Running on Faith
By Mary J. Loftus
CNN is looking for a theologian to discuss the history of Halloween. With the ancient pagan holiday just days away, Brent Strawn’s cell phone comes to life, lighting up before he has even finished his second cup of coffee at a cafe near his home this crisp October morning.
“I still get nervous every time I see CNN’s number,” says Strawn, associate professor of Old Testament at Emory’s Candler School of Theology and an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene.
Animated and telegenic, Strawn has become a regular guest on the Atlanta-based news network’s “Faces of Faith” segment on Sunday mornings. “The show is live, so you never really know what questions you’re going to be asked,” he says.
He has been interviewed by host T. J. Holmes about the end of the world; common sayings that have been misattributed to the Bible (“God helps those who help themselves”); the biblical definition of “submissive” (in response to Michele Bachmann’s comments about being submissive to her husband); and Pat Robertson’s contention that divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer’s is justifiable.
Why are mainstream media taking on topics that might seem better suited to The 700 Club? “Religion and politics are two of the most important and interesting things to talk about,” Strawn says. “So much of the Bible is about sociopolitical realities.”
When Bible professors like Strawn become go-to commentators for CNN and presidential hopefuls start quoting scripture, you know that religion is an influential force in politics. Is this a new development? What does it mean when personal faith becomes a political touchstone? When candidates are pitted against each other as the “most Christian” or “most Godly” choice? When churches become stumping stops?
Conservative Republicans have been more closely associated—or have more consciously aligned themselves—with Christianity. As ABC News recently noted, Republican candidates in 2012 have “ramped up their religious fervor and sharpened answers to questions about faith in an effort to court social conservative voters in key early primary states.”
Professor Gary Laderman, chair of Emory’s Department of Religion, has even coined a new term: Republicanity. “Taken all together, Republicanity is a culture that merges politics and religion and unashamedly and unreservedly blows apart the longed-for ‘wall of separation’ keeping the two spheres separate,” he writes in the online magazine Religion Dispatches. “Now more than ever the case can be made that our politics are a form of religion and religion is the new politics.”
Laderman says the rallying cry for Republican candidates seems to be flag, family, and faith. “If we asked all the presidential candidates to state whether they are doing God’s will in the world certainly most, if not all, would answer in the affirmative. . . . Some even assert a direct link and special relationship with God.”
Some of the candidates have served as top church leaders. Former Republican candidate and Baptist minister Herman Cain was known to break into gospel spirituals on the campaign trail, and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was a bishop at his Boston-area Mormon church and presided over twelve congregations as stake president. Others, like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich 65C, simply state that their faith is fundamental to their beliefs.
Strawn sees nothing unusual or new about matters of religion being discussed in a public political forum. “You would expect religious people to consider their sacred texts in how they live their lives, structure their communities, and choose their leaders,” he says. “No one should be surprised by that.”
And while the US Constitution states that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust in the United States, it doesn’t prevent candidates from talking about how their faith influences their thinking on an issue.
In fact, religious freedom in the United States protects the right of religious people to bring their faith into the public square. “The First Amendment separates church from state,” says Charles Haynes 71C 85G, a religious-liberty scholar with the First Amendment Center. “But it does not separate religion from politics or public life.”
The challenge—and sometimes, confusion—comes when one attempts to apply ancient scriptures to contemporary realities, political or otherwise. “That is never going to be simple,” Strawn says. “It takes a lot of study, discernment, even wisdom.”
Such wisdom begins with a knowledge base that theology schools such as Candler strive to impart. “Christians have to be literate in their own history, to understand our texts and how they came to be written, which is why theological, biblical education centers like Candler are so important,” says visiting Candler Professor James Carroll, a former Catholic priest.
Otherwise, scripture based in a specific historical context can be misinterpreted.
Take, for example, Representative Bachmann’s redefinition of “submission.” In 2006, Bachmann said she had taken her husband’s advice to pursue a degree in tax law despite her own misgivings because “the Lord said, ‘Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.’ ”
After a video of those comments emerged years later, during her bid to become the GOP candidate, Bachmann was asked by Washington Examiner columnist Byron York, “As president, would you be submissive to your husband?”
She replied, “What submission means to us, if that’s what your question is, it means respect. I respect my husband, he’s a wonderful, godly man and a great father. And he respects me as his wife. That’s how we operate our marriage. We respect each other, we love each other.”
But can “submit” and “respect” be viewed as interchangeable in scripture? Not really, says Strawn.
“The verb ‘submit’ occurs something like thirty times in the New Testament, and contrary to Bachmann’s later comment, it doesn’t really mean respect, it’s something a good bit stronger than that,” Strawn says. “You submit to elders, you submit to church authorities and officials, most often you submit to God or to Christ.”
But, in defense of Bachmann’s larger point, the Bible also contains “other texts that speak of mutual submission, one to another, out of reverence for Christ and more of an egalitarian relationship between the husband and the wife,” Strawn says, adding that these passages are fairly astounding for a time when patriarchy was seen as the norm.
What about other political hot topics, such as immigration, war, and the economy?
Scripture, on the whole, often takes up for the downtrodden, the ill, and the unfortunate—“the least of,” says Strawn. “Generally the Bible is in favor of compassion and justice, and therefore, is against oppression, especially oppression of the poor and needy,” he says. “How those get ‘translated’ into contemporary politics is complicated, of course, but the Bible advocates love for ‘immigrants’ in the same way it advocates love of ‘self’ and ‘neighbor.’ ”
It bears remembering that in biblical times, faith and political activism were virtually one and the same. Jesus called for a type of social reform during the Sermon on the Mount, urged his followers to clothe the naked, tend to the sick, and visit the prisoners, and said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
“That puts us right in the crosshairs of moral and ethical dilemmas that have political dimensions to them,” says Candler Dean and Professor of Christianity and World Politics Jan Love. “We should put these issues on the table and talk about them.”
With scholarly expertise in both theology and political science, and having played leadership roles in the United Methodist Church, Love has a deep appreciation for how closely religion and politics are intertwined, historically and socially.
“In any period of American or religious history, the two are largely inseparable,” Love says. “This positive dynamic has potential for wonderful revelation, but also for deep tensions.”
The problem, she says, is “when speaking or keeping quiet on matters of faith is actually decided based on a political calculus more than a faith calculus.”
Political candidates, Love suggests, would better be judged by their authenticity than any type of religious litmus test. “Do you have a sense that they are authentically set within the context and claims of their own tradition?” she says. “That makes for a sense of wholeness in life. Of spiritual and mental and physical well-being, which is separate from the political use of that faith tradition.”
Before the ubiquity of media, says Love, candidates used to be able to shape their messages for particular audiences with language they knew would resonate. Now those messages are broadcast on a wider stage.
Republican candidate Rick Perry’s recent campaign ad is a good example. It’s clearly aimed at one segment of voters: “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school,” he says, looking straight into the camera. “As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.”
Although Perry’s ad had received more than three million hits on YouTube a few days after posting, it had nearly 500,000 “dislikes” compared to just under 12,000 “likes”.
The openly opinionated oratory that’s common in evangelical and black churches can cause problems for candidates when viewed through a mainstream lens, says Love.
Examples have abounded in recent campaigns, such as Palin’s fiery speeches to the religious right and Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s “inflammatory rhetoric” that led to then-Senator Obama denouncing his longtime pastor.
Obama’s speech on race and religion given March 18, 2008, in Philadelphia was, in fact, considered a turning point for his campaign. In it, Obama addressed the issue head-on: “Did I know [Reverend Wright] to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely—just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed. But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country . . . [and], as such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity.”
As a society, we are probably “too quick to be belligerent,” declares Carroll, Emory’s 2011 Alonzo McDonald Family Chair on the Life and Teachings of Jesus and their Impact on Culture. “We have a human tendency to define ourselves positively by defining someone else negatively,” he said during a November lecture at the Miller-Ward Alumni House.
This polarity of “us” and “them”—which probably harks back to tribalism, when staying within the circle of our kinship group meant survival—can be dangerous in modern times when it’s used to justify violence against “the other,” be they Jewish, Palestinian, female, gay, Christian, or Muslim. Bipolarity, Carroll says, is “a fundamental blasphemy against the oneness of God.”
After all, God, as widely understood, seems the very definition of a “big tent” deity.
“All nations are seen as streaming to Zion to hear the Lord’s Torah and walk in God’s ways,” Strawn says. “God speaks of Egypt and Assyria with the same pet terms that God elsewhere uses of Israel, and God claims to have brought other people out of their countries as well—serving, as it were, as an Exodus God for the Cushites, Arameans, and Philistines.”
Still, in contemporary life, we less often find ourselves part of a “We Are the World” sing-along than a lone voice attempting to be heard over a Tower of Babel. “I’m happy if I can just be seen as a reasonable person discussing these issues in a reasonable way,” says Strawn, of his primary goal during his televised CNN stints.
A lively version of this takes place on the virtual pages of Religion Dispatches, which manages to provide a venue for intelligent discourse while challenging conventional thought. The online magazine is edited by Laderman, author of Sacred Matters and coeditor of the encyclopedia Religion and American Cultures. Politics is one of the magazine’s most popular subcategories.
“From the start, religion has been ingrained in American politics,” Laderman says. “The wall of separation is an ideal, but that wall is very porous and permeable. Those edges—where law and culture and religion and politics meet—are where things get most volatile.”
The modern president many historians view as most openly living his faith was Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who invited evangelicals into the White House, taught Southern Baptist Sunday school, openly prayed as president, and professed that Jesus Christ was the driving force in his life. Carter is now a University Distinguished Professor at Emory and founded The Carter Center with his wife, Rosalynn, to combat inequity and disease around the globe.
“Here was someone who put religion smack-dab in the middle of his political vision, and he still does,” Love says. “I think that’s fine.”
It seems that the voting public remains skeptical of candidates whose faith is viewed as fringe or outside the mainstream, however.
The current debate over Romney’s Mormonism, for example, is reminiscent of the uproar over John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism.Romney tried to counter suspicion before his first campaign: “Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office is this: Does he share these American values? The equality of humankind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty? They are not unique to any one denomination. They’re the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united.”
But the ideal of “one nation, united” seems a long way off from the place where American politics, and politicians, stand today.
Beyond viewing ourselves as Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, Americans must recognize the civic obligation to defend the right of religious freedom for all, said Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, lecturing at Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion this fall.
“What hangs in the balance,” said Glendon, former US ambassador to the Vatican, “is nothing less than whether religion will be a destabilizing force in our increasingly diverse society, or whether religion could help to hold together the two halves of the divided soul of American democracy.”