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Mixing Religion and Politics leads to Division

Essay by Martha Quillen

American Culture & Politics – January 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

This Christmas, the shelves at Wal-Mart are stocked with books about angels. There are television shows about angels, including both regular features and countless interviews with people who claim to have met angels. This year’s candidates talked exhaustively of values, morals, and traditions, and the national news magazines have repeatedly noted that Americans are looking for spirituality.

— Talk about looking for something in all the wrong places. You’d think if someone wanted to find salvation, he’d pray, meditate, climb the mountain, or wander forty days and nights in the wilderness. Instead, Americans try to vote for it.

Regardless, religion is newsworthy these days.

Recently, there was a series of documentaries on public television about the growth of the conservative Christian movement. Most of the religious leaders interviewed for that series were not concerned about their own salvation — which we can assume they feel is already assured — but in the salvation of our society.

(At least I hope that’s what they were concerned about, but I actually only saw three full segments — plus a few parts — of the ten programs in the series. If there’s anything I hate about the new TCI decision to eliminate KRMA in Salida, it’s that I need to get yet another newspaper to follow the schedule for KTSC — and we already get nine newspapers.)

In the shows I saw, religious activists didn’t talk about salvation, they talked about power and politics. Apparently, conservative Christians started seriously mobilizing in the late sixties, influenced by dynamic leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King, and by the apparent successes of the civil rights and anti-war movements.

In one show, Pat Robertson and his associates talked about his bid for the Republican nomination in 1988. Some of those interviewed felt that Americans wouldn’t consider a “Christian” for president (even though all of the presidents of the United States in my lifetime have been Christians.) Robertson, however, felt that he had represented himself as a television commentator and nationally known conservative rather than as a minister of the gospel.

Actually, though, in this case I had to agree with those who thought a “Christian” couldn’t get elected. We’ve had born-again presidents — but I’m not sure we’re ready for a born-again platform.


Because the buzz words in this platform are as insincere as those old standbys foisted on us by the politically correct. Sure liberals want diversity — as long as it stays out of their covenanted neighborhoods. And Christians want to uphold family values — your family values. Marilyn Quayle can lambaste working women and still be one–but it’s not all right for you.

For a long time, I had trouble understanding how the Christian right picked issues to support, because a lot of those issues didn’t seem very Christian.

I certainly couldn’t imagine Jesus cutting benefits to the poor — or barring immigrants from schools and hospitals. I couldn’t imagine Jesus arguing for the death penalty — or insisting upon a person’s right to avoid taxation.

Jesus was not a political leader, however, and his business was not to run a government equitably.

Instead, Jesus urged his followers to give, to forgive, to sacrifice, to humble themselves, to love their neighbors, and to seek righteousness and the kingdom of God.

Personally, I find the biblical viewpoint far more inspiring than that of the Christian right. But I have to admit that I wouldn’t want our government to give away all of our worldly goods, or to forgive all of those who trespass against us.

The truth is, I’m not sure all of this mixing of politics and religion is a good thing — for politics or for religion. The New Testament offers a guide to salvation. It doesn’t dispense instructions on how to get ahead in this world. (It doesn’t even hold out much hope for this world.)

Yet after watching the PBS series, and reflecting a while, I finally saw what the Christian right’s platform was really based upon — Orthodoxy. By dictionary definition that means: “Adhering to the established faith, especially in religion;” or “adhering to a commonly accepted, customary, or traditional practice or belief.”

I felt better. Suddenly their platform seemed more coherent, logical, and predictable. I figured, they must honestly believe that things will get better if we return to the old-fashioned ways.

All right, I’ll admit I used to think right-wing crusaders were just worried that everyone was having more fun than they were. And that made me really wonder about their more zealous spokesmen — because teenage pregnancy, single parenthood, divorce, drug addiction, alcoholism, and living on welfare didn’t sound like all that much fun to me.

Then after Amendment 2 went to the supreme court, I thought maybe religious activists were just plain mean.

Remember when Sandra Day O’Connor said that Amendment 2 might be used to bar homosexuals from hospitals and libraries? According to her, under Amendment 2 homosexuals might have no legal recourse when deprived of what everyone now considers ordinary human rights — because it was unclear whether they could petition the Colorado courts.

In response, local Christian groups said that such consequences weren’t what they had in mind. Yet they continued to support the amendment. Their position was to wait and see how Amendment 2 would be used — since no one seemed too sure about how such an unusually worded amendment could or would be applied.

I tend to be pessimistic. I imagined ambulances leaving accident victims in the road, and lines of homeless gays being turned away from shelters after being kicked out of apartment buildings.

When I look at the cuts Americans have supported recently, I imagine young mothers losing welfare and not finding jobs. I imagine alleys full of the sick and the homeless. I imagine immigrant children dying outside of our hospitals.

I suspect, however, that our society is not quite as bad as I fear — nor as bad as the Christian right avows.

What is bad, however, is the mutual suspicion that seems to be building between people.

It’s an international phenomenon, almost certainly due to tumultuous shifts toward a world-wide economy. The Soviet Union crumbled. Bosnians embraced ethnic cleansing. There’s tribal warfare in Africa, trouble in South America, and combat in the Middle East.

All over the world, the religious have responded by trying to impose traditions from their past. In Saudi Arabia women can no longer drive cars. In Afghanistan girls can’t go to school. Everywhere, people hope they can control societal upheaval by returning to old-time religion.

But people are not actually returning to traditional religion. Although the Christian right usurps the word “Christian” to describe their politics, real Christians come in all parties, nationalities and denominations.

And the platform of the Christian right is no more Christian than the platform of the Libertarians. Christ didn’t talk about economic systems. He wasn’t concerned about whether the rich were overtaxed. He didn’t worry about military spending. Therefore, it doesn’t seem right to drag his name into this mess we call politics.

Besides, mixing religion and politics creates some serious conundrums. It’s not nice to claim that people have no morals, ethics, or family values when you know nothing about them, but the Christian right sometimes does just that.

Moreover, political positions need to be discussed and argued until a compromise is reached, but religion doesn’t work that way. Most of us have been brought up believing that it’s offensive to question or criticize another person’s religion; whereas we have an obligation to investigate a political platform — which makes mixing the objectives of your religion with the objectives of your political platform a touchy thing.

Although it’s obvious that all Americans take their religion into the voting booth with them, most don’t try to redeem their neighbors with their vote.

As citizens, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that whether we’re right, left, or in the center, most Americans want the same things. There isn’t a big lobbying group out there for more murders, more teenage pregnancies, more air pollution, more domestic violence, or more broken homes. And very few people support a weak economy.

A lot of our political clashes are about what will work, not about results. But some of our differences are real.

America is not a Christian nation. We are a nation of Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, neo-paganists, new age seekers, Native Americans who practice their own indigenous religions — and the undecided. But we need religion.

We need literacy programs, and homeless shelters, effective treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, and more alternative education. We need hospices, youth programs, Pioneer girls, Scout troops, Brownies, and Sunday schools. We need day care, pre-schools, and assistance for the elderly. We need morals, compassion, and understanding. And the government can’t provide all of those things.

Every time the government gets involved with social programs, there’s a lot of bureaucratic stumbling to decide where the money should go and what the rules should be. Then, the paperwork has to filled out to prove that everything went to the right place. Then there’s an outcry about whether these people should be getting more of our tax money than those people.

That’s because governments deal with populations. Our government is supposed to be democratic, fair, and impartial.

Religion, on the other hand, deals with individuals. A preacher is supposed to care about what an individual thinks, how he feels, and what he believes in. But if traditional religion is supposed to teach us (or maybe inspire us) to be good to one another, to bind to our families, to behave, to be kind, to be fair, to be generous, trustworthy, and faithful — it’s failing.

Last Christmas, a spokesman from Catholic Charities said that although charitable giving was up and the arts were thriving, there was actually far less money for the poor. Perhaps that’s because, in spiritual matters, a vote is not what counts.

–Martha Quillen