Jon Gabriel, a contributor to the Arizona Republic, asked a provocative question this past month in a column titled: “God help us: Is politics our religion now?” It is an interesting question in light of the hyper-partisanship that has inundated our communities over the past few years.
Gabriel cites Gallup polling that evidences the decline in church, synagogue and mosque membership over the past 20 years — 70% to 50%. Instead, he intimates that, “If people aren’t getting meaning from their local religious community they’ll seek it elsewhere… increasingly seeking fulfillment in politics, of all things.”
The advent of politics from the pulpit is probably not a new thing, but it seems to have evolved with strengthened resolve. The question that Gabriel pursues is whether it portends further problems for our community’s religious institutions if our churches, synagogues and mosques simply became echo chambers of political ideology. For pastors, rabbis and imams, it’s really a question of whether they will lead their flocks by the religion of their politics, inadvertently overseeing the evanescence of their spiritual teachings (Gabriel calls it the divinization of democracy), or if these religious leaders will rise above the swamp and stick to the important work of nourishing and healing souls.
Not to belabor the obvious, but Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish and Moslem are not political parties. These religious institutions have traditionally had a much higher calling.
The role of social media in all this is undeniable. It’s been said that religion gives the weak strength; but unfortunately, so does joining a cult, a gang, or an impassioned community on social media. Social media has offered up a myriad of opportunities for exercising passions and ideologies and belief systems that intertwine and sometimes have grafted with traditional, mainstream theologies. Politics is one of these practices that has inveigled its way into some mainstream parishes that I would submit have lost their ecclesiastical way.
Has politics become a kind of team sport? Some signs point to yes: party flags, party shirts, party hats, and even party cheers. Should we be concerned? Maybe. When party cheers supersede policy substance, we will lose sound, rational and intentional policy growth as a nation, a nation that competes economically, militarily and morally on a global basis.
So, is politics our religion now? For true believers, those who have faith in transcendence, no. But thoughtful individuals in their secular and non-secular communities need to be careful in the pursuit of their passions and creed, not to meld politics with their transcendent spirituality. And pastors, rabbis and imams have an obligation, as spiritual guides, to keep politics out of their religious sermons and services. I think most of these religious leaders would assert that politics is not their calling. Their higher calling is to teach the moral and ethical underpinnings of their faith, and then trust their congregants to make good decisions for themselves, their families and the nation, based upon those moral and ethical teachings.
Barry Goldwater, presidential candidate in the 1960s, often referred to as the force behind the resurgence of American conservatism and libertarianism, once implored that, “Religious factions will go on imposing their will on others unless the decent people connected to them realize that there is no place for religion in public policy.”
Deeper into our history as a nation, our founding fathers were emphatic that church and state should be separate. On that point James Madison was emphatic: “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, unless they are mixed together.”
In the interests of greater purity, let James Madison’s words ring with clarion clarity as we venture into what we all hope will be a calmer, saner new year.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, an author, and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.