The root question raised by the current debate about the role of religion in American political life is surely not whether religious convictions should influence political choices. The answer to that is they always have; they do now; and they probably always will. The question rather is how the larger universe of religious and moral discourse can help to invigorate an enfeebled American politi- cal prochnical and so elite it has nearly ceased being democratic.
I believe the vigorous presence in the public arena of religiously motivated people (whether a Jesse Jackson or a Mario Cuomo or the Roman Catholic bishops or the evangelical preachers) should not be viewed as a nuisance but as an opportunity. These people and the millions of others they represent should be welcomed as sources of renewal in a critical conversation that had become jaded and effete, the privileged domain of experts and "policy makers."
Naturally, because we are a religiously pluralistic people, and because our governing institutions are so vast and intricate, the problem of how the religious, moral and political arenas can be brought back in touch will not be an easy one. Still, finding such connections is essential for three reasons:
1.Our politics needs it.
2.Our faith requires it.
3.Our people want it.
In Western political theory moral reasoning and political choice belong together. From Aristotle to Reinhold Niebuhr, from Thomas Aquinas to Abraham Lincoln, our sages have taught that when the two are separated both are diminished. Politics without a vision of the common good becomes something less than politics. It is reduced to the art of brokerage between power interests. It becomes war carried on by other means. In light of this tradition, the present high visibility of religious and moral terms in our political life must be understood as arising not just from some new assertiveness by religious institutions, but as an understandable response to the continuing impoverishment of American political discourse itself.
The thinning out of the discourse is not, however, just the result of bad theory. It stems from massive cultural changes that have subverted the Founders' idea of an "active and informed citizenry." One such change comes from the impact of a huge, bureaucratic state, which reduces citizens to clients. The other is the growth of an economy fueled by greed and acquisitiveness, which inevitably twists citizens first into customers and then into consumers. This transformation of sturdy citizens into suppliant clients and bemused consumers of campaign hype has been abetted by the detachment of political judgment from the religious and moral frames of reference within which it was once lodged, for most of our people, throughout most of our history.
Almost all American religious traditions stand in direct opposition to these citizenship-subverting forces. Our religious traditions emphasize restraint. They teach that there are moral limits on acquisitiveness, which are not in keeping with the calculated stimulation of the need for ever more commodities. They deny that one can single- mindedly pursue private gain and yet somehow automatically contribute to the public good. Most important, American religious traditions emphasize the bringing together of citizens to discuss their policy choices in terms of their moral values. Remember the New England town meetings, which often took place in the church. This tradition rejects the notion of citizens as audiences to be researched, persuaded and cajoled.
These changes have produced the so-called "market model" of politics, and the result has been the trivialization of ethics. The "ethics commission" of a legislative body today is reduced to dealing with who is stealing the pencils. Meanwhile, the vital link between politics, morality and ultimate beliefs is lost sight of.
The most prominent religious traditions in the United States, the Jewish and the Christian, are not accidentally or peripherally concerned about politics. They are essentially and intentionally concerned. They are religious world views in which the political arena is enormously important because they are religions of justice. Think of Moses confronting the Pharoah; the prophets denouncing the wayward kings; Jesus before Pilate; the popes and the emperors; Martin Luther King at the March on Washington.
In the Jewish and Christian belief, God not only created the world but also built into it the foundations of public and private morality: not the specifics, but the foundations. Further, the God of the Jewish and Christian traditions does not dwell beyond history but is active within it as the One who vindicates the poor, comforts the sorrowing and brings peace to the nations. All this necessarily impels the people who believe in such a God to participate in politics.
The purpose of public policy, according to this religious tradition, is not merely to maintain rules of fair play. Its purpose is to seek a justice that is measured in concrete terms by how the most vulnerable and the weakest members of a society fare.
I am not arguing, as some of the "Christian America" advocates sometimes do, that the biblical tradition is the only one we have in American history. There were and are others: the Enlightenment one, and the even older one of republican virtue among them. Still, the Biblical traditions are surely ones that deserve to be heard and, with the others, to have a share in the shaping of our common public life.
In the United States, a genuinely public political ethic will have to make room for discussions based on a religious vision of the good because -- quite simply -- that is the way the majority of our people envision it. Making room for this tradition does not mean allowing it to dominate all others. The critics of those who make political choices on religious grounds often talk about the danger that some people will "impose" their beliefs on others. There is of course always such a danger. But the irony is that a public political discourse that debars religious values would also have to be an imposed one, since the majority of our people think about moral values on the basis of religious beliefs nurtured in liturgy and doctrine, in sacred song and story.
Understandably, some people are afraid that the din of conflicting religious claims will inevitably shred the fragile tissue of civility. I disagree. The word "civility," before it acquired its current sense of politeness and decorum, once meant "that which has to do with the civitas," with the obligations and rights of citizens. Those who wish to protect civility in American political life should realize that genuine civility rests on an authen- tic civitas. It requires a polity in which morally reflective persons debate and decide public questions on the basis of what they and their neighbors believe is just and right. This is something neither clients nor consumers can do. But it is something citizens must do.
Still, those of us who draw on religious traditions in the strengthening of the civitas should bear in mind that religious people have not always treated their adversaries with restraint and respect (if nonreligious people have been equally guilty, that is another quesion). The fact is that when religion touches politics it enlivens us but also taxes our capacity for patience and fairness. Consequently, we have a special responsibility. We must demonstrate the kind of civility that reassures others that they are not being accused of bad faith. I doubt that President Reagan helped much when, speaking at the ecumenical prayer breakfast in Dallas, he described those who disagreed with his position as "intolerant of religion."
Reinhold Niebuhr used to say that the core insight of all religious faith is the belief that "there is a purpose beyond my purpose." I believe Niebuhr was correct. Against any merely technical view of politics, faith insists that there is a moral purpose that must inform political life. But against any kind of fanaticism it also insists that this purpose cannot be equated with my purpose or the purpose of my group.
Perhaps the most important thing faith does for politics is to dignify it: to invest it with a certain weight and seriousness, but not permit it to claim its own ultimacy.
In this, as in so many other things, Abraham Lincoln is still a trustworthy guide. Often attacked and harassed by religious groups, he remains the most profound theologian who has ever served as president. In 1862, during the worst hours of the national agony, when there was every political reason to demonize the South and to sanctify the cause of the Union, Lincoln wrote that "in the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party." Lincoln went far beyond a politics of brokerage. He saw the larger moral and religious pur- pose within which politics must proceed. But he refused to claim God for his side even in the midst of a bloody war. He was right on all counts then, and he is still right today.