Thursday, September 26, 2013

Values, Faith, and Political Engagement

Earlier this week, the two hopefuls in the Virginia Lieutenant Governor's race went at it in a debate and in the media, an exchange that has surfaced a peculiarity.

On the one hand, there was an Iraq veteran and pediatric surgeon.  On the other,  a firebrand activist and the pastor of a small unaffiliated congregation.  As someone interested in the tension between faith and politics, what was peculiar in the debate and in the public exchanges between the two candidates was their completely different take on the relationship between what we believe and our political positions.

The activist pastor recently and regularly preaches that he believes...as most evangelicals do...that Christianity is the only legitimate faith, the only way one can stand in right relationship to God.  That's a fairly standard interpretation of Christian faith, but it's one that was called into question at the debate and in public conversations.

The veteran/surgeon suggested that having a faith that automatically assumes that 1) all other faiths are inherently and completely false and 2) that anyone who does not hold that position within your own faith is not a real member of your faith...well, that might have some impact on how you approach the people you've been elected to govern.

In response to that concern came the response: well, this is just my private belief.   What right do you have to challenge what I believe if it has no impact on how I deal with people?  One defender of the activist candidate suggested that there's no connection between what one says in a "Biblical sermon" and political speech.  The candidate himself quoted from the Virginia constitution, which explicitly protects religious speech.

On the one hand, I concur with aspects of that response.  Overtly political discourse has no place in the pulpit.  The task of a pastor is to teach the Gospel, not to whup folks upside the head with their political agenda.  When we allow partisanship to become our priority, churches become little more than extensions of a party.  That stifles both the Spirit and our capacity to stand in prophetic resistance to the idolatries of ideologies.  Including our own, as that pesky, pesky Jesus tends to do.

It is also true, and must necessarily be true, that individuals should be free to both express their faith and fully participate in the civic life of the state.

But on the other hand, to imagine that faith has no political implications is to misunderstand faith.

What we believe does impact who we are.  Faith, rightly understood, is the thing that most radically defines us.  It is our purpose, the thing which governs and directs all other aspects of our existence.  If it is real, faith has a direct impact on both our personal life and our civic engagement.

As such, what you profess to believe does have a direct impact on how you should be viewed as both a human being and a citizen.  It is the content of your character.  It is the expression of your values.

It strikes me as a peculiar dissonance to argue otherwise.

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