Americans could be forgiven for thinking that a high priesthood existed in our government. Regardless of the office to which politicians aspire, they seem to be running for high priest. Politics and religion have become so enmeshed that it’s impossible to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.
This can’t be constitutional. Nor does it benefit either politics or religion. It’s especially degrading to the latter.
Those who would serve the people would, if responsible, bid us to examine our own behavior — “our own” including their own and their voters’. If they were genuinely concerned about morality, they could do nothing else. Our politicos, however, constantly focus our obsessions on the behavior of other people. Government is all about making people do things or forcing them not to do them. There is no way to square that with “Take the plank out of your own eye before you take the splinter out of your neighbor’s” (Matthew 7:3–5).
Regardless of the office to which politicians aspire, they seem to be running for high priest.
President Trump is a strange choice for high priest. Cheating on his (third) wife with a porn star, then paying the woman to keep quiet, is hardly the sort of behavior the religious Right claims to countenance. But Trump is their man, so they’ve backed themselves into that corner. They have revealed that their real priority is not holiness but power.
Personally, this leaves me cold. I’m not interested in whether people addicted to political power think I’m a sinner, or whether they believe I am a Christian. Their opinion means nothing to me, nor should it.
The moralizers tell us that “society” needs morality. But “society” does not reason, and makes no rational decisions on its own. Only individuals do that. Individuals need morality, but politicians can do nothing to give it to them. Politicians deal not with the individual, but with the collective.
And in those dealings, they are profoundly immoral. Politics are all about lying, coveting, and stealing. But we members of society are also at fault. We dare not examine our own consciences if we’re going to be influenced collectively. We must concentrate on the splinter in our neighbor’s eye.
Our politicos constantly focus our obsessions on the behavior of other people. Government is all about making people do things or forcing them not to do them.
Democrats are not learning from the religious Right’s mistakes, but merely copying them. They want to make people do things. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is staking his reputation on his “progressive” Christianity. His big idea is a year of national service for every young adult in the country — “if not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody after they're 18 spends a year in national service.” Having begun as a crusade against slavery, “progressive” Christianity now advocates slavery.
I must admit to a certain satisfaction when I hear an openly gay man boldly and unapologetically attest to being a Christian. I’m openly gay, and I am also a Christian. My faith has been hijacked by identity politics, and I like to see someone outside the religious Right standing up to claim it. But Pete Buttigieg has merely claimed it for another tribe, just as bound by identity politics as those of the religious Right. I, on the other hand, don’t want to make anyone do anything.
How do we reclaim our faith without permitting someone else to copyright it? The answer, it seems to me, can be found in the libertarian response. We are individuals who have no right to impose our religious strictures on others. That’s the way to peace. It makes harmony between individuals possible.
Religion remains the plaything of politicians and lobbyists, to the neglect of the individual and for the benefit of the tribe.
Government has no business deciding who can or cannot be Christian. Politicians can’t answer the question, regardless of which side they take. They shouldn’t conscript biblical principles for the sake of secular policy. Nor should young people be conscripted into involuntary servitude for the sake of a political vision, however public spirited it claims to be.
The religious Right still dominates the politics of religion. “Progressive” Christianity merely plays by the rules established by its adversaries. Religion remains the plaything of politicians and lobbyists, to the neglect of the individual and for the benefit of the tribe. No politician, of any stripe, can remedy this problem.
The one good thing to come out of Pete Buttigieg’s embrace of religious faith is that it shows those who support him are tired of the religious Right. The conversation has been broadened. But only when it’s tired of the politics of religion will the public remove a plank from its own eye.