Why religion and politics are inseparable

[In the following essay, by “politics” I mean the value propositions that feed public policy, rather than electoral politics or public policy per se. I mean the “stuff” that in-forms public policy and how we vote.]

Religion and politics—a pairing related to but different from church and state—are inseparable.

While sometimes they taste sour together, like vinegar-tainted water, they are really more like two kinds of vinegars swirled together. The mixture may or may not be a tasty combination, depending on one’s palate. Using another metaphor: religion and politics travel the same neural pathways in society. Those pathways create a neural mesh expressed in story, boundaries of belonging, the permissions and prohibitions of moral order, and how we define obstacles and the means to overcome obstructions. Story, belonging, moral order, and obstacles/empowerment are building tools. Each combination of these four tools, whether religious or political, constructs a meaning-laden worldview and set of rules in which and by which a nation lives.

It is important to pay attention to how these tools work together—or compete. Let me illustrate.

Story. Story is fundamental to religion and to politics. The stories offer a dramatic depiction of where a people came from and from whom they come, where and who they are now, and where they are or ought to be headed. Examples (note: I’m going to use examples from Christianity both because I know that religion best and because Christianity has dominated public discourse about these four tools of social construction):

  • In religion: Christianity’s Apostle’s Creed tells a story (e.g, God created, Jesus Christ was conceived via the Holy Spirit, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate). Scholars who highlight the contrast between the “politics of Jesus,” as evident in the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer, with the Roman Empire’s social hierarchy tell another.
  • In politics: One story frame for the U.S. is that the nation is exceptional and chosen. Another story frame is that the nation grew from a soil “fed” by dreams of liberty and happiness (social virtue) but deformed by the toxin of white supremacy.
  • Interplay between religion and politics: Christianity has both provided elements of the chosen people story and, especially through the Black Church, has been a prophetic critic of the chosen, exceptional people narrative. To paraphrase Langston Hughes: America must become America, but America has not yet been.

Belonging. Who belongs? How does belonging happen? Who is included or excluded, by whom, and why? Every social group, every religion, every nation lives their answers to these questions. Examples:

  • In religion: Some communions/denominations practice a “closed table” for the sacrament of communion, meaning that only the “family” (e.g., those in communion with the Catholic Church, those who are members of a particular Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation) are allowed to partake. Others practice an open table. In addition, many congregations are torn regarding if and how LGBTQIA persons belong.
  • In politics: one of the chief manifestations of polarization in the U.S. today is illustrated by how different partisans answer the question of who belongs in the U.S. Immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees are contested groups. In some circles, shouts of “get out, Socialist” and “go back to the [lousy] places you came from” greet those citizens who disagree with President Trump’s administration and policies.
  • Interplay between religion and politics: The President has surrounded himself with advisers who believe the nation is for Christians and who invoke Jesus as they tighten the southern border. People of faith who leave food and water in the desert for immigrants and refugees, in the name of their faith, are being fined heavily. In the culture, the need for people of faith, and people who do not profess a religious faith but are of moral people of goodwill, to play together well in the public sandbox for the sake of a more just and inclusive nation has never been greater.

Moral order. Nearly everyone associates religion with morality. Even cynics do so as they highlight the all-too-available examples of immorality and hypocrisy committed by the allegedly religious. But politics also offer a moral order. Every legislated policy is an expression of political moral order. Essentially, moral order is the network of obligations expected of persons in a social group by others in the social group. A moral order defines who is neighbor and what is owed to neighbors. A moral order also defines the gap between what “is” and what “ought” to be, as well as what should be done to close the gap.

  • In religion: The Ten Commandments define a moral order, as do the Beatitudes. The Golden Rule, which is present in some form in most of the world’s religions, is perhaps the most well-known example of a teaching that shaped moral order. “An eye for an eye” also suggests a kind of moral order.
  • In politics: Pay close attention to how politicians talk about what members of a society owe to each other, and who is responsible for what in order to foster prosperity and alleviate suffering. At the national level, Democrats, Tea Partiers, pre-Trump Republicans, current Republicans, and libertarians assert very different moral orders. A moral order in which separating children from families entering the country illegally is a moral practice expresses a very different moral order from one that claims illegal immigration should be a misdemeanor and that separating children from their families is an evil practice.
  • Interplay between religion and politics: Which narratives, values, and social practices shape a society’s moral order, in-form public policy, and lead us to vote for A rather than B? Where do those narratives, values, and social practices come from? They will come either from a religion or from whatever in a society functions like religion.

Obstacles/empowerment. In order to become the people we (we, people of faith; we, people of the U.S.) could and should be, there are obstacles to overcome, and there are sources of empowerment to overcome those obstacles.

  • In religion: Christianity asserts that sin is an obstacle. Sin might be defined as pride, as lack of self-respect, as blinding self-interest, as failure to love, as disease, as participation in the brokenness of life. Some Christians see the obstacle of sin purely in personal terms. Others see sin primarily in systems of oppression. Others see sin in both personal and systemic terms. The antidote to sin is God’s grace—available through faith in Jesus Christ, available through sacraments, available through hearing the Word, available through works of social justice, available through turning around (repentance), available through baptism by the Holy Spirit, available through prayer, and/or available through corporate worship.
  • In politics: think of the obstacles to being the nation we should be according to the Republican party’s narrative versus the Democrats running for president, as well the different understandings of how one is empowered to succeed. Are the obstacles: liberals, socialists, white evangelicals, white supremacists, immigrants here illegally, government schools, mass incarceration, the denigration of the Founders, the inability to tell the ugly parts of the truth about ourselves, too much spending on the military, social programs that create dependencies, Roe v. Wade, Citizens United, Supreme Court and federal judicial appointments, the President, the former president, the Clintons? And on and on. Is empowerment gained through American First policies in the world, building a wall, de-regulating businesses, appointing conservative Christian judges, a presidency that is superior to the courts and congress in power, overturning society’s enfranchising and liberalizing policies going back to the Civil Rights Act, and favoring the Second and Tenth Amendment above all others, except for the “free exercise of religion” part of the First Amendment as it applies to conservative Christians? Or is empowerment gained through laws and practices that lead toward equity, social justice, reparations, the Dream Act, community policing, accessible and affordable medical care for everyone, better funded and imagined public schools, ensuring clean air-clean-water-healthy soil, responding to climate change with urgency, and otherwise persuading everyone to participate in the work of living into our reality of becoming the most multicultural, multireligious experiment in democracy that the world has yet known?

Do you see how the social construction tools of story, belonging, moral order, obstacles/empowerment connect—internally and between religion and politics? Story grounds our practices of belonging and setting boundaries, of who deserves to be treated as equals and neighbors (and who is not deserving), and of who or what we must overcome in order to thrive.

Therefore, the story we tell about who we are, were, and should be—we as people of faith, we as US Americans—deserves our attention. And we can’t pay attention without talking about the inseparable swirl of politics and religion.