Faith informing politics

Required to dig

By Alexis James Waggoner | 9/14/2018

A new poll from the Associated Press reports that relatively few Americans (19 percent) find it important that a political candidate be religious or share their religious beliefs. Conversely, a majority of Americans do see a role for religion in the shape of public policy and do want this role to extend beyond the typical “culture war” issues such as abortion.

The numbers get more nuanced when the percentages are broken down by denomination, but the disconnect between the importance of individual faith and collective public policy remains interesting. If a candidate does not share an individual’s beliefs, how can the candidate advocate for those beliefs in the public square? It seems that most Americans are no longer troubled by this question.

Perhaps there is some religious literacy education that needs to happen here. Reading between the lines on the numbers, my guess is that people have a sense of how they want politicians and the government to operate in ways informed by their religious beliefs, but people have a hard time articulated their beliefs and perhaps even understanding them. It might be that religious Americans no longer know how to apply their beliefs to their political thinking process. This might account for how evangelical Christians seem unable to face serious political questions about the current American administration.

I find it heartening that the poll reveals people want religion to influence critical decision areas like poverty, healthcare, immigration, gun control, education, and climate change. It is true that the Bible says or implies several important things about justice issues. I also admit, however, that biblical scholarship has not widely impacted how the Bible is commonly read and the difference scholarship can make to what is commonly taken for the message of the Bible.

The recent “Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” demonstrates this point. Over 4000 pastors signed the statement that denies the centrality of justice in the gospels and the importance of justice to the church. It considers “to live justly in the world” a distraction from “the components of the gospel.” The statement overtly rejects issues of oppression, racism, and more. It excludes women from leadership in the church. There have been a number of well-written responses and renunciations, so I won’t venture far into the fray. But I wonder if this vast discrepancy in beliefs about the social gospel reflects the overall poverty of biblical knowledge in American society? In part an indictment is sounded against those who value scholarship in religion but have failed as educators. Or, how else does one explain the appearance of the impression that social justice  — as the Statement suggests — is not rooted in scripture but merely the whim of culture?

To be sure, teaching theology is difficult. Theology is not about pointing to a biblical passage to bolster a particular point of view — anyone can do that. To get into the Bible and relate it to contemporary issues means to get into the history of ancient cultures, the context of ancient life, and the problems with interpreting ancient texts. It is necessary to communicate with writers and their communities’ experiences from times long ago. Digging deep into history and having willingness to learn and be surprised is the essence of scholarship in religion. The Bible does not speak univocally. It does not really have an “opinion.” Teaching the Bible is accordingly the work of opening minds to diversity.

Today more than ever, it is necessary to hold great humility when seeking to express a “strong opinion, loosely held” – that is, to be firm but still open to difference. This attitude, strong but open, is the only responsible way to have a “biblically informed” opinion. It doesn’t have to be complex, but it does require a commitment to education. I believe that in so far as my religion informs my politics, it is a commitment on my part to do the required digging.

2 replies
  1. Rev. Martin Nussbaum says:

    Nicely stated, but I would suggest that the AP poll might reflect a greater respect for diversity in religion expression than we give the common populace credit for. They understand that the separation of church and state ideal is one that allows for a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Jew to hold office in this country without seeking to impose an uniformity of dogma or creed on those that they represent, while they also believe to be informed by your faith also leads to a common respect for the idea of loving one’s neighbor as oneself and integrity in avoiding conflicts of interest as basic moral behavior. As always, the devil is in the details. Does love of your neighbor require you to respect the life of a child at conception or birth? Do you understand that the mother is making a hard choice or a convenient choice? Does social justice require an employer to give a living wage or provide the most possible jobs? Is a homosexual offending commonly held mores or expressing innate biological desires? We could go on and on and indeed we do, but that is what it means to live in a pluralistic democratic society.

    • Alexis Waggoner says:

      Thanks Martin for your thoughtful comment. I think you’re right — underscoring this poll is the likelihood that there is a shared values system at play, somewhat (although I doubt entirely) external to our, and our politicians’, religious beliefs. I actually just did an interview with one of our God Seminar members in which we talk about this study and he brings up an interesting point about our shared American “myth” being informed by no longer (always) directly tied to religious faith. I think it’s along the lines of what you’re saying here. You can watch the interview here: https://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/doing-theology-in-the-age-of-trump/ thanks for commenting!

Comments are closed.

Photo of Alexis Waggoner

As Marketing and Digital Education Director, Alexis Waggoner works closely with both Westar’s Marketing Committee and the Executive Director to advance the presence and value of Westar in our culture through social media and the use of digital media in public education. Alexis brings to Westar a unique blend of digital marketing and religious education experience. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. 

2 replies
  1. Rev. Martin Nussbaum says:

    Nicely stated, but I would suggest that the AP poll might reflect a greater respect for diversity in religion expression than we give the common populace credit for. They understand that the separation of church and state ideal is one that allows for a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Jew to hold office in this country without seeking to impose an uniformity of dogma or creed on those that they represent, while they also believe to be informed by your faith also leads to a common respect for the idea of loving one’s neighbor as oneself and integrity in avoiding conflicts of interest as basic moral behavior. As always, the devil is in the details. Does love of your neighbor require you to respect the life of a child at conception or birth? Do you understand that the mother is making a hard choice or a convenient choice? Does social justice require an employer to give a living wage or provide the most possible jobs? Is a homosexual offending commonly held mores or expressing innate biological desires? We could go on and on and indeed we do, but that is what it means to live in a pluralistic democratic society.

    • Alexis Waggoner says:

      Thanks Martin for your thoughtful comment. I think you’re right — underscoring this poll is the likelihood that there is a shared values system at play, somewhat (although I doubt entirely) external to our, and our politicians’, religious beliefs. I actually just did an interview with one of our God Seminar members in which we talk about this study and he brings up an interesting point about our shared American “myth” being informed by no longer (always) directly tied to religious faith. I think it’s along the lines of what you’re saying here. You can watch the interview here: https://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/doing-theology-in-the-age-of-trump/ thanks for commenting!

Comments are closed.