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Religious Belief and Political Parties
An article by Jim Wallis of SoJourners discussing how religious faith has affected political movements.
In the article below Jim Wallis discusses the influence of religious belief on political parties and movements. It was originally published in the New York Time and found reprinted at the Tom Paine website at this location:
Jim Wallis is an international commentator on ethics and public life; the executive director and editor-in-chief of Sojourners, Christians for justice and peace; and the convener of Call to Renewal, a faith-inspired movement to overcome poverty.
An overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves to be religious. Yet according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, people who attend church more than once a week vote Republican by 63 percent to 37 percent; people who seldom or never attend vote Democratic by 62 percent to 38 percent.
This disparity should concern Democrats if not as a matter of faith then as a matter of politics. More important, it should concern anyone who cares about the role of religion in public life. By failing to engage Republicans in this debate, the Democrats impoverish us all. By declining to discuss "religious topics" openly, Democrats allow Republicans to define the terms of the debate.
President Bush and the Republicans clearly have an advantage with people of faith as an election year approaches. Republicans are more comfortable talking about religious values and issues, and they are quick to promise that their faith will affect their policies (even if, like their Democratic counterparts, they don't always follow through on their campaign promises).
President Bush is as public and expressive about his faith as any recent occupant of the White House. Among his first acts as president was to establish the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which helps religious and community groups get federal financing for some of their work. Although the "faith-based initiative" has turned out to be more symbolic than substantial, symbolism matters in religion as well as politics.
The Democratic candidates, in contrast, seem uncomfortable with the subject of religion. (The exception is Joseph Lieberman, though even he seems less comfortable now than he was in 2000.) They stumble over themselves to assure voters that while they may be people of faith, they won't allow their religious beliefs to affect their political views.
For too many Democrats, faith is private and has no implications for political life. But what kind of faith is that? Where would America be if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself?
By declining to discuss "religious topics" openly, Democrats allow Republicans to define the terms of the debate. The "religious issues" in this election will be reduced to the Ten Commandments in public courthouses, marriage amendments, prayer in schools and, of course, abortion.
These issues are important. But faith informs policy in other areas as well. What about the biblical imperatives for social justice, the God who lifts up the poor, the Jesus who said, "blessed are the peacemakers"?
How a candidate deals with poverty is a religious issue, and the Bush administration's failure to support poor working families should be named as a religious failure. Neglect of the environment is a religious issue. Fighting pre-emptive and unilateral wars based on false claims is a religious issue (a fact not changed by the capture of Saddam Hussein).
Such issues could pose problems for the Bush administration among religious and nonreligious people alike if someone were to define them in moral terms. The failure of the Democrats to do so is not just a political miscalculation. It shows they do not appreciate the contributions of religion to American life. The failure of Democrats to talk about religion shows they do not appreciate the contributions of religion to American life.
The United States has a long history of religious faith supporting and literally driving progressive causes and movements. From the abolition of slavery to women's suffrage to civil rights, religion has led the way for social change.
The separation of church and state does not require banishing moral and religious values from the public square. America's social fabric depends on such values and vision to shape our politics—a dependence the founders recognized.
It is indeed possible (and necessary) to express one's faith and convictions about public policy while still respecting the pluralism of American democracy. Rather than suggesting that we not talk about "God," Democrats should be arguing on moral and even religious grounds that all Americans should have economic security, health care and educational opportunity, and that true faith results in a compassionate concern for those on the margins.
Democrats should be saying that a just foreign and military policy will not only work better, but also be more consistent with both our democratic and spiritual values. And they must offer a moral alternative to a national security policy based primarily on fear, and say what most Americans intuitively know: that defeating terrorism is both practically and spiritually connected to the deeper work of addressing global poverty and resolving the conflicts that sow the bitter seeds of despair and violence.
Many of these policy choices can be informed and shaped by the faith of candidates and citizens without transgressing the important boundaries of church and state.
God is always personal, but never private. The Democrats are wrong to restrict religion to the private sphere just as the Republicans are wrong to define it solely in terms of individual moral choices and sexual ethics. Allowing the right to decide what is a religious issue would be both a moral and political tragedy.
Not everyone in America has the same religious values, of course. And many moral lessons are open to interpretation. But by withdrawing into secularism, the Democrats deprive Americans of an important debate.
Editor's Note: This piece orignially appeared in The New York Times on Dec. 28, 2003.
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