Politics and Spirituality
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, Janaury 11, 2004
Dr. Dean recently told audiences in Iowa that he prays daily. He hasn’t been to church back in Vermont in over a year—but his Congregationalism is nevertheless an important part of who he is, he says. He was deeply moved by a trip to Israel in 2002, and his favorite book of the New Testament, he told reporters, is the Book of Job. (Oh, is that in the Old Testament? Oh well, Dr. Dean couldn’t seem to remember.)
“I’m a New Englander, so I’m not used to wearing m religion on my sleeve and being open about it,” Dean said. “I’m gradually getting more comfortable with talking about religion in ways that I did not talk about it before.” When in Carolina, do as the Carolinians do…
There are so many questions regarding the interaction of politics and religion which face us as individuals, as a denomination, and as particular church communities. They’re important questions, and we need to take the time to consider them fully—perhaps even beyond the scope of this one sermon. They’re complicated questions, too, perhaps even difficult ones, as well. There are few issues which require us to make such fine and critical distinctions, and upon which it is so hard to be 100% consistent.
Oftentimes, our approach to matters of religion and politics seems to be determined by whether we approve of the particular brand of religion and/or politics being discussed. Back in the early 1960s, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leading members of the clergy were standing up forthrightly for civil rights, and basing their action upon their personal faiths, and using their churches as centers for the struggle, one Baptist minister in Virginia felt compelled to speak out. Condemning Dr. King and the other clergy who marched with him in Selma in 1965, Rev. Jerry Falwell said: “Preachers are not called upon to be politicians, but soul winners.” His cohort Pat Robertson probably slapped his side and nodded his head in agreement and said, “Amen, brother! You’re absolutely right!”
Of course since that time, this dynamic duo on the religious right seems to have had a conversion experience as far as the relationship between politics and religion is concerned. Indeed, from the 1970s onward, preachers of the right seem to have taken a page from Dr. King’s book and have infused their politics with deep religious fervor. And now it is often those of us on the left who look somewhat askance at the political piety expressed by our President, and prayer meetings in the White House, and all this talk of God at Cabinet meetings and such. (I suppose we ought to pray for forgiveness if we’re not always consistent about these matters.)
There is great danger in mixing politics and religion, it seems to me. When a politician invokes God’s name, he may then be presuming to be wearing God’s mantle, or speaking for God. If we are on “God’s side”, then where is the humility that is needed to formulate sane public policy. Politics becomes polarized; those who oppose our views are demonized, and when you’re taking on demons-- and not just fellow, fallible, human beings—then anything is permissible. Abraham Lincoln was the first statesman publicly to admit that his mortal enemies prayed for support and guidance to the same God he did. After another terrible Union defeat early in the war, a visitor to the White House told Lincoln that he could nevertheless rest assured that God was on his side. Lincoln blanched, and replied, “I try to be on God’s side, madam, but do not presume that God is on mine.”
One is reminded that German soldiers during the First World War wore crosses around their necks with the inscription, “Gott mit uns.” (“God is with us”).
It is a dangerous thing, indeed, when politicians send their armies out, explicitly, to do the work of Allah—or of Christ.
So, too, is it dangerous to the life of the church to have it viewed, by the Right or the Left, as just one more politicized institution, as just one more social action agency. Partisan political questions are, by their very nature, short-termed and transient matters. The church ought not to be built upon the shifting sands of politics. Rather, it must seek to have at its foundation the wisdom of the ages, the most discerning and deeply-felt and profound spiritual truths which time has distilled. The church must stand for that which abides when all else changes; for that which is permanent in a world which glories in the passing fads of the moment. It must stand for that which is timeless and essential in a world which is often bewitched by the superfluous and superficial.
We would never, in this church, take our religious and spiritual diversity for granted. For we know that we are, theologically and spiritually, a wonderfully diverse group. And further, we know that this diversity blesses us, and adds immeasurably to the richness of our own religious experience.
But when it comes to matters of politics, at least on a national level (not so much here at First Parish in Stoughton, perhaps), we all too often overlook our political diversity. Sometimes, I discern an assumption coming out of our national headquarters (though I think we’ve become a little more sensitive to it in more recent years) that “all” Unitarian Universalists are political liberals, or that “all” Unitarian Universalists vote Democratic, or that “all” Unitarian Universalists oppose the policies of the Bush administration. Now, the fact of the matter that I am personally, almost always, in agreement with this unspoken “party line” that comes out of headquarters-- I can Bush-bash with the best of them-- should not make me any less uncomfortable with its existence.
We would never presume to make theological presuppositions of this sort. Why should politics be any different? We are about welcoming one another and affirming one another, wherever we are in our personal and spiritual journeys. We would not want to make assumptions in our worship that marginalized or de-legitimized the theological or religious perspectives of any of us. We should be equally alert, then, to being a welcoming community for those of a wide array of political views, as well. There may well be more political diversity within Unitarian Universalists than we realize I read recently that 42% of UUs (a definite plurality) are registered Democrats—but that 38% (not quite as many, but still a very significant number) are registered Republicans. You would never guess that our political diversity is as wide as it is nationally, to hear the way our leadership speaks publicly, or to see the stands our churches take on various issues, or the ways in which we are discerned in the larger community (not necessarily in Stoughton) as “those left wing Democrats”.
Now, let me be clear: my vision is not for a “more Republicanized” version of Unitarian Universalism. Far from it! But I do want us to foster religious communities where all people of goodwill are welcomed, and where all men, women, and children are unafraid to speak their own truths.
At times, the church does need to stand up for ideals which can only be actualized in the political realm. The church has to bear witness to peace, and against the scourge of war. This is especially true in our nuclear era, where the church is called upon, I feel, to speak in defense of our mother planet itself.
But in standing for peace, it is nevertheless possible for men and women of faith to differ on an issue like the efficacy of the war in Iraq. It is also not the place of the church to support particular candidates for office, or to advocate a particular partisan political stand.
Of course, there are times in history when the church must become more actively involved in the explicitly political realm. In Hitler’s Germany’s for example, certain elements within the church emerged as the only existing opposition to Nazi tyranny. Most members of the Christian clergy, sadly, remained silent, or became outspoken allies of the dictatorship. In Poland, during the time of the Solidarity labor movement, the Catholic Church emerged as a center of freedom, and the people’s movement in East Germany which eventually brought down the Berlin Wall began as small meetings of care and concern in the basement of a Lutheran church in Leipzig. Sometimes, in an authoritarian or totalitarian state, the church is only ally which the poor and exploited people have, and then it is the duty of the church to act—though they may be reviled and persecuted themselves for so doing. When Dom Helder Camara was serving as the archbishop in the poorest region of Brazil, his critics among the upper classes called him “the red bishop”, but he responded: “When I fed the poor, I was called a saint, but when I asked why they are poor, they called me a communist.”
It is the duty of the church to ask why—to look deeper—and to focus its prophetic word on the sin and shame of this world in which we live.
So in our own society, the church is called upon to defend the freedom of all who face discrimination and prejudice. Dr. King and his co-workers, more than forty years ago now, were inspired in their work by their spiritual vision of a world where all people—black and white alike—were children of God. That was a fundamental religious question for them, and only secondarily a political one.
So, too, are our own churches, in our own day, called upon to assert ourselves as outspoken advocates of universal human rights—in our own land, no less than around the world. We are called upon to speak out—and to act—against dictatorial regimes. We are no less called to act against policies in our own land which deny the full dignity of all of our fellow Americans. That means, in our own time, doing all that we can, as individuals and as a church, to guarantee full civil liberties (including the right to marry), without discrimination based upon gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation. It is our duty as a church to defend the inherent worth and dignity of each and every man, woman, and child.
Fundamental to the lifelong journeys we take are our journeys as citizens and as engaged members of a community and a nation, engaged citizens of the world. In order to be effective—in order to be genuinely religious—a church has to be engaged in the real lives of its members, in the real life of the world. “Religion is not a private affair,” said the great Unitarian activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “Religion is not a skylight [toward heaven, but] the Front Door” open to the real world.”
Our spirituality needs to empower us in our everyday lives—to empower us to be better husbands, wives, and partners; better parents; better children—and better citizens. In our personal lives, we ought not to be able to draw hard and fast lines between our spirituality and our politics—between that which moves us and makes us as religious beings, and that which we are called to be in our lives as a whole. We want leaders, too, I think, who don’t leave their ethical principles—their deeper meanings—on the back burner when they’re called upon to make decisions which affect us all.
We want leaders, though, who reflect our deeper hopes and dreams for this Earth we share.
We want leaders who are humble about their personal faiths—who cherish their religions, but who do not insist upon imposing it on those who disagree. We do not want leaders who presume to speak for God.
We want leaders who practice a transformative politics which seeks dialogue, and not polarization; who are not afraid of differing opinions; who know that the ways of cooperation and coalition are always preferable to hard-headedness, stubbornness, and narrow-mindedness.
We want leaders who are true to their deepest values, and don’t just use the brittle façade of self-righteous moralizing as another tool for gaining votes, and for fostering ignorance and fear.
We want leaders who remind us that the way to change our world is to change ourselves, and that, as Gandhi said, if this world is to change than we must—each of – be the change that we would see in the world.
Nothing changes unless we change. And it is our faiths which change us.
As the profound Catholic monk Thomas Merton reminds us: “he who attempts to act and to do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about means and ends, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.”
There are enough places in this sad old world of ours for venting of aggressions, our delusions, and our prejudices. Our churches have to look deeper, and our faith has to guide us toward that deeper place. Someone once said that real religion begins in mysticism and ends in justice.
May our church be a precious incubator of our souls, which seeks to bring us together in these common endeavors. May here we find time and place for discerning the workings of the Spirit. And may we find ways to bring our faith to flower through service to one another and care for our Earth.