With the November elections behind us, we are on the cusp of the transition from the 109th to the 110th Congress, and the temptation for many of us is to forget about politics for awhile. The signs along our roadways are gone, the TV and radio ads are off the air, and the pundits have shifted their attention from speculation about election outcomes to other issues. All of us are ready for a break and change of scenery.
But taking a break—especially a long one—may be exactly the wrong thing to do, for several reasons. First, the major issues that divided us and fueled the campaigns have not been definitively settled and they will not go away. We’re still fighting a war in Iraq, all the sexuality and procreation issues that have divided us for decades still trouble our cultural waters, and issues about poverty, taxation, social security, health care, a fair minimum wage, immigration, and the environment will not go away between now and the next election cycle two years from now.
Second, the political machines are already retooling, preparing for the next round of American ideological conflict. Hats are being tossed into rings, money is being raised, master plans for candidates and political parties are taking shape as we catch our collective breath. In all likelihood, our nation is preparing for another polarizing, mean-spirited political game that will consume our money, our attention, and our national spirit two years from now.
Is there an alternative? I believe there is, even if it is a long shot and one that may require decades rather than years to accomplish. It is one that requires our religious communities to step up, our congregational leaders to take risks, and our thinking to move from short-term fixes to long-term human and communal transformation.
Those of us who participate in religious communities, whether local congregations or other types, need to do several things—now. First, we need to dig deeply into our religious traditions and recover their moral, ethical, and theological treasures. Our traditions have so much to say about wealth and poverty, about war and peace, about justice and mercy, but we have lost our bearings. We must resurrect those teachings and practices and release them afresh. The collective silence in our religious communities about war, torture, and welcoming and loving the stranger must end.
In addition, we must help our religious communities be places where people know what is really going on. I recently attended the Festival of Faiths that the Center for Interfaith Relations puts on each year in Louisville, Kentucky. During that citywide celebration, we spent a day reflecting on the mountaintop-removal mining techniques that are devastating great parts of Kentucky and West Virginia. Most of us know nothing about these terribly destructive processes that are ruining our land in the name of profit for the shareholders of major coal mining companies. There is so much that our people—in our congregations and beyond them—do not know about what is happening in the world. Religious leaders and religious communities have a vocation to tell the truth about what is going on.
Such truth telling also includes the risky business of informing people about what is really taking place in our society, as exemplified in Randall Balmer’s recent and hard-hitting book about the role of the religious right in the U.S., Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America (Basic Books, 2006). Balmer dares in this book to inform the public about what it does not know about the origins of the Religious Right, the real history of American evangelicalism, and the dangers confronting our American way of life. Not knowing the fuller meaning of the word evangelical or the Baptist history of the separation of church and state puts our country at risk, and most of our citizens do not know it.
The next contribution that our congregations and religious leaders must make if we are ever to have something other than more of the same is to create places where people can talk about the hard things—the things we do not know or want to know, the places were our faith traditions judge our cultural priorities, the places where our lives are at odds with the Creator’s intentions—and find common meaning and resolve to act together to heal the world. Creating such places of civic and faithful discourse is one of the greatest challenges of our age and it is our calling.
One more thing we could do to change the political process and conversation in our land—and around the world—is to identify those in our religious communities or on the edges of them who are giving their lives to addressing the great problems and challenges of our age. We need to find them, lift them up, and give them the spiritual and moral resources they need to make justice and mercy something more than religious clichés. Equipping the front-line leaders to be agents of skilled shalom should be at the center of our congregational life rather than at the periphery where it is too often placed.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute.