Considerable debate is happening in America today about the role of religion in politics. Of the two parties, the Republican Party seems the most comfortable with religious input, and many candidates go out of their way to court religious voters. Indeed, the so-called Religious Right has considerable institutional linkages to the party, so much so that many observers on the left have warned about theocratic tendencies within the Republican Party. For religious people who are politically progressive, the Democratic Party is a more natural fit, but there is discomfort both within the party structures and among politically active people of faith as to the most appropriate ways of engaging each other politically.

The authors of this paper are of the opinion that faith has a public dimension, that faith is not a private entity that should be kept out of the public realm. The question is, what should such a relationship look like, especially considering the model established by the Religious Right? On one hand there is the question of how elected officials and political parties should respond to faith communities who wish to be heard on matters of public concern. There are both constitutional and spiritual issues involved in how religious people become involved in political life. It is not only the political parties that are facing difficult questions but also the various religious traditions, whose theologies and practices differ from one group to the next.

As noted above, candidates and leaders from within the Republican Party have often framed political issues in moral and religious terms, while Democrats, for a variety of reasons, have shied away from making strong connection between religion and politics. This has led to the charge that the Democrats are unfriendly to religious voices, and has encouraged some within the party to open up a dialogue, such as the one held in Goleta, California on June 3, 2007. At this event, approximately 500 Democrats gathered to discuss the intersection of faith and political action in regard to issues such as war, the environment, immigration, poverty, and health care, as well as to strategize about how to better integrate this voice into the party’s work. More recently, in the 2008 presidential primary season, the three top-tier candidates, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, all spoke openly of their faith and how their faith has influenced their political lives.2 At the same time, politically progressive religious people have begun to articulate positions that would seem in harmony with the Democratic platform, even if not always identical to it.

Ways of Approaching the Conversation 

The relationship of institutional religion and the political realm has been a matter of debate from the beginnings of the nation’s history. Although Christianity—especially Protestantism—has dominated America’s public life, history has shown an aversion to making the relationship official. There has always been a strong civil religion present, but usually this has taken on broad tones and not denominationally specific ones, and when attempts have been made to declare America a Christian nation, those attempts have been rebuffed.3 Still, the relationship between religion and public life, whether or not it has been made official, has been close.

Historian Mark Toulouse4 has developed a helpful taxonomy for understanding this relationship, with a focus on Christian involvement in the public square. These four approaches to engagement reflect the majority status of America’s Christians. But the four approaches do transcend the religious boundaries that are present in this country.

Two approaches to the engagement between religion and the public arena are expressions of a civil religion that either subsumes faith under national agendas or national agendas under faith professions.

Iconic Faith5 

The recent flap over Keith Ellison’s decision to take his oath of office using the Koran illustrates the nature of iconic faith. With iconic faith, a religious symbol may take on nationalistic meaning; for instance, for many Americans the Bible is seen as a totem that serves to guarantee one’s trustworthiness. Likewise, a public symbol, such as the flag, might be venerated as a holy object, thus burning the flag is seen as desecrating a sacred image. In both situations, the majority faith is merged with national interests, and God is seen as being predisposed to favoring the nation. An iconic faith requires a homogeneous setting, and thus religious pluralism is discouraged (at best). In this form of engagement, the religious community is largely passive because the activism emanates from the state.

Priestly Faith 

Claims that America is a Christian nation reflect a “priestly faith.” Here the nation is seen as the vehicle for God’s work in the world. In America, this would mean that the nation and the Christian faith are intermingled, with one supporting the other. The nation looks to the church for moral support, while the church looks to the state for financial and legal support. National interests take on the aura of divine missions, and national agendas are wrapped in God language. Priestly faith tends to be legalistic, and religious norms (Christian in this case) define what is acceptable behavior. With regard to the priestly faith, the religious community takes on an activist position and sees itself as the protector of cultural values. Thus the American vision is God’s vision. Indeed, this is the foundation of the 19th-century notion of Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States was destined to expand westward, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Again, in such a view of public engagement, pluralism is suspect if not discouraged, and faith can become exceedingly coercive.

If iconic and priestly faiths are inherently problematic, both from governmental and religious perspectives, there are ways in which faith can engage with the public square. Toulouse speaks of these as the public Christian and the public church perspectives. Although Toulouse directs his particular study at the Christian community, the ideals he espouses are transferable to any religious tradition.

Public Person of Faith 

St. Augustine and Martin Luther both conceived of the religious and the political realms as being radically separate from each other. Luther called these two realms as the two kingdoms of God and the world. In one sense these perspectives recognize a “wall of separation” between church and state,6 where the “public person of faith” can enter the public square, and faith will influence how he or she engages public life, but the religious community will remain focused on spiritual matters. The community can nurture a prophetic spirit, but it will remain outside the public debates. From this perspective, involvement ranges from noninvolvement to individual activism, but the congregation does not enter into the business of transforming the nation or the world. As for pluralism, there is a range of attitudes that run from a concern about pluralism, especially radical forms, to an embrace of pluralism.

Public Religious Community 

To be a public religious community, a community will very consciously affirm God’s reign over both secular and sacred realms. From this perspective, God is concerned about the world itself and calls the community of faith to an advocacy and an activism for justice. Public activism is rooted in faith, and the communities themselves—not just religious individuals—enter into the process of transforming the world. Such an approach may be best illustrated by the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., who called not just individuals of faith but communities of faith to enter into the work of overturning racism in America and enacting civil rig
hts legislation. The community becomes prophetic and activist. Whereas the more individualistic expression of public engagement tends to see sin in personal ways, in this form there is a greater awareness of the systemic nature of sin. Thus the community of faith works toward not just the redemption of the individual but the social redemption of the world. Political activity is an essential component of one’s faith and part of the community’s mission. The danger here is that the line separating such a view from a priestly faith is narrow. At what point does the faith community that seeks justice cross the line into coercion? The path away from priestly faith requires humility and a retreat from absolutism.

A Way Forward 

There are inherent dangers in mixing religion and politics, and clergy must be careful about how involved they get with partisan efforts. There are legal and tax ramifications that must be kept in mind. There are many who believe that it is not in the church’s best interest for clergy to become heavily involved.7 If clergy and people of faith enter into the political realm, certain rules need to be considered. Besides the legal issues, there are ethical ones. As clergy with sympathies for the Democratic Party enter into conversation with the party of their choice, it would be important that neither party nor person of faith feel beholden to the other. Clergy must not take on the role of “kingmaker” or dictate policy. They can, however, offer words of advice and guidance from the perspective of faith. There can be no quid pro quo relationships. Indeed, the question that stands before both the political and religious communities as they enter into conversation is whether one or two issues trump all others.

If, as we believe, there is room for fruitful conversation and collaboration between people of faith and political parties (in our case, the Democratic Party), we have formulated two sets of questions, one set for religious leaders and the other for politicians.

Three Practical Questions for Religious Leaders 

  • When I, as a person of faith, take a position with political implications, how is faith related to this decision? Is this position authentically rooted in my faith tradition, so that my faith compels me to take this position, or have I taken a political position and sought support for it in my religious tradition?
  • As a clergyperson, what considerations are involved if I choose to give my pulpit to a politician or candidate? In other words, by allowing this person to speak, am I making either an explicit or an implicit endorsement of this person?
  • In what ways is it permissible for clergy to endorse a candidate? And is taking a position on an issue the same as endorsing a candidate? Regarding the latter, if I take a position on a politically sensitive issue, when must I seek the permission of my board or other governing body?

Three Practical Questions for Political Leaders and Organizations 

  • Should I use my personal religious doctrines in making political decisions? As a doctor may refuse to perform an abortion, citing his or her personal religious beliefs, should politicians be able to refer to their personal faith when taking a vote or a position? Or should politicians be asked to separate their personal beliefs from their duty to represent their constituency, or even, like a judge in a trial, be expected to set aside their personal views when acting as representatives of the people and follow the general values of pluralism enshrined in the Constitution?
  • Should I use faith doctrines publicly when pushing a particular policy? When attempting to make an argument in the public square, may I use actual quotes and doctrines from faith traditions to support my position? Or should I refrain from framing political issues in religious terms?
  • If one strongly believes in separation of church and state, what is the best way of dealing with religious leaders and faith communities that want to become involved in a particular issue or campaign? Perhaps you are concerned or even dismayed as you see religious groups and faith leaders attempt to control political agendas and suggest litmus tests for candidates. Perhaps you are even distrustful of offers of support from religious organizations. And yet there are religious leaders who do want to get involved. How should this relationship between religious groups and political organizations be appropriately developed and fostered?

How one answers these questions may depend on one’s theological/faith positions, the polity of one’s tradition, and matters of law. For many clergy it is not the legal barriers that are the most imposing but the consideration of the diversity of political positions in their own communities that will constrain their voices. For many political activists, the answers may depend on their own experiences with religion and religious leaders, as well as the current political realities. Nevertheless, religion has always been a part of our landscape and we must not only honestly raise these issues, we must also seek realistic answers that can lead us to healthier relationships between religion and politics. And since we are dealing with the future, our answers may in some degree require all of us to ask: are we willing to become prophetic?

1. This article began as a position paper written for the California Democratic Party Faith and Values Community Summit held in Goleta, California on June 3, 2007. Committee members who helped critique and steer this paper included the two authors, the Reverend Jarmo Tarkki, and local political activists Jon Williams and Alexis Donkin.
2. Note the participation of the three candidates in the Sojourner’s conversation in May of 2007, which was broadcast by CNN.
3. See Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Random House, 2006).
4.Mark Toulouse, God in Public: Four Ways American Christianity and Public Life Relate (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).
5. For many constitutional scholars, this concept is also known as “civil religion.” Phrases like “in God we trust,” the biblical inscription on the Liberty Bell, and even the lighting of the Christmas tree on the White House lawn may be viewed as religious statements since they are agreed-upon concepts of foundational principles that helped to form our country.
6. The wall of separation between church and state is often credited to Thomas Jefferson. There are several scholars who suggest that Roger Williams was the first one to suggest this concept, as enshrined in his famous Bloody Tenants.
7. David Gushee, “Some Rules for Christians in Politics,” Gushee offers 17 extremely restrictive rules as to the role he believes clergy and churches should play.