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood]. Some were impressed that he was a man who really lived out his faith in the everyday world. One said he wept during the film. All seemed to be saying Fred Rogers embodied the way they wanted life to be.

Maybe it was because the Iowa Caucuses (Feb. 3) were on my mind, I asked them, “Would a Fred Rogers-type person make a good president of the United States?”

They all shook their heads. “Politics in the real world is a rough game,” one said. “A nice guy like him would never make it out of the primaries.”

Another said, “He’d be crucified.”

The irony of that last comment was not lost on me, and that exchange raised the question in my mind, “What is the place of religion in politics?” 

Fred Rogers was a religious man and an ordained minister, you see, and my friends seem to be saying that nice guys finish last. On the other hand, some of us recoil at the thought of religious people playing political hardball like the Taliban, imposing their rigid brand of sharia law on the populations they control.

Politics is all about power, right? In a book Harold Laswell published way back in 1936 titled, Who Gets What, When and How, he defined political power as the “ability to produce intended effects on other people.”

In contrast, religion at its best does not impose anything on anybody. It invites. “I think that’s what people of faith and conscience are supposed to be … people motivated by spiritual values that give them a real reason for change,” wrote Jim Wallis in God’s Politics, Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. “To influence a democratic society, you must win the public debate about why the policies you advocate are better for the common good.”

Regarding the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, Wallis said, “Secular fundamentalists make a fundamental mistake. They believe that the separation of church and state ought to mean the separation of faith from public life.”

So what is the role of religion in politics?

Only God is qualified to exercise absolute power. Any time political leaders or candidates — or the electorate for that matter — seem to be reaching for too much power, we need to heed Lord Acton’s warning: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and take action to put them in their human place.

Ronald Heifetz, in Leadership Without Easy Answers, wrote, “In a crisis, we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership. We call for someone with answers, decision, strength, and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going — in short, someone who can make hard problems simple.”

“Instead of looking for saviors,” he continues, “we should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions — problems that require us to learn new ways.”

“Wisdom,” wrote David Brooks in The Road to Character, “starts with epistemological modesty. … Wisdom is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking.”

Part of the role of religion, therefore, is to nurture in both politicians and the electorate a sense of humility, a healthy dose of self-doubt regarding their ability to see the whole picture or know all the answers. That means a willingness to let go of the intellectual arrogance expressed in the title of James Hoggan’s book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot.

Humility includes a deeply felt need to include the other side’s point of view because of a firmly held conviction that you alone will never see the whole picture.

I personally want every candidate to go on record as promising they won’t fire advisors who don’t see things their way.

In that classic biblical scene in which Jesus stands in front of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate says to him, “Don’t you understand that I have the power to sentence you to death or set your free?” To which Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

What Jesus did was lift up a vision of the Kingdom of God that challenged every political point of view in his day as well as every perspective — be it blue or red — on the use of political power in our own polarized time.

Perhaps the best example of how radically his teaching and behavior differed from what was and is now accepted as “self-evident truth” is revealed in the story of how Jesus celebrated the Passover the night before he was crucified.

The Passover Seder is a meal during which people in the Abrahamic traditions remember how God freed his people from slavery in Egypt in part by drowning Pharaoh’s army in the sea. But on that night Jesus reinterpreted the meaning of that meal by washing his disciples’ feet, which was the job of a servant, and then following that act by commanding them to love each other the way he had just loved them. What he came to save them from, in other words, was not Pharaoh or the Roman emperor — not something external — but something internal in their spirit.

As counterintuitive if not downright offensive as it may be for many of us, Jesus seemed to be biased in favor of those without power.

And contrary to “common sense” assumptions held especially by conservatives, the very first Christians, according to Acts, lived together in what these days might be called a democratic socialist community. “All who believed were together,” the author of the Acts of the Apostles reports, “and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as they had need.”

One reply on “Religion’s place in politics (Part I)”