Progressive Faith in the Public Square
by Douglas R. Sharp
Professor of Theology, Religion and Society (ret.)
Now that the party primaries are behind us, the winners and their supporters step up their efforts to contact and persuade the voters. The field of candidates has been winnowed and the goal is a win in November’s election. Though some may have already done so, now is as good a time as any to pause again to reflect on the relationship between religious faith and our involvement in public life.
Many people believe that our politics are dirty and corrupt, a very messy mix of activities involving unscrupulous politicos whose views of their own importance are quite exaggerated. There’s an element of truth in that view. But politics, in the case of this country, has to do more fundamentally with the process by which we make public policy and pass legislation that shapes the ways we live in the shared spaces that make up our socioeconomic world.
It isn’t difficult to imagine how persons of faith would want to eschew politics. It also isn’t hard to envision waves of faithful persons enacting their core religious beliefs by engaging in various types of political advocacy and activism. What is worth pondering here is whether and how religious convictions justify political inaction for some while authorizing political activity for others.
It is inappropriate, surely, to identify faith and politics, as though religious knowledge and commitment are essentially indistinguishable from a political agenda. It is also something of a theological error to contend that the Divine, however this may be construed, self-evidently authorizes a particular social or political order. Moreover, the existence of God, questionable as it may be for some, cannot be considered as the approbation or imprimatur of either a political agenda or the social and economic world we humans have constructed. It would simply be wrong to utilize political ideology and agenda as a criterion or assessment for the legitimacy of religious views, and vice versa.
On the other hand, it would no less be an error to suggest that faith has nothing to do with politics. Those who share this view typically regard politics as characteristic of a society’s “worldliness” or all that is temporal, profane, and impious, while faith has to do with an individual’s “spirituality” or all that is eternal, sacred, and inviolable. These religionists hold that the culture of religious communities should be separate and distinct form civil and secular affairs, and that the agenda and programs of political organizations and government itself are not the business of the religious communities. It is with individual and communal acts of charity and compassion and proclamation of religious messages that religious communities engage others outside their own sphere of interactions.
Between these two positions on faith and politics—all or nothing—there is yet an alternative, and it is this alternative that is characteristic of progressive Christians. In a few words, this alternative suggests that it is precisely our faith—embedded in, transmitted through, and enacted by the historic Christian traditions—that animates and persuades us to enter the public square and engage in debate and activism. It is not the case that Christian faith prescribes solutions for every problem or policies for every practice. Rather, faith and its antecedents in the traditions offer a perspective, a set of principles and convictions that frame the socioeconomic situation that invites interpretation and policy intervention. This perspective or frame is grounded in the witness to the love, justice, and mercy of God, mediated by the biblical tradition and the enactment of these virtues by Christians-in-community through the ages.
In faith, we live in trust, in recollection and expectation, of God’s unmerited grace, so we seek to be loyal to the God of all-embracing love and to all that God loves, especially within the realm where we humans have our life together. From the biblical tradition, we honor and cherish God’s intent that both we as creatures and the sphere of creation wherein we dwell are to thrive and that we are to seek the well-being of all persons and creation itself. Believing that our love for God also entails love for others without condition, we are committed to seeking the well-being, the common good, of all. We thus understand ourselves to be stewards of this world and care-takers of one another, and this axiomatically draws us not only into social but political life as well.
Our faith as our response to the initiative taken by the One Who Lives and Loves evokes our commitment to seek justice and mercy. As it happens, in our context, the fundamental way to seek justice and mercy is through participation in politics as the sphere where the proposals and policies for achieving justice are discussed, argued, and enacted through the passage of legislation or the adoption of regulation. In short, our sense of the Christian faith and the traditions we embrace pulls us into the politics of democracy precisely so that we may advocate for the achievement of policies and programs that seek justice and embody love, grace, and mercy, i.e., advance God’s just and peaceable purpose, for the common good.
Read my blog on faith and public life at Conversations for the Common Good.