by Micah Tillman
What price should you pay for your country's failures?
Back in April, my alma mater Messiah College hosted the Compassion Forum. McCain didn't show, but Obama and Clinton did.
Their appearance as Democrat politicians at such a religious event was unusual, but not brave. Messiah — at least at the faculty level — is a progressive school, and progressive Christians are politically little different from progressive atheists. They just use "basic precepts in Matthew" to ground their politics.
Or is it the other way around? While the quotation above comes from Obama at Rick Warren's "Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency," the following is what he said at Messiah:
"[A]s I'm doing this organizing, some of the pastors started saying, '. . . [Y]ou've got great ideas, Obama, but . . . if you're going to organize churches, it might help if you were going to church.'
". . . Trinity United Church of Christ was one . . . that we were trying to get involved in the organization.
"I visited that church and found . . . that . . . there were a whole host of wonderful ministries that they were engaged in. And Reverend Wright's sermons spoke directly to the social gospel, the need to act and not just to sit in the pews.
"And so I found that very attractive and ended up joining the church."
The religion matched his politics at Trinity, so he bought the religion. But twenty years later, at Saddleback, it's Obama's religion that's judging "our" politics.
So, what price should you pay for "our" moral failings, now that not only progressive politics but Jesus (according to Obama's Matthew) condemns "us"?
Is the penalty to vote Democrat?
But why should government be the way you fix "our" failings? Would volunteering or donating to charity be an inadequate penance?
And why doesn't it sound theocratic for a would-be president to implicitly cite Jesus as a reason to vote Democrat (or, rather, to vote for "change" in the current, collective-moral-failure-inducing Republican approach in Washington)?
And why doesn't it sound theocratic for a would-be president to ask God, "[M]ake me an instrument of your will"?
My progressive Christian friends think Christianity went wrong when it became an "empire religion" under Constantine. And yet their goal is to Christianize U.S. government, so as to de-imperialize it.
It's an interesting approach, and maybe it would work. Maybe if our government followed the Synoptic Gospel Political Program the troops would come home, "our" capitalist oppression of the world would cease, and foreign musicians wouldn't have to sing in English to get popular.
As a Christian myself, I'm sympathetic to the idea. I like Jesus, after all, and there's a lot of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. But once you start to put Jesus and guns (i.e., government) together, I start to feel queasy.
And I know my progressive friends feel the same way when my conservative friends want to hand Jesus a billy club and a pair of handcuffs.
So maybe there's hope that we can come to an understanding: "You keep your Jesus out of politics, and I'll keep mine out too. Deal?"
After all, when Warren asked Obama what Christianity means to him, Obama gave an answer that would make every individualist, right-wing, evangelical proud:
"As a starting point, it means I believe in – that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis."
A "social gospel" that ain't.
But I doubt a significant number of my fellow Christians (on either side) would ever agree to the truce proposed above. To do so — to keep your religion and politics separate — is really to live with two religions.
After all (as I've argued before) all worldviews have the same structure. There's no real difference between the ones we call "religions" and the ones which found governments.
To avoid cognitive dissonance, people tend to either follow the Trinity Obama (basing their "religion" on their "political worldview") or the Saddleback Obama (basing their "political worldview" on their "religion").
This may create empire religions, but it's easier on the nerves.
Micah Tillman (micahtillman.com) is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.