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James L. Evans

The role of religion in politics

I was privileged recently to participate in a project sponsored by the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville. The BCE folks pulled together six ministers and four politicians, along with some other interested parties, and encouraged them to talk about “the rightful role of religion in politics.” The result is a 30-minute DVD entitled “Golden Rule Politics.”

Obviously one reason the role of faith in politics needs defining is because of the aggressive tactics of the Religious Right. For more than two decades now, religio-politics has been dominated by conservative Christian issues. Many Christians involved with these issues have openly identified themselves with the Republican Party, as if GOP stood for “God’s Own Party.”

And it may be contagious. Democrats are reaching out to faith groups like never before. Candidates are talking openly about their faith and linking faith to political issues. I am deeply concerned that the excesses of the Religious Right will become the strategies of the Religious Left. It doesn’t matter which party is doing it — the manipulation of faith for political purposes is shameless. The BCE folks stepping up with this positive resource could not be timelier.

But the BCE effort is more that mere reaction to the Religious Right. Everyone interviewed for the project acknowledges that faith plays a necessary role in our public life. The question becomes “how?” What is the best way for faith groups to involve themselves in politics without compromising both the American political tradition as well as the various faith traditions?

There is a long-standing vision of what society might look like if guided by faith principles. The biblical prophets called upon kings and other leaders to make sure economic institutions and practices were fair. They railed against those who held back the wages of working people. The prophets also warned that God regarded the plight of the widow and orphan with special concern. The powerful that neglect the powerless do so at their peril.

The Christian tradition held onto the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible and even carried it farther. Jesus made it known that caring for those he called “the least of these,” would be the standard by which the entire human race would be judged.

Jesus also had a lot to say about violence. He taught that the way to deal with oppressive regimes was by disarming them, stripping them of their pretense and power. For instance, his saying about “going the second mile,” only makes sense in the context of Roman oppression.

All of these sayings, and more, are political statements. They call for political involvement. People of faith should be part of the process; they should vote and be involved. But the values we work and vote for should reflect the best of our faith tradition, not a party platform. No single political agenda can fully contain God’s vision for the world.

The interviewees for “Golden Rule Politics” came from three states: Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee. In addition to my meager contribution, Alabama was well represented by Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham; Episcopal Bishop Henry Parsely and University of Law Professor Susan Pace Hamil. A church or civic group would find the DVD an excellent resource for a small group conversation about this vital topic.

You can visit the BCE Web site, www.ethicsdaily.com, for more information.

James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church. He can be contacted at faithmatters@mindspring.com.

James L. Evans James L. Evans

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