The Synonymy of Politics and Religion

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Mixing politics and religion is far more than tampering with a combustible concoction. Because politics and religion both attempt to address the same needs, dreams and desires, values and principles – they are essentially synonymous terms.

When the speaker of the House of Representatives recently fired the House chaplain for getting too political with his prayers, the kerfuffle briefly took center stage in the 24-hour news cycle. A prayer offered in the House chamber just prior to the passage of the tax reform bill earlier this year had invoked the Almighty to assure those mere mortals in power would keep some degree of equity in the distribution of our abundant national treasure. When the chaplain rescinded his requested resignation a week later, Paul Ryan (a devout Catholic) and Fr. Conroy (a Jesuit priest) had apparently either reconciled as brothers in Christ; or at least struck a political compromise.

More recently, an evangelical pastor from Texas led a prayer at the official ceremony opening of the relocated American embassy in Jerusalem. Robert Jeffress had previously proclaimed Jews were going to Hell unless they accepted Jesus as Messiah, and that Mormonism and Islam were both “heresies from the pit of Hell.” Never mind that, as well as the fact sixty miles away Israeli soldiers were shooting and killing dozens of Palestinian protesters during the celebration. Jeffries sees American foreign policies favoring Israel as hastening the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of Christ’s second coming.

When only the latest mass school shooting occurred in Santa Fe, Texas, Sen. Ted Cruz announced on the same day he was determined to “do everything humanly possible,” to assure this would never happen again. That is, everything but the obvious.  Seated beside him was Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who had declared two weeks earlier at a NRA convention in Dallas that the answer to gun violence was more weapons. “The problem is not guns,” he said, “it’s hearts without God.”

Meanwhile, on our own southern border, a staunch evangelical Christian, who happens to be our current Vice President, expressed sympathy out of one side of his mouth about a caravan of Central American refugees fleeing for their lives and pleading for political asylum; while simultaneously maintaining rules are rules, and that we can’t let just anybody into our country.

And all the while, in the back of my head, a saying I learned in Sunday School ruminated somewhere in the back into my head; rising up to trouble my conscience with an inconvenient gospel truth: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Mt. 25:45)

Am I getting too political? Or, am I getting too religious?

I grew up in an age of relative innocence; being taught that refraining from discussing two particular topics in polite society was simply standard protocol.  Obviously, keeping politics and religion separate isn’t just an unspoken rule that’s routinely broken in Washington these days. If the times have changed, perhaps the only thing that’s different is the extent to which such blinders have been so blatantly removed.

As a gospel preacher for many years, I was routinely mystified by those who advised steering clear of what was clearly and unavoidably a politically charged manifesto; and which later became canonical scripture in the Christian faith tradition. First John the Baptist, then Jesus the Galilean sage, clearly emerged out of a prophetic tradition that not only meddled in the earthly affairs of humankind; but was, in fact, considered indistinguishable, and one and the same thing.

What does this mean? It means mixing politics and religion is far more than tampering with a combustible concoction. It is a matter of not just simply recognizing and acknowledging one cannot be extracted from the other; but – because politics and religion both attempt to address the same needs, dreams and desires, values and principles – they are essentially synonymous terms.

Periodically, an elderly man stands at a busy intersection in my neighborhood, leaning on a large handwritten sign which reads, “Jesus said I am the only way to Heaven. John 14:6.”  Atop the sign are two American flags that flap in the wind on a gloriously brisk and sunny Spring day. Some drivers honk their horns as they whiz past, waving enthusiastic gestures; as if to shout “halleluiah”or “atta-boy.”

About that quotation my neighbor cites: The most common English translation from the original (Greek, or Aramaic derivative) text in the fourth gospel of the canonical text of the Christian scriptures is more like: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”

There’s no mention of a way to heaven, per se; except possibly by inference to the way in which one might order one’s life. In addition, the consensus among most biblical scholars is that the historical Jesus never even uttered these words attributed to him by either the Fourth Evangelist, or the old man on my street corner. That religious and/or political way of life — which Jesus may have once dreamt — was only later imagined and articulated by that second generation of early Christians for whom John penned those words.

No matter. Despite the fact the street preacher is playing loose with an ancient text that he deems sacred, his religious conviction is indisputable. And, likewise his patriotic zeal. In fact, I can easily imagine his religious and political views – whatever they may be – are inextricably wrapped up together in his street corner proclamation of flag and faith. And here’s why:

The word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek polis, meaning ‘city.’ More broadly, it describes the way by which a group of citizens come together to bring order to their common life. ‘Religion’ (from the Latin, religios, re-ligaré), referred to reconnecting with what is deemed to be sacred; most commonly used when referring to one’s relationship with one or more deities. For those of us for whom a subjective term such as ‘God’ is unhelpful, ‘ultimate value’ or ‘ultimate concern’ has often been substituted and deemed a ‘religious’ term.

In both politics and religion, then, both the impetus and desired end result are the same. How shall we organize our common life with a world view that is consistent with our highest values; bringing a sense of order out of what is otherwise chaos? What principles and historical perspective will we use to, say, write a Constitution by which we might govern ourselves? Or fabricate a religious construct, consisting of a set of doctrinal beliefs that one might then arbitrarily claim as right and true; separating orthodoxy from heresy, with the added claim of some divine blessing?

The First Amendment in our Constitution intentionally prohibited the establishment of religion by the State, or any infringement of its practice in one form or another. True, we don’t have an official state “church.” But if you think that means religious beliefs and practice don’t get mixed up with our political positions, you haven’t been paying attention to the decades-long debates over women’s reproductive rights. Or prayer in public schools. Or gay marriage, and LGBTQ rights.  Or environmental concerns that actually aren’t a problem for those apocalyptic believers that the End Times are near enough to put an end to it all anyway.

But, just as our politics can get rather complicated and convoluted, so too can our religious convictions. There’s also a hierarchy of values.

For example, liberal non-believers are baffled by conservative evangelicals who turn a blind eye to the moral indiscretions and apostasy with regards to truth-telling by the current President. Allegedly, it’s not hypocrisy. Admittedly, it’s political expediency.  Even Jesus wrestled with the devil, right? And presumably, you can’t drain the swamp and break the Washington gridlock without getting your hands a little dirty.

But then while we’re at it, we can ask some other inconvenient questions: Why do our political leaders conclude nearly every speech asking “God” to bless the USA?

Why are coins and currency of this earthly realm stamped with the religious profession of faith, “In God we trust?”

And exactly what empty, facile words is a chaplain (from one particular denomination of only one particular religious tradition) supposed to utter when our partisan politicians gather in legislative chamber to vie for dominance in the ordering of our common life?

Clearly, while the First Amendment may have provided for freedom of religious expression, with the prohibition of any particular one religion, it did not – and in actuality cannot – seem to provide for any freedom from our political leader’s religious convictions or infractions.

Earlier, I mentioned my elderly neighbor who utterly misquoted a biblical phrase which, in addition, Jesus himself never uttered. But I also quoted a passage from Matthew 25 that has always prodded my own conscious thoughts and actions; about the “least of those” in need being one and the same as Jesus.

Among biblical scholars there’s no certainty the historical Jesus ever uttered those exact words either. Rather, they represent an interpreted modus operandi that shaped the way an early Christian faith community would organize their common life around a set of principled beliefs and values.

If I were a street corner preacher with a sign in my hand, it would likely be that scripture quote. And, if challenged, I would freely confess my political and religious convictions are so inextricably entwined that they are essentially one and the same.

Because if, in fact, politics and religion are essentially synonymous terms, the same challenge and task remains. How shall we order our common life for the common — if not sacred – good?


© 2018 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.
Visit John Bennison’s website Words & Ways
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