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Mixing politics and religion

On a Christian vision of social justice

Many of my conservative friends are troubled, even angered, by any mention of political issues “from the pulpit.”

Like many of us older folks, they were told as children that neither religion nor politics should be discussed in polite company, family gatherings, or church.

We were also told that religion and politics mixed about as well as oil and water. Just tell us, we asked our priests and ministers, how to be better in our personal lives. Leave social and political issues out of any discussion of sin or redemption.

This changed for me when I entered a Catholic high school in the Midwest and had many priests as teachers who emphasized social justice.

We were told that Jesus wanted us to avoid personal sins of commission (usually sexual) as well as sins of omission—failing to respond to our “neighbors”—a term which included millions who did not look, act, speak, or behave culturally as we did. We were to actually “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Lying, stealing, cheating, and killing, those Biblical standards, were still important, and we learned that they had broad social as well as personal implications.

The social / political issues that should concern us as followers of Jesus in those days (50s and 60s) were racism (usually then called racial discrimination), poverty, and injustices caused by unfair treatment of individuals in our country and overseas. Injustice topped our list of social sins.

It still does.

Given the admonition against mixing religion and politics, I was intrigued by a recent NYTimes column by Republican David Brooks entitled “A Christian Vision of Social Justice” (3-18-21).

Brooks began by declaring that he wanted “to promote social change in a way that doesn’t involve destroying people’s careers over a bad tweet, that doesn’t reduce people to simplistic labels, that is more about a positive agenda to redistribute power to the marginalized than it is about simply blotting out the worthy.” He wanted, he said to oppose oppression but “without the dehumanizing cruelty we’ve seen of late.”

These words reveal Brooks as a person who respects religion and morality and they explain why he is one of my favorite Republicans.

Brooks found a way to pursue his vision of social change only after interviewing Esau McCaulley, a New Testament professor at Wheaton College. McCaulley described a Christian vision of social justice that Brooks thought was “important for everyone to hear, Christian and non-Christian, believer and nonbeliever.” Brooks himself is Jewish.

 McCaulley’s vision of social justice has several major components. It involved “respect for the human dignity of each person,” the importance of memory, seen in many Biblical tales of “marginalization and transformation” found in the Old Testament along with a story of “how a fractious people came together to form a nation.”

Perhaps most important was the concept of sin, and the “action plan” in Brook’s words, that helps one recover from sin by “acknowledging the sin, confessing and asking for forgiveness, turning away from the sin, and restoring the wrong done.”

Think about how this moral action plan could help us address social justice issues like racism and poverty. Even the most conservative Christian admits that racism is sinful. He or she might even admit that discrimination against people of color exists in America, and is a social, political, and economic problem hurting our nation.

If we admit these truths and see racism as a sin, Brooks believes, instead of as another leftist distraction, we could confess it, ask forgiveness, try to find personal and political ways to reduce or end it, and even offer some form of reparation to “restore the wrong done.”

Similarly, if we could see the huge income gap between rich and poor in America as something sinful, caused by greed, selfishness, injustices embedded in our economic and legal systems and a clear refusal to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Racism and poverty are inseparable religious and political issues. Brooks reminds us that political leaders formerly acknowledged the important role of religion in public life, citing William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King as examples.

And religious and political leaders could work together for Justice, the Supreme Court willing, while still keeping church and state separate!

Ken Wolf. (3-27-21)

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Ken Wolf

Ken Wolf spent 40 years teaching European and World History, punctuated by several administrative chores, at Murray State University, retiring in 2008. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)