Religion In The Public Square: 8 Rules For The Age Of Trump
Religious Americans don’t know what to do. When it comes to questions of religion in the public square, the rules of the game have changed, whether you are a religious liberal or a religious conservative. And with a national election coming, this new reality has generated confusion and concern in both camps.
Generally speaking, liberal religious people operate according to one paradigm and conservative religious people according to another. In the liberal community, religion is seen as a private and personal matter. A candidate with a liberal religious perspective might make an occasional reference to religion, but such references are likely to be tepid and ceremonial. As a matter of principle, liberals affirm the importance of religion in society, but they see religion as an individual concern and prefer that it remain that way.
In the conservative religious community, particularly among evangelicals, religion is far more likely to be seen as an advocacy tool, intended to advance a particular political candidate or cause. Religion intrudes into the public realm, with the active encouragement of religious leaders. Conservative evangelical churches are most identified with this model, but liberal African-American churches have often adopted it as well.
The problem is that both liberals and conservatives are now dissatisfied with the political models they have created. Evangelical leaders, who have used their political clout to back the Republican Party, are mostly unhappy with Donald Trump. Reluctant to support him, they are reconsidering the nature of their political involvement. For their part, liberal religious leaders have long wanted a more activist model of political engagement, and the prospect of a Trump victory has added urgency to their concerns.
What is needed is some new thinking, by religious liberals and conservatives alike. As a starting point, I suggest the following 8 rules for religious activism in the age of Trump.
One: We religious leaders have a prophetic role.
We are not a lobby. We are not a special interest group. We are not tied to any political party or candidate. We are religious people, believers in God and faithful to the sacred teachings of our faith. We know that while church should be separated from state, religion cannot be separated from life. And this means that we apply our religious teachings to all the great issues of the day—war and peace, poverty and injustice, marriage and family. And we apply these teachings fearlessly and consistently, to candidates of all parties.
Two: We affirm our religious values in public debate, using religious language without reservation or embarrassment.
As religious people, we do not hesitate to talk of our faith in God or to use the language of the Bible. Only in this way can we accurately convey who we are. And since 70% of Americans believe in God, it is reasonable to assume that most Americans will be open to our message.
Three: When we make a public argument, we do not use religious language alone; we also ground our statements in reason and a language of morality that is accessible to everyone.
While we proudly proclaim our religious faith, we are aware that not all Americans are religious and that many who are use religious terms differently than we do. In addressing a matter of policy, we must be careful to do so in a way that can be understood by people of different religions or no religion at all. Religion is an important part of America, but only a part. And we know that America needs a common political discourse not dependent on theological terminology.
Four: We do not tell members of our churches, synagogues, or mosques how to vote, but we do tell them what our religious tradition has to say about critical election issues.
We are religious teachers, experts in sacred texts, men and women of faith, and inheritors of the prophetic tradition. We must share our views on all important matters of public policy. Still, if we tell others how to vote, we presume too much, inflating our personal importance and diminishing the God-given judgment of those we serve.
Five: We love our country, but we are careful never to suggest that patriotism takes precedence over commitment to God and our religious beliefs.
Patriotism does not mean making America an object of worship or blind loyalty. We love America so profoundly because America is devoted to so many of the core values of our religious tradition. Our task as Americans is to affirm those values and fight for them in the public arena.
Six: We both prize civility and oppose those who misuse it to suppress opposing views.
Vulgar, vicious, and ugly public discourse is contrary to our religious principles, and we reject it absolutely. Yet we know that talk of “civility” is sometimes a tool to shut down vigorous debate. Religious people speak up, expressing their views passionately but always in a civil tone.
Seven: We demand both good policy and good character from our political leaders.
If a politicians expect our vote but ignores justice, we know that something is wrong. You cannot serve the public in a godly way if you have no policies to assist the poor and the needy. We also know that a leader’s moral behavior affects his or her leadership. If a President is a good mother or father, it matters; if a President loves and honors his or her spouse, it matters; if a President acts with integrity in his or her personal dealings with others, it matters. As religious people, we reject the claim that policy is important but character is not, or vice versa; we insist on both.
Eight: We do not have messianic expectations of politics, but we expect politicians to do better and be better.
Religious people bring a certain realism to their political activism. Governing is difficult, and all of America’s major religions are rooted in an awareness of the human inclination to sin. Still, religion is the business of promoting virtue and healing our fractured world. Our politicians need not be perfect, but human imperfectability is not an all-purpose excuse for political failure or corruption. Repairing and improving the world is not easy but it is possible, and religious Americans expect their political leaders to move us down that road.