Religion and Politics:
The intersections of our spiritual and moral lives

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King used to say he preached with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I understand this to mean that his words were always inextricably linked with the moral and ethical concerns of the day, and that he found his perspective on these issues from the Christian scriptures. The “gospel,” or the first four books of the New Testament, speak to the conditions of the oppressed living under Roman rule. The “good news” was that those who were marginalized, discarded, and persecuted were to be lifted up and given full human rights. The spiritual vision of Jesus’s ministry was a society governed by love, from which all laws and policies followed.

In 1967, toward the end of his short life, King initiated the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address what he called the triumvirate of “poverty, racism, and militarism.”  This campaign was inspired and driven through King’s interpretation of the moral vision in the Christian Bible.

Yet some find it surprising, or even wrong, that faith and politics—as represented in this example—should be interwoven. Indeed, in order to nurture an active spiritual life one needs, I think, these three entirely apolitical things:

  • Quiet reflection and contemplation
  • A path or tradition(s) to draw from
  • Affiliation and community

Politics is defined as “matters pertaining to a country or locale,” and the spiritual life calls us away from this sphere in many ways. Yet insofar as the spiritual life informs the moral life (sometimes they are even inextricable), a spiritual path often leads to an intersection with the political realm, as it did for King.

The extent to which the United States has been a successful democracy owes much to the separation of church and state. Religion in politics has often and pervasively been used to destructive ends, like the limiting of freedoms, the oppression of LGBTQ+ and other people, and the legitimization of unjust policies through an invocation of the Bible—such as recently at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Currently, the U.S. is detaining and separating of immigrant families at the border and banning the entry of citizens from certain majority-Muslim countries. According to my understanding of my faith tradition, Christianity, there is no question that these practices would be abhorred by Jesus of Nazareth, who was himself a refugee for a period of time, and who included in his closest circle those who were excluded from and marginalized by society.

If the ministry of Jesus were to be unfolding now, I believe, Jesus would be at the border; he would be in the airports; he would be at Standing Rock; he would condemn the criminalization of black males; and he would be engaging in civil disobedience against the powers whose policies visit violence and devastation on other human beings.

At the same time, Jesus would pray for his enemies. He would offer forgiveness to those whose policies he railed against. Christianity has always held that there are civil laws, and there are “God’s laws.” Martin Luther King and others before and after him followed Jesus’s example by breaking laws that were immoral in order to be in line with what they understood as God’s law. While I do not believe that Christian scripture is ever to be interpreted literally, or its stories and admonitions to be taken out of their historical and social context, I do believe there is little question about Jesus’s stance on the rights of people to be free from tyranny and persecution. I see this as a lens through which to view asylum, for example, which is being sought by immigrant and refugees to this country. Asylum is a human right, in accordance with both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and how I understand the Christian tradition.

There are many different interpretations of the Bible. For some of us, trying to understand the origins of other people’s viewpoints—even when we find them abhorrent—can be one of the paths forward. I suggest we recognize, for example, that immigrants are being demonized in the public sphere by being referred to as “vermin” that are “infesting our country.” It is the dehumanization of people that leads to other people’s complicity in their oppression. People are being told that immigrants bring disproportionate levels of crime and are a drain on social resources. As hard as it is, depending on our social location, it helps to be curious about the origins of the viewpoints from those with whom we vehemently disagree. How do people develop those viewpoints, and from whom? We do this when and how we can, taking into account our own social location and how others’ viewpoints affect our spiritual and psychological health—we are not called upon to invite injury upon ourselves, which further demoralizes us in the struggle for the human rights and dignity of all people.

All of us are vulnerable to believing what we hear when it comes from multiple channels. I think that we are most successful in “calling out” another person when we have “called them in,” demonstrating that we can establish a relationship wherein their worth and dignity are considered, and even hear their point of view.

Yet, the actions that emerge from some viewpoints are not tolerable. For Jesus, when the human rights of others were violated, there was no ambiguity.

So, separating politics and religion is complicated. But lately there are many things unfolding in the political realm, such as the separation and detention of children at the border, which are, as I understand them in accordance with my faith tradition, morally straightforward.

I often grapple with just maintaining what I believe, as I noted above, are the three bases for an active spiritual life—quiet reflection and contemplation, deep engagement with my tradition and other spiritual paths, and affiliation with a spiritual community. It can be hard to find time to touch down and engage.

But I think if we maintain these three practices to the best of our ability, we cannot help but resist the dehumanization of others, and develop a viewpoint with human rights at the center. If our viewpoints then drift into the political realm, we are nonetheless faithful; we are in fact following the lead of those historical figures who have put the worth and dignity of all people (and sentient beings) above all else. Most religions have originated from this very basis. I can only call myself Christian to the extent that I do my best, however flawed and incomplete, to emulate Jesus, for whom justice and full inclusion in society for those at risk was the highest priority.

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