A different view of religion and politics

Politics is often injected with a religious fervor, a winner-take-all attitude. But religion also has a different function: community building.

Jason Redmond/Reuters/File
Wayne Miller (left) engages Trump supporter Thomas Hager in a political discussion ahead of a 2020 rally at the Seattle Center Armory.

Is politics replacing religion?

That is the question Linda Feldmann asks in her cover story, and as you might expect, the question isn’t easily answered. I’ll let you read Linda’s story to form your own conclusions. But the topic, I believe, is essential to understanding the challenges facing the United States and how we overcome them.

My last column quoted James Davison Hunter, whose 1991 book “Culture Wars” set the stage for the politics of today, where compromise on many issues feels impossible, if not immoral. In his interview with Politico, Professor Hunter explained why.

“The root of the word ‘culture’ is Latin: ‘cultus.’ It’s about what is sacred to us,” he said. “Culture, in one respect, is about that which is pure and that which is polluted; it is about the boundaries that are often transgressed, and what we do about that.”

This has been one of the most prevalent functions of human religion throughout history – to determine what is pure and what is profane and then to judge. When governments have become entwined with this tendency, the result has often been bloodshed and oppression. The difference today is that each side sees the other as investing secular policy with this all-or-nothing fervor. Evangelicals are seen as making politics their religion. But Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told Linda the same is true on the other side: “We’re just responding to what the left has been doing – worshipping at the altar of politics.”

Yet there is a different religious model – a different function religion has also performed over the centuries and which looks very different from the culture wars’ purity tests. Martin Luther King Jr. talked of it as the “beloved community” – the radical practice of love as a bedrock for society.

Here, the goal “is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community,” he said in a 1957 address titled “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma.” “It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here ... is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”

That last sentence shines with particular intensity today.

Some time back, I interviewed Monitor reader Duncan Newcomer, an ordained minister and a member of the Idea of America Network, which holds that America’s founding ideals are its greatest strength. He told me, “We could lose our country if we only win our point. So no matter how vivid our points of view might be, we need ... to value the worth of the minority opponent whom we hope to beat but not to kill.”

To what are we giving our religious fervor: purity tests or the building of the beloved community? Our politics will reflect the answer.

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