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An Election Year Guide To Religion And Politics

We’ve just completed back-to-back political conventions and the election is a little more than two months from now and religion and politics has emerged as a hot topic for both Democrats and Republicans.

It appears there are two primary forms of expression being use by political parties regarding religion and politics: first, seeing religion as faith in God, love of Jesus, prayers, scripture quotes, etc., and second, seeing religion as a form of identity like “white evangelical,” “Hispanic Catholic,” or “black Protestant or Pentecostal”. But what do these expressions really tell us about what people believe and how they act? Not that much. The categories politicians use are mostly about messaging and targeting, not about how faith and politics interface. They don’t really address what kind of religion politicians are talking about or how it influences their political vision for America. 

 To help with these questions, Diana Butler Bass has developed what I find is a more useful guide to religion and politics. It is framed around five poles of religion: community, faith, ethics, orientation, and voice.

Religion and Politics-A Field Guide by Diana Butler Bass

 Community: Includes – Excludes

The question of community is: Who counts? Who counts as fully human? Who counts as a citizen? Religious groups veer toward different poles – ones with low boundaries for entrance and easy participation, and ones with strong borders and strict commitments. “We” communities or “us versus them” communities. Is the vision of community an open table or a club for members? The former tends to unify and welcome; the latter divides and delineates.   

Faith: Humility – Certainty

Faith is central to religious traditions, but not all religious people understand faith in the same way. Some insist that faith includes room for doubt and unanswered questions, while others define faith as right belief and certain truth. Is faith seen as a process or journey toward that which is mysterious and unknown, or is it understood to be assent to specific doctrine or dogma with a sure conclusion?  

Ethics: Mercy – Judgment

When it comes to ethics, there is often a tension between mercy and judgment. While most religious traditions insist that compassion and justice are interrelated, most Americans define mercy in terms of leniency and judgment as punishment. Which, then, is privileged: Compassion and empathy or law and order? “There but for the grace of God, go I” or “People get what they deserve”? 

Orientation: Future – Past

Religion speaks to time – past, present, and future. But it often prioritizes past and future. Some emphasize the coming kingdom of God, enlightenment, shalom, or a just society; and others see religion as the “faith of our fathers,” or as a lost age of innocence or glory. Those who emphasize the future see the present as an opportunity to correct past mistakes to move ahead; those who emphasize the past often see the present as a threat to fidelity and a time to ward off or prepare for a pending apocalypse. 

Voice: Prophetic – Priestly

This is a classic pole in analyzing religion and politics – prophets challenge and priests comfort. The prophetic voice takes on unjust systems, structures, and powers. The priestly voice affirms the goodness of the nation and its essential mission, offering assurance in times of trouble. Prophets call down fire; priests bless.

Those these are presented as binary poles they represent a spectrum with many both/ands. Each pair invites us to consider where we – or those with whom we differ – fall on a spectrum. It serves as a device, an “explainer,” intended to clarify issues and then raise better questions. Keep these categories in mind in the upcoming weeks. Community, faith, ethics, orientation, and voice. You’ll see these themes in local, state, and national campaigns, but more importantly, these poles shape our larger vision of who counts, how we see faith, what is good and just, where hope lies, and the future of America’s story.


Posted on September 1, 2020

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5