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Faith, politics and common ground

Should Christians aggressively proselytize in countries around the world, including places where the reputation of the United States is frayed? Or is it more faithful to spread the Good News by example, through service and acts of love and kindness?

Those were the sorts of questions raised when leading thinkers and practitioners in the arena of faith and politics gathered at Yale Divinity School on Oct. 12 at a symposium entitled "Voices & Votes II: Shaping a New Moral Agenda." They came from across the country, from a variety of faith backgrounds, and -- in the always rugged terrain of faith and politics -- they tackled subjects like abortion, homosexuality, separation of church and state, immigration, theological foundations for political engagement, regulation of tobacco, sex trafficking, and, of course, proselytizing.

At the end of the day, it was clear that, while no consensus on a "new moral agenda" was achieved, many of the participants -- from mainline Protestantism, the moderate and conservative evangelical community, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism felt there is growing common ground amongst divergent faith groups at the point where faith meets politics.

Over an intense 12-hour period, some 30 invited guests attended worship services, engaged one another in off-the-record conversation, and then spoke at a series of public panels in a packed Marquand Chapel.

Jennifer Butler, executive director of the progressive organization Faith in Public Life, said, "We're finding that we're able work across the faith and political spectrum, whether it's the issue of immigration where we had Richard Land ( president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission ) and Sam Rodriguez ( Executive Director of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference) at a press conference... or whether it's people in Ohio who are teaming up, moderates and progressives together, to restore civility to the debate in Ohio because they felt like it had been too polarized in 2004."

Land, who was among the panelists, described how coalition building unfolded for him: "As people began to talk about these issues, and as they met, they began to realize that they had some common agendas around such things as human rights, freedom of conscience, suffering around the world.... We decided we're going to make common cause on these issues we care about."

Land also singled out the war in Sudan, sex trafficking, and regulation of tobacco by the Food and Drug Administration in addition to immigration as issues where people of faith with divergent theological perspectives are obliged to "work together to try to make a difference."

Jim Wallis, a moderate evangelical/social activist and editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, described a dinner he had attended just the night before sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals, where the featured speaker was U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Years ago, he said, it would have been unheard of for evangelicals to meet with the U.N. secretary-general, and yet there they were in Arlington, VA with Ban Ki-moon on Oct. 11, giving him a standing ovation.

"Global poverty and climate change are now on the mainstream evangelical agenda, and that is demonstrably true," Wallis told the Marquand Chapel audience. A leader of the religious right approached him at the NAE dinner, Wallis recounted. "He was just bending my ear all night about the common ground that we have on a whole number of issues, and he wants to be in relationship on those. I have those conversations almost every week."

"I think that if a number of us from what has been called the religious left and right... can agree on a number of key moral questions, and ally ourselves together, we could shake and change American politics," said Wallis, author of the best-seller God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It.

For Randall Balmer, a progressive evangelical and professor of American religious history at Barnard College, a case in point might be the "life" issues, where "sanctity of life" claims can take on widely divergent meanings.

"I'd like to expand radically what it means to be pro-life, and if you're pro-life you'd have a good bit of difficulty justifying the war in Iraq," said Balmer. "I think you'd have even more difficulty justifying the use of torture. It seems to me that people who claim to hear a fetal scream yet turn a deaf ear to the very real screams of the fully formed human beings of people who are being tortured, there's a fundamental inconsistency there."

As several of the speakers were quick to point out, bridge building is not without challenges.

 

A note of skepticism...

Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine, remarked, "I do have to add a skeptical note. From what we're hearing, we're almost proclaiming a new era of good feeling, and yet the divides are huge.... It's not something we can just wax sentimental over."

In many cases, Olasky pointed out, there may be general agreement but deep fissures when it comes to specifics, or taking action. He cited global warming as an example.

Tom Roberts, editor-at-large of National Catholic Reporter, recalled attempts by televangelist Pat Robertson's conservative Christian Coalition to strengthen ties with the Roman Catholic community. But those attempts, Roberts said, failed, largely because the Coalition's agenda was focused on only a few issues, ignoring the bulk of Roman Catholic social teaching.

Coalition-building for evangelicals is easier than for their more conservative fundamentalist counterparts, argued Michael Lindsay, author of the recently published book Faith in the Halls of Power and a professor of sociology at Rice University.

He explained that, while these groups share some basic core orthodox beliefs, the orthodoxy of evangelicals is "elastic" and durable "and able to make bridges in different ways." For fundamentalists, though, orthodoxy is "hard and brittle and easily broken when it rubs shoulders with other people,' according to Lindsay.

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of the difficulties inherent in coalition building came when journalist Bob Abernethy, host of the PBS show Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, voiced concerns about America's reputation abroad, particularly in the wake of the war in Iraq.

Said Abernethy, "There's one thing that I think should be pretty high on that moral agenda. And that is to repair the heavily, heavily damaged relations between this country and many, many other peoples in the world.... We need to repair the damage that's been done across the whole world. What we've done in Iraq has had a tremendous effect all through the Muslim world, for instance."

He called for respect for the religion and cultures of other peoples, suggesting that Christians who are working abroad need to be "a little less aggressive about proselytizing."

That brought a strong retort from Land, who said, "I'm a Christian, and that's way ahead of anything else... If the price of respecting someone else's faith is to deny mine, the price is too high. My faith has in it the Great Commission, which is a command to go into all the world and share the Gospel.... Not to try to impose it, but an obligation to try to share it."

Wallis intervened, suggesting that "witness" should come primarily through service and only secondarily through words. Said Wallis, "You lead with serving, and right now we've got to do a lot of serving because we're up against a lot of hostility where people around the world really do equate American churches and Christianity with American foreign policy."

For people who would engage religion and politics, David Heim, executive editor of The Christian Century, held up two principles to keep in mind: "Every human being is made in the image of God. Be pragmatic, care about results."

Panelists

The church/state question

One of the panel sessions was devoted to the topic "Religious People, Secular Nation: Toward a New Wall of Separation," and offered a lively primer on church-state issues and how they are playing out in the current presidential election campaign.

One of the more vocal participants, Rabbi David Saperstein, laid the groundwork for discussion by emphasizing how unique it is for the United States never to have had an established religion. "This is unmatched anywhere in the democratic world," said Saperstein, director of Reformed Judaism's Religious Action Center. "What a difference this was for Jews who had been victimized throughout our history."

The panel of journalists, political consultants and analysts devoted considerable discussion to how the current presidential administration and the Clinton administration dealt with religious issues and evangelical Christians. David Kuo, former deputy director in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under George W. Bush, argued that Bush's push to transfer some social services from government to religious organizations was nothing new. Instead, Kuo said the Bush administration was simply more adept at calling attention to such efforts.

A Columbus, OH pastor whose church partners with local government to provide social services commented on the tendency. "I see a much healthier sort of partnership going on that is really not destructive of religion or the neutrality of the state. There is really a growing confidence on both sides that we can work together," said Richard Nathan, pastor of Vineyard Church.

With relish, the panelists parsed the religious dimension of the current race for each party's nomination. While they agreed that Democratic candidates are able to speak about religion far more comfortably than in either the 2000 or 2004 cycles, there was considerable discussion on how evangelical voters were likely to lean in the actual presidential election.

"Voters don't vote for candidates who go to the same church they do but don't share the same values," posited Ralph Reed, first executive director of the Christian Coalition, in response to comments that evangelical voters were adrift with the thrice-married Roman Catholic Rudy Giuliani as the Republican front runner.

 

Whither theology?

Some of the theological underpinnings of political engagement were also scrutinized during the course of the symposium.

For Andy Crouch, editorial director of Christianity Today's Christian Vision Project, the primary paradigms of Christian power can be found in the stories of the Exodus and Resurrection. In those, he suggested, there is a strong sense of reversal: "The powerless have more power available to them than they think, and the powerful have less power available to them than they think."

Greg Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN, took up the question of power, too, arguing that power wielded by Christians is "the power of self-sacrificial love, the power of service."

But putting politics before spiritual matters, he said, represents a "co-opting" of the church by the culture, leaving the church in a "profoundly broken" state.

Serene Jones, the Titus Street Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, lamented what she claimed is an absence of sound theological thinking that might contextualize some of the current debates on issues of moral import.

"I find it so frustrating," she said, "that we don't have these debates about the war, about torture, about homosexuality, about abortion, about health care, in a distinctly theological mode.... How do you engage in a discussion about what torture is as Christians without talking about who Jesus Christ is?"

Wallis ticked off a list of things to remember, among them: God hates injustice, the Kingdom of God is a new order, the church is the conscience of the state, and the need for a global perspective.

"Voices and Votes II: Shaping a New Moral Agenda" was organized by a student group based at Yale Divinity School, the Yale Forum on Faith and Politics. It followed on the heels of the first Voices and Votes symposium held Feb. 10-12, 2007, " Voices & Votes: Religious Convictions in the Public Sphere."

Co-sponsors included the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at YDS along with Christianity Today, Sojourners, and The Christian Century.

Evan Baehr, one of the student organizers of the event, said, "This symposium served as a leadership retreat where America's leading church/state theologians, pundits, and activists could talk off-the-record, ask tough questions, and give honest answers.

"By framing the day with a time of prayer and worship in the morning and personal narratives by Ambassador Tony Hall [former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture] and David Kuo at dinner, we were truly reminded of the common ground we share."

 

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