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Politics and Religion: Can Religion Help Fix Our Broken Political System?

“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” – Linus, in Charles M. Shultz’s Peanuts

The Great Pumpkin notwithstanding, two topics often said to be avoided in polite conversation are politics and religion. Yet citing this maxim in his introductory comments at an event sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, Chancellor Mark Wrighton added: “here, we do both.”

The event last month featured former U.S. Senators John Danforth (R-Mo.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in a conversation titled, The Role of Religion in America’s Broken Politics.

Broken it is; there’s little debate on that point. The senators, representing divergent political spectrums as well as religious beliefs, each relayed their perspectives on why this is the case. Referring to George Washington’s warnings about the danger of political factions, Lieberman proclaimed: “We are living Washington’s worst nightmare.”

Members of Congress expend most of their effort striving to make the other party look bad, added Danforth. “How am I going to gain advantage for my party in the next election?”

But “where can religion be useful?” Moderator Marie Griffith, director of the Danforth Center, asked.

Danforth, a graduate of the Yale Divinity School and author of Faith and Politics, served in the U.S. Senate as a Republican from 1977 to 1994. Lieberman, an orthodox Jew and a Democrat turned independent, held his U.S. Senate office from 1989 to 2012.

According to Danforth, “religion is about what ought to be; politics is about what is.” He compared absolute political ideology and the refusal to reach compromise to idolatry. “It’s only politics,” he insisted – nothing worthy of the level of religious beliefs.

However, this is what we’ve come to, and many seem to treat their political views as religious dogma. It’s bad enough when lawmaking infringes directly on religious ideology, as is the case with sensitive issues like reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. It can be difficult to leave one’s beliefs behind at the voting booth, and politicians on both sides of the aisle are careful not to alienate their base on religious grounds.

Returning to Griffith’s question, can religion help break down the divide? Or is it to blame?

The Founding Fathers, Danforth argued, spoke about virtue: “putting the common good ahead of personal interest.” He claimed that religious congregations are in a unique role to take action.

“I believe that being a faithful person must entail something more than just writing a letter to your congressman,” he added.

Lieberman agreed, describing John F. Kennedy’s inaugural challenge for public service as a catalyst. He noted how people get tremendous satisfaction out of serving a cause. Today, he argued, “people would respond to a leader who would challenge them to be more selfless.”

I can only assume he meant our elected representatives as well as the public.

Lieberman also suggested that religion had played a very constructive role in early American history, providing the framework for many of the documents so dear to our nation’s existence, as well as its impact on the abolitionist and civil rights movements of the past. But this purpose remains relevant today.

“It’s time for religious groups to come back onto the field,” Lieberman urged.

Granted, religion can and has been used divisively throughout history. But Danforth maintains that “instead, religion should bind us together,” relating this to the Latin root “religo: to tie or bind.”

In response to a question about the benefits of “breaking of bread,” Lieberman cited the ongoing weekly Senate prayer breakfasts as a hidden center of hope.

“It’s the one time a week that people drop the party labels,” he commented.

Religion, Lieberman asserted, can be an antidote to the lack of civility and respect so commonplace today in public discourse.

Even Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, agrees that religion provides important teachings for the secular world:

“Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism have all made significant contributions to mainstream politics, but their relevance to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they depart from the modern political script and remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together or in ceremoniously washing a stranger’s feet or in sitting at a table with neighbours and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together.”

Yet the premise that only religion can lead to greater civility in society, with an inevitable positive result on politics, is highly debatable. Professor Griffith began by asserting that Americans agree on very few things. Politics and religion may be at the bottom of that list, especially where they intersect. There are no easy answers.

Has religion helped or hindered political divisiveness?

Photo Credit: Jeremy Swinborne / shutterstock.com

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