There are a million ways to dissect the intersection of politics and religion in the U.S. No doubt, there are real correlations between religious belief and political leanings. But there are two more intangible overlaps that have stuck out to me recently.
One is perhaps the greatest failing of the Christian church in the United States. Church attendance has been falling for a long time, and religious leaders have struggled to understand why. They’ve rolled out slick new marketing campaigns and brought Starbucks into the fellowship areas, but every year, there are more and more empty pews at churches all across this country. The reason is that contemporary Christianity no longer gives people the answers that they’re looking for.
I had a professor in college that was explaining the history of communication theories. You rarely hear anyone talk about Aristotle or Cicero when designing a marketing campaign, but their ideas laid the ground work for everything that would come later. The reason you won’t hear their names anymore, our professor explained, is that theories change over time. Sometimes the new theory subsumes the old, as when Einsteinian physics overwrote Newtonian, and sometimes old theories simply fall out of favor. I’ll never forget the reason she gave for why:
A theory is only useful when it answers the questions people are asking.
Once our questions move beyond the theory, we either need to refine the theory to address new areas or we need a new theory altogether. Much of contemporary Christianity operates as an old theory. It tells us how to treat pagans and harlots but not a gay cousin, who we love and know to be a good person. It tells us that a rich man has a hard time getting into heaven, but it lines the pockets of Christian personalities and swells mega church coffers. In the meantime, much of contemporary Christianity has little to say about how to raise children in a world with violence on television or the highest divorce rate in our national history. So people have left the church. Either in search of a new theory or simply because they’ve found the current theory isn’t worth their time.
What can this say about politics? I think what we saw in this most recent election was a group of Americans who felt let down by the liberal theory of government. Maybe they didn’t understand it. Maybe they genuinely rejected some or all of its distinct premises. But the polling misses caused by faulty assumptions in the likely voter models tell us that the theory was not supported by as many people as we thought and not as ardently supported by our coalition as we thought.
So what is to be done? We need to talk to one another. We need to talk about voting not as an opportunity to exercise consumer choice or demonstrate ideological purity but to execute a strategic vision in a plan for prosperity. A plan that can and should extend to all people and classes. A vote for FDR was a vote for a the New Deal. A vote for George W Bush was a vote to put evangelical Christian values back into the national debate.
What is a vote for a liberal today? It can’t be an academic answer about access and the tearing down of inherent power structures. While that’s a beautiful vision, it looks bad on a bumper sticker. A vote for the liberal project should be a vote for clean air and water. It should be a vote for a government that treats you with respect and fights for jobs and for basic protections that will let you and your children live with the dignity of being able to make choices for yourself. When our theory can speak to the questions that Americans (all Americans) are asking, we’ll find new allies across the country.
The second overlap that has struck me is actually why I left the Christian church. Matthew 7:17 always seemed like the simplest standard for evaluating any person or group.
Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. Matthew 7:17
I left the church because it wasn’t bearing good fruit. I looked around at a congregation full of people that were no happier or at peace than the people outside the building. Prominent politicians that leaned heavily on Christian bona fides weren’t people that I wanted to be like. They didn’t have better marriages or access to some kind of truth that I wanted. If anything, I didn’t want to be like the people who spent all of their time micro managing church committees or trying to apply 2,000 year old scripture to their nightly television choices.
I looked around outside of the church and saw incredible people with happy lives. They gave their time and money to charity and rejoiced in helping others. They’d share a laugh and smile at people around them in grocery store lines. And none of the people I admired the most did it for religious reasons. If they were Christian, it was more cultural than an overriding identity. They might be atheist, Catholic or Mormon. But they were happy and peaceful. Their marriages lasted decades, and their kids were smart and well behaved.
In short, they bore good fruit. Those were the people I wanted to learn from. They were the examples I wanted to follow. When you talked to them about their lives, they didn’t offer midnight conversion stories or externalize their happiness as coming from a spiritual source. They were honest that they struggled sometimes. They still had tempers and temptations, but they’d thought long and hard about where happiness should come from and how their actions affected others. They’d learned that the only person responsible for you is you. And they woke up every day, put their pants on and tried to make their corner of the world a little bit better.
When I look around at politics, I see very few people that I admire. A lot of politicians seem weasley or so out of touch that they’re unrelatable. It’s easy to get jaded and believe that they’d never be able to work in my interest. But what if both sides of the political spectrum endeavored to bear good fruit first?
You’ve probably heard the parable of the man who wants to change the world. As a young man, he tries and tries only to realize that the task is too big. In middle age, he decides to change his country. Still unsuccessful, he set his sights on this town, and finally, as an old man, he tries to change his family. Lying on his deathbed, he realizes that if he’d started with himself, he may have influenced his family. Their example may have changed the town, the nation and finally the world.
If we believe in our religious ideals or our political philosophies, we need to apply them in our personal lives. I promise that if you create a community that’s safe and welcoming, you’ll have people coming from miles around to join. So many religions and political parties seek first to propagate a philosophy at the level of civilization. They want to be the dominant cultural force, but people are busy living lives. They want good fruit.
I guess the take-away is that we can’t let our political or faith traditions live on a page. If we really believe that these systems can make lives better, they have to permeate every moment of every day. They have to speak to the ways that people are hurting. They have to address the challenges and questions that face us in every moment. They have to make us happier and lead us to more peaceful outcomes. They need to bring us together around shared values and commitments to the future. And they have to start with each person working to bear good fruit in their own lives.