Sunday, November 27, 2011

Religion and politics - part 4


Clergy need to speak warily about politics. Reinhold Niebuhr had a humorous reminder of this early in his ministry:

I remember when I was a young parson; two Sunday school girls were playing under the window of my study. One said, "Let's not make too much noise; we will disturb Mr. Niebuhr." And the other little girl said, "Who is Mr. Niebuhr?" The first child answered, "Don't you know? He is the pastor to this church. He knows all about God.” (John Patrick Diggins, Why Niebuhr Now? Kindle Loc. 396-98)

We are rightly suspect of anyone who claims to speak authoritatively for or about God (remember the doctrine of sin, considered in the second post in this series on Religion and Politics).

In the 2012 Republican presidential race, Herbert Cain, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, and Tim Pawlenty have all said that God told them to enter the race. Perhaps God enjoys encouraging people to enter the fray of politics and to suffer the agony of defeat. More realistically, I suspect that the voice each of these politicians heard encouraging them to run for president was the voice of their ambitions and well-intentioned commitments masquerading as the voice of God.

Discerning God's will is notoriously difficult and problematic. Most Protestant Christians claim that a Christian can discern God's will by reading the Bible with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If only it were that simple! If scripture alone were sufficient for knowing God's will, then I think that we would observe more unity thinking and commonality of action among the various Protestant churches.

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches rely upon the Church for assistance in determining God's will. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, believed to be Christ's vicar on earth, can speak authoritatively about God's will. This advantageously results in a unified official teaching but unfortunately wallpapers over the real and widespread disagreements that lay and clergy continue to hold in spite of purported acceptance of the official teaching. The Orthodox Churches authoritatively discern God's will through Church councils and are less sanguine than is the Roman Catholic Church about actual acceptance of the official teaching. In many times and places the Orthodox have also spoken less frequently and in less detail about God's will than has the Roman Catholic Church.

Anglicans attempt to straddle all three of those approaches, insisting that by keeping Scripture, reason, and tradition in dialogue and tension with one another humans are most likely to discern God's will. Wesleyans, who follow in the footsteps of Anglican John Wesley, provide a helpful corrective to the historic Anglican position by adding experience to Scripture, reason, and tradition. Pure reason does not exist; experience, including emotion, always colors reason.

Therefore, Christian political thought and participation will:

1.    Adopts global rather than narrow national or parochial views;

2.    Advocates equal liberty and rights for all humans in the context of concern for all creation;

3.    Affirms the importance of pluralism, recognizing that human sin and finitude make any discernment of God's will necessarily tentative and subject to revision;

4.    Recognizes that Christians will reasonably reach diverse conclusions about most issues;

5.    Supports a secular state in which Christians freely participate in politics informed by their religion and other citizens freely participate while informed by their religion or no religion.

My next post in this series develops that fifth point further, exploring what constitutes the proper relationship between Christianity and a nation state.

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