Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Religion and Politics

Recently I have been reading and thinking about the relationship between religion and politics. Two devout Episcopalian lawyers have been helpful in this regard.
The Position of Stringfellow
William Stringfellow (b. 1928) graduated from Harvard Law School in 1956. He soon moved to a tenement in Harlem, New York City, where he worked as a tireless advocate for racial and social justice. Then in 1967 he moved to Block Island, R.I. He lived, and was an active member of the Episcopal church, there until his untimely death in 1985.
Back in September, I re-read An Ethics for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, the thought-provoking book by William Stringfellow, who was a lay theologian and a stimulating author.
Stringfellow’s book was first published in 1973 during the Nixon Administration, but it seems very relevant to the present situation in the U.S. under the current occupant of the White House.
“Biblical politics” is the title of the first section of the first chapter of Stringfellow’s book. He declares, “The biblical topic is politics.” And then he continues with this long, significant sentence:
The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgment of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics (pp. 14-15).
How’s that for a weighty sentence! 

The Position of Danforth
The year of 1963 was a very special one for John Danforth (b. 1936). That was the year he graduated from both Yale Divinity School and Yale Law School as well as the year he was ordained as an Episcopal priest and admitted to the bar.
Danforth practiced law for a while but then became a politician, serving as the Attorney General of Missouri (1969~1975) and then as a U.S. Senator from Missouri (1976~1995).
In September I also read Danforth’s 2015 book, The Relevance of Religion. In his first chapter, Danforth sets forth “four broad principles” for how religious people ought to relate to politics:
(1) We should insist that politics remain in its proper place. It is not the realm of absolute truth and it is not the battleground of good and evil. (2) We should be advocates for the common good. (3) We should be a unifying force, working to bind America together. (4) We should advocate political compromise, and make the case that the spirit of compromise is consistent with our faith.
Danforth’s emphases on compromise, on working with those with different ideas, on listening to others and not idolizing one’s own position are good, important ones—and attitudes/actions that I wish more Washington politicians would put into practice today. 

The Better Position 

For “professional” politicians, Danforth’s position is a good one, as I have just indicated. But for those of us who are not politicians, perhaps Stringfellow’s position is more helpful—and challenging.
There are those, including many Christians, who say that they don’t want to be involved in politics—and most won’t be in the way that Danforth was. But people of goodwill, perhaps especially Christians, should be involved in politics the way Stringfellow suggests.  
When I wrote last November about being a one issue voter (see here), I was writing about being involved in politics in the way promoted by Stringfellow. 

Jesus said, “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice” (Mt. 6:33). We can’t do that without being active in politics.


  1. Thanks, Leroy. I've heard of Stringfellow but never read him. He'll go on "the list." Danforth's book, which appears about the same time as Madelyn Albright's, is quite compelling, too. Thanks for the reminders. I do wonder, though, how it's possible for ethics to avoid political engagement and action.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Milton. I highly recommend Stringfellow's book and would be most interested in hearing your evaluation of it when (or if) you have time to read it.

      It seems to me that "political engagement and action" can take place on two levels. Danforth represented the most common type of such engagement. But maybe Stringfellow's action, which might be called metapolitics, is even more important.

      (I thought maybe I was using a new term in saying "metapolitics" -- but then I found this on the Web: "Metapolitics refers to various forms of non-political activities which work towards spreading certain ideas and values within a culture(s) which make up a 'world-view' ('Weltanschauung'). -- Metapolitical activity is related to but excludes direct political activity (party politics, electoral events, political campaigning, etc.); it aims to influence politics and politicians as an end result, but not by working through politics.")

      This is clearly, I think, what Stringfellow was engaged in. But it involved action and not just ivory-tower thought and reflection. For example, as perhaps you may or may not remember, he harbored Daniel Berrigan on Block Island after Berrigan's non-violent actions (burning draft cards) in opposition to the Vietnam War.

  2. Charles Kiker here: I think, and I think I am in agreement with the Gospels here, that one cannot be a follower of the Way without being political. The Gospels and indeed the entire Bible are thoroughly political. Mary's Magnificat is a political poem regarding the oppressed and their oppressors. With this I think I am in the Stringfellow camp. (I'm not sure whether I've read Stringfellow's book which you reference, but I am acquainted with his views, by osmosis I suppose. Nor have I read Danforth's book, but am acquainted with his outlook. I wish our current political environment was more like Danforth and much much less like Steve Bannon and Roy Moore.)
    I agree that as followers of the Way we should not be partisan in politics. But we cannot not be political. We must strive for justice. That is partisan only when politicians make it so. As followers we do not have to be overtly partisan, even when our advocacy of justice makes it seem so to oppressors.

    1. Thanks, Charles​,​ for reading and responding to this morning's article. You have amplified the main point that I was trying to make in agreement with Stringfellow.

      There are some Christians, such as Sen. Danforth, who should be involved in partisan politics, it seems to me. But for most of us it is far more important to be involved in politics in the way elucidated by Stringfellow.

  3. Local Thinking Friend, and Baptist pastor, Kevin Payne sent the following comments by email:

    "Thanks for the good word; Stringfellow’s book looks like a good read – I’m going to get a copy.

    "I chafe at every turn of our nation’s politics! The lack of compromise, along with a rejection of any nuance is maddening, and being forced to choose between two mutually exclusive groups leads to a mentality that makes it difficult to stand together as a nation.

    "Too, a media that is driven more by a desire for ratings than a quest for truth makes it extremely challenging to sift through the issues, and come with up a coherent, and even 'Christian' perspective."

    1. Thanks for writing, Kevin. It is good to hear from you again.

      I was happy to hear that you are going to get a copy of Stringfellow's book, and I would like to hear your comments on it after you finish reading it. And perhaps I should "warn" you, though, that although it is not a long book (only 150+ pages), it is not a quick book to read. But I think it is worth taking the time to read it carefully.

      Sometime before long I want to do another article on Stringfellow--specifically his explanation of the meaning, significance, and threat of the "principalities and powers" mentioned several times in the New Testament. What he has writen in that regard is quite important, I think, and needs to be more widely known.

  4. And here are brief comments from Thinking Friend Bob Hanson in Wisconsin:

    "You did I it again, bro; thanks.

    William Stringfellow is one of my heroes; thank you for raising him up again. I do agree with your assessment of his long sentence."

  5. Politics and religion seem to pollute each other. Thankfully, the 1st Amendment to the Constitution is designed to keep state politics out of religion. But even that is not taken seriously by some.

    Of course the issue of religion in politics dates back millennia. That Jesus included both a tax collector for Rome, and a Zealot to be in leadership of his Kingdom is amazing. But everything Jesus did was amazing - he doesn't seem to fit any mold, except as a God out to redeem his creation. His Kingdom certainly is not of this world. Sad that the Church has tried to make it so, and that states have tried to have tried to replace the Church with their own "kingdoms" and politics "in the name of Jesus" or some other religion.

  6. It sounds to me as if Stringfellow and Danforth are describing the opposite sides of the same coin. Obviously, any fully developed religion is going to have serious political implications. Even so, in a pluralistic society, religion must argue through secular versions of it position for policy discussions. This, in turn, leads to a place for science to sort out workable from unworkable policies, even though science leaves an opening for voters to make value judgments concerning various workable policy positions. This whole process stands in stark distinction to the present US administration, which has sought to silence and marginalize science so that it can make policy decisions as it pleases without scientific input. Down this road resides not only strife but disaster.

    One problem the Western world has with separating politics and religion is that this has created an opening for quasi-secular movements which are actually secretly religious. Market fundamentalism is such a secret religion. It sells its theology as science, but it is not. It dodges religious criticism by pretending not to be religious. It dodges scientific analysis by pretending it is itself already a viable science. In this way, market fundamentalism has flown in under the radar, so to speak, and has infiltrated both other religions and politics. Market fundamentalism is the dominant religion of Wall Street. If it were Islamic, we could say that "Almighty Dollar is God, and Milton Friedman is His Prophet." If market fundamentalism were Christian we could say that "Almighty Dollar is God the Father, Free Market is God the Son, and Invisible Hand is God the Holy Ghost." One can only weep when one listens to a Christian fundamentalist warping the Bible until it speaks in tongues of Market Fundamentalism. Get this cancer out of the way, and American religions can find common ground in American political discourse. We all want to educate children, heal the sick, protect the environment, do justice and show mercy. Only an economic religious cult that obsesses on the "undeserving poor" and "lazy minorities" stands in the way. It reduces everything to a dollar sign, and every citizen to a bargaining unit. It wants competition in all things, and cooperation only in the things that the powerful want. Market Fundamentalism is the religion that largely runs the world. Right now it runs Washington. If you think Scientology is scary, if you think the Aztec death cult was cruel, you should really be worried about Market Fundamentalism. It is not science. It is not a normal religion. It is a force of darkness and destruction. It is the reason that Stringfellow and Danforth sound so different. They are not.

    For some background on why economic theories are not scientific, see here:

  7. Here are some comments by local Thinking Friend Don Pepper:

    "A.. Umm, current news has SEXUAL BEHAVIOR, past and present, as a third elephant sitting on the couch with POLITICS and RELIGION, what a triad of "Strange Bedfellows"! -- Alleged past criminal sexual behavior of a prosecutor who now holds that the Commandments from HIS God supercede U.S. federal law!

    "B. This week, I heard from a pastor that the encroachment of strident politics into mainstream religion will accelerate the Church's demise! Really?

    "C. In itself, should ancient immoral and illegal behavior disqualify one for public service? -- Is there redemption for political figures? -- What about political 'Spin,' deception, and outright lies?

    Behavioral double standards in both religious and political leaders?

    "D. Satisfactorily relationships require:
    1. Competent parties,
    2. A common goal, and
    3. Mutual respect."