An editorial by the lovely Mary Sanchez of Kansas City appeared this week beneath the Tribune Co.'s various mastheads, including that of our own Sun-Sentinel. It was a well-intentioned editorial but a sloppy one, and the way in which it was sloppy was symptomatic of the general muzziness surrounding the discussion of political ethics in this country.
The first thing wrong about it was its title: "Invoking religion in budget debate is audacious." So far as I know, audacious still means "brave" or "original," and invoking religion in any kind of political debate is neither. It's not brave because it's almost guaranteed to work, and it's not original because modern organized religion was specifically designed to be used as a political cudgel. Using it for this intended purpose is about as audacious as weaponizing weapons-grade plutonium.
Still, the invocation of religion in a political debate is pretty shitty. In a more civilized clime, it would be seen as an admission of failure. (If you have to defend your philosophy by attributing it to an invisible sky-daddy who will send dissenters to hell, you're bumping against the bottom of the rhetorical barrel.) This seems to be what Sanchez really means, and huzzah to her.
Except, get this: The people she's chiding for the politicization of religion... are liberals.
As [the budget] debate heated up earlier this spring, a coalition of progressive Christian organizations, led by Sojourners' Jim Wallis, took out a full-page ad in Politico to launch their "What Would Jesus Cut" campaign...The key word here, I think, is that "we" in the first sentence of the last graf. Who, exactly, is Sanchez speaking about? Because "we" are not using Scripture to buttress our public policy arguments. Sojourners' Jim Wallis is, and as shitty as injecting religion into policy debate may be, the guy doesn't have a lot of other options. Because he's a theologian. That is his only job. He teaches a class called "Faith, Public Life, and Policy" and edits a magazine about doing Jesus' work in the world. Asking him not to engage politics with his religious philosophy is like asking a sociologist to engage with politics without recourse to sociology. It's ludicrous. Let the shamans do their thing.
Wallis's coalition has been growing. adding more than two dozen evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant and other Christian organizations. Calling themselves the "Circle of Protection," they are vowing to protest any efforts to cut programs that protect the poor, at home and abroad.
"Budgets are moral documents, and how we reduce future deficits are historic and defining moral choices," the group's website states (www.circleofprotection.us). "As Christian leaders, we urge Congress and the administration to give moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times, our broken economy, and our wounded world."
Casting the nation's $14.3 trillion debt and federal spending as a moral issue is an intriguing contention, one I don't wholeheartedly disagree with. As a Christian, I find it hard to neglect Jesus' call to "protect the least of these."
And yet, when we use scripture to buttress arguments about public policy, there is great potential for oversimplification. To use religion to anathematize our opponents accomplishes little more than to add rancor to our already dysfunctional politics.
It's the pretend shamans you've got to worry about -- all of the nontheologians and nonpriests who keep jamming their deities into political debates whenever it suits them. Get rid of those guys and suddenly the cacophony of God-appointed talking heads is dialed down to a mere whisper. And those pretend shamans -- guess what, Mary Sanchez? They're not on the left.
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