Today, I learned an important lesson: faith is a great ally and great threat in politics. When discussing a recent article on the Internet titled, “How to Disagree,” with some friends, I took the opportunity to correct past mistakes at being ineffective, intemperate, or just plain disagreeable when discussing contentious topics. I decided to revisit a particular discussion on homosexuality and examine the mechanics of the back and forth. I wanted to highlight my reasoning, how I was trying to make a point, and so on, to show that I was refuting (and this is important) logical claims by providing evidence that supported my refutation.
I received a couple of responses that greatly frustrated me at first. Technically speaking, my friends had simply restated a contradiction to a point I had painstakingly proven with biblical evidence, evidence that I found incontrovertible. It was right there in black and white, after all. Yet, here they were simply restating the opposite! My ego was stung and information not conforming to my worldview was imposed on me and like most human beings, anger was the predictable first and thankfully internal response. Aren’t they listening?!? Don’t they respect me?!? Are they boneheaded??! And so on. To be clear and concise consider this conversation:
What is the wavelength of blue light?
What is the wavelength of light scattered from the sky on a sunny day?
What is the color of the sky?
It hadn’t yet occurred to me that they were simply confessing faith. Confessing one’s faith comes in many different forms and is often disguised, as it was in this situation. Faith is also emotional and deeply multivalent in one’s life. It doesn’t fit in a nice neat box. It is often ineffable and a reflection of the person who has it rather than a reflection of some abstract or objective reality.
What happens when faith forms the basis of a political agenda? On the one hand it can sustain through astoundingly difficult times: the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. And Lord knows, no great political movement has ever gotten through those kinds of times without “keeping the faith,” e.g. the Civil Rights Movement. On the other hand, however, it can be problematic for political discourse in a pluralistic, democratic society.
Barack Obama once gave a great speech that spelled out some of the issues. I repeat here what he said on political discourse.
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
This is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy-making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.
Dangerous indeed. In my discussion with my friends I sought to present commitments of faith translated into universal values, such as fairness and equality versus hypocrisy and oppression, so that I might convince them of the truth in which I believe. Perhaps I was successful, more likely I was not, esp. given the response. To God be all the glory, all the failures blame on me. What I found is that our realities are not all that common. We as Americans have a long way to go. And that means that faith continues to be at once an ally and threat to our politics.