A Crash Course In God and Politics

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By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
Saturday, February 9, 2008

According to the saying, there are two things you should never discuss at a dinner party: religion and politics.

There's nothing that says you can't read about them, though. And as the presidential campaign heats up, U.S. publishers are releasing books on faith and public life.

Frank Lambert's "Religion in American Politics," published last month, traces the interplay between pulpits and the public square through nearly two centuries of U.S. history. Some things, he writes, never change.

Efforts to proclaim the United States a "Christian nation" date at least to 1827, when Calvinist minister Ezra Stiles Ely tried to mobilize a "Christian party in politics" to fight the delivery of mail on Sundays.

Still, any group's attempt to represent the nation's religious heritage is met with opposition, Lambert writes. The Purdue University professor's book revisits some of those battles, including the nation's founding and the possible reemergence of the "religious left."

During the past few years, perhaps no one has worked harder to promote that liberal reemergence than the Rev. Jim Wallis, an evangelical author and founder of Sojourners, a Washington-based group whose mission "is to articulate the biblical call to social justice."

Wallis's 2005 book "God's Politics" struck a nerve with liberals reeling from the reelection of President Bush, which was aided by "values-voting" conservative evangelicals. But Wallis says change is in the air, and his latest book, "The Great Awakening," hopes to revive faith and politics "in a post-Religious Right America."

His work traces the history of progressive religious movements, lays out seven commitments (such as "God hates injustice") for Christians engaged in politics and attempts to ground those principles in biblical narratives and theology.

Like Wallis, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. says "the religious winds are changing." Similarly, for Dionne, who writes from the liberal Catholic tradition, that means the political dominance of the religious right is over.

In "Souled Out," published last month, the columnist explores the roots of American liberalism, diagnoses injuries caused by culture-war politics, reckons with the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and points the way to a future when "Christianity's liberal commitments will be seen as more relevant than its conservative impulses."

But religious liberals and Democrats can't "level the praying field" if they don't acknowledge mistakes made in the recent past, Time magazine editor Amy Sullivan writes.

In "The Party Faithful," due out this month, Sullivan says that the party's fall from grace was abetted by liberals who belittled religious voters and Democratic leaders who wrote them off.

National polls show that many Democratic voters regularly attend worship services, Sullivan says. "Yet the people who run the Democratic Party largely believe that the 'God gap' is an immutable law of the political universe," she writes.

Sullivan sees reasons for hope with the rise of Democratic candidates such as Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who have made efforts to reach people of faith in their presidential campaigns.

Obama and Clinton have reached out to centrist evangelicals, who, says evangelical scholar David P. Gushee, are "emerging with growing confidence and impact these days."

In "The Future of Faith in American Politics," Gushee offers an "insider's account" of evangelicals who are weary of the "angry entitlement" of their brethren on the right and wary of wishy-washy liberals.

Typically, centrist evangelicals are strongly against abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia, but they also see room in a "broad and holistic agenda" for human rights, the plight of the poor and peacemaking, says Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta.

Like Gushee, Florida megachurch pastor Joel C. Hunter says it's time for evangelicals to focus on issues beyond abortion and homosexuality.

In his book "A New Kind of Conservative," Hunter offers seven reasons "the current strategy of the Religious Right" fails to resonate with conservative Christians, including personal attacks, too much emphasis on "below the belt" issues, a lack of focus on spiritual results and a lack of intellectual heft.

"Jesus didn't teach us what political platform would best represent the faith; but He did teach us by example how to help those who are in need," Hunter writes.

For the political neophyte, Amy E. Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Illinois, offers "Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians Make Sense of American Politics."

With chapters dedicated to the Constitution and the separation of powers as well as the art of compromise and the application of faith to politics, Black navigates some of the trickier spheres of public life.

"At that proverbial dinner party, in our churches, or even in the comfort of our own homes, it won't always be easy or comfortable to talk about religion and politics," Black writes. "But the challenge is both worthy and worthwhile."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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