Wednesday, January 14, 2004


The use of Godly rhetoric by politicians tends to send a chill down my spine, even if I have some sympathy for the politician in question. I've written elsewhere about keeping the wrong kind of religion out of politics and vice versa. This is not the same thing at all as seeking to keep the two categories apart: it's a question of who speaks for whom, how, why and on what basis.

For example, the Christian community may rightly choose to be deeply engaged in critiquing the assumptions of faith language in the political domain. A prime example is President Bush's application of hymns and biblical phrases to name America -- when they come from contexts intending to denote something quite different: a community of all nations, not a vested national interest.

Nevertheless, the entwining of discourses in the public arena is not something that can simply be wished away. And as Amy Sullivan ('Do the Democrats have a prayer?', Washington Monthly) has pointed out, if the forthcoming election in the US will not be determined by religious issues it shows every sign of being swayed by them. She notes:

"Bush and his political guru Karl Rove understand something very important about the religious vote. The President has solidified his standing among highly committed evangelicals, who, though originally wary of his conservative credentials, have been rewarded with the appointment of such religious conservatives as John Ashcroft to top administration jobs as well as through grants distributed under the faith-based initiative. But Bush has maxed out his support with conservative evangelicals; 84 percent voted for him in the 2000 election. To win reelection, he will need to hold onto the votes of another group which supported him in 2000: religious moderates--one of the least-appreciated swing constituencies in the country, and one whose allegiance is more up for grabs than most people realize. They include Muslims, most Catholics, and a growing number of suburban evangelicals, all of whom are devout, but many of whom are uncomfortable with Bush's ties to the religious right, whose agenda--from banning abortion to converting Muslims--is deeply disconcerting to them. Many of these "swing faithful" have also begun to wonder if Bush's rhetoric of compassion and justice will be matched by policy substance."

For this reason, she suggests, Howard Dean will need to grasp 'the religious agenda' for the Democrats. By way of inspiration, she says:

"When the Rt Rev John Chane, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, took to the pulpit this March [2003], his sermon sounded like a blueprint for the sort of religiously minded critique of the Bush administration that Democrats might want to study. Imploring parishioners to take seriously their baptismal vows to "strive for justice" in the world, Bishop Chane raised the example of the Bush administration budget and found it wanting. "We are embarking on a draconian program of social welfare," he declared, highlighting cuts in services to protect the poor, the sick, and the young. "This is not at all what Jesus Christ meant when he said, 'Suffer the little children.'" At the end of the sermon, the congregation spontaneously burst into applause in a very un-Episcopalian response to the bishop's political call to arms."

However, it is important to understand that Chane's address was not intended to endorse a particular party or programe. The critique he offered is as applicable to Democrats as Republicans (though they may be found wanting in different ways and to different degrees). It was, if anything, a comment on the fruits of a political duopoly which has predominantly served corporate interests and excluded the marginalised. It was also designed specifically to galvanise Christians to act on the vision of justice which is meant to characterise church, the ekklesia. For it is only out of the distinctive practices of a peculiar, all-embracing community (one demandingly critiqued by the Gospel it conveys) that a faith-speaking politics might look as if it had integrity. This could have significant ramifications on the way people behave when they enter the ballot box, but it is not prescribable by the interests that vie within the existing political system.

(Thanks to the Religious Left mailing list for drawing this article to my attention.)

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