Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Whenever You Pray, Go Into Your Room and Shut the Door
Here’s how I would like to see piety practiced in the political arena: One hour before any political debate or appearance on a televised talk show, politicians would seclude themselves in a green room away from the camera, quietly read their Bibles or other sacred texts, pray for guidance for themselves and for their opponents, contemplate how faith informs their commitment to building up the quality and character of the human community, perhaps engage in quiet conversation with a spiritual advisor or fellow practitioner, ideally consider the insights of at least one other religious tradition, and then go out to the debate or the interview to talk about the policies that will lead toward the improvement and preservation of life for ourselves and our children. Period.
Religious practice in such a political environment would include no public cloying personal “witness” to a born again experience. No bashing of an opponent’s theology. No melodramatic story about how God has transformed my life. Just thoughtful commentary about public policies that will improve the lives and welfare of all our citizens. Preferably it would come with a healthy dose of humility and perhaps even the radical admission from a politician that “I might be wrong.” OK, perhaps that’s asking too much!
Rick Santorum complains of nausea caused by the alleged eviction of religion from the public square. I don’t know what public square he’s inhabiting, but the public squares I see seem drenched in piety to the point that I’m about to throw up. It’s a piety of the most self-assured, self-absorbed, self-referential kind imaginable. It’s a piety that leaves no room for thoughtful dissent or alternate perspectives. And sadly, it’s a piety that bears the name of my own faith, albeit in a form quite unrecognizable to me. Gag.
Why this preoccupation with the piety of our candidates? It doesn’t seem to be the case in other arenas of life. Over the years I have had several excellent primary care physicians. They have been Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, and Jewish. (My gerontologist should probably be a Muslim!) I have no idea whether my current physician is a person of faith or not. Frankly I don’t care. If any of them had ever started an exam with a prayer I would have found it kind of creepy. What I do care about is the training and skill she brings to bear on me as I age, his connections to specialists and medical centers, her compassion, and his availability. I do hope they have a belief system that is sustaining and inspiring for them, that helps them find meaning in their practice of medicine and that encourages them in good works. But that’s not what I’m paying them for. If we are willing to hand over the most intimate and precious parts of our lives to these professionals without regard to their religious beliefs, why is it so important to test the orthodoxy of our politicians?
Our legal system guarantees that each of us will be able to freely exercise our religion in the personal and public spheres of our lives without restriction to the extent that it doesn’t impinge on the freedom of others to do the same. It prohibits the state from advancing or privileging the cause of any one religious tradition over another. And it bars the state from disadvantaging anyone because his or her faith is odd, peculiar, or because of no faith commitment. All of this means, of course, that Rick Santorum has every right to utter the most ridiculous and offensive theological statements in his campaign imaginable. Gag again. But it also means that he must cede gracious and extravagant space in that same public square to people like my Jewish, Hindu, and (potential) Muslim doctors, not to mention atheists or members of suspect Christian sects like the United Church of Christ! If he doesn’t like that, he has only the framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights to blame, not some alleged secular vandals busy pillaging America’s moral values amid the din of religious and spiritual diversity.
Anyone wanting to gauge the quality of leadership by American presidents on the basis of their orthodox Christian faith would run into a few rather awkward problems. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? A generous reading of their theology would describe it as, well, idiosyncratic. Abraham Lincoln? True, he was deeply steeped in the Bible and profoundly spiritual in many ways. But he was hardly an evangelical Christian. Franklin Roosevelt? He and Churchill loved their whiskey and Roosevelt died – almost – in the arms of another woman. Ronald Reagan? Not my cup of tea, but widely admired though never a church going Christian. And yet, election cycle after election cycle in recent years we have been developing a weird and ultimately unhealthy fascination with the piety of candidates.
Jesus, according to Matthew, said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” He went on to suggest that prayer is better done behind closed doors than on the street corners. I do hope that political candidates have spiritual resources that can sustain them in their demanding vocation and a moral compass that can guide them amid myriad temptations. But what I want them to concern themselves with are good jobs and education for our children, an end to foolish wars around the world, and care for an environment that needs to survive the greed of our current generation. Now that’s something I could stomach.
John H. Thomas