In the News: Religion in American Public Life

Religion looms large in the news right now. The Pope’s visit, of course, offers a lot to think about and talk about. And, there’s presidential candidate Ben Carson’s comment regarding whether or not a Muslim should be elected president, ultimately concluding that Islam is “inconsistent with the values and principles of America.” And, we can’t seem to escape (even if we wish to) Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who won’t issue marriage licenses to same gender couples because such marriages are not “ordained by God”—despite her own difficulties in following scripture when it comes to relationships and marriage.

In the media attention that follows these stories, and others, there’s an interesting array of assessments and perspectives. I’ll admit that I’ve actually been trying to avoid media saturation, especially regarding the Pope’s visit. I’m not listening to the radio as much and it’s been a long time since I watched television news. Instead, I’m choosing online sources, ones that I feel I can trust.

When it comes to the Pope’s visit to the United States, it is indeed fascinating to read and occasionally listen to how reporters, pundits and others consider the topics that the Pope has raised. It seems that whenever the Pope speaks about a subject that is not important or significant to a pundit, or where the pundit holds an opposing view, the response is that the Pope is “politicizing” the topic. Or, that those who are covering the Pope’s visit aspire to “politicize” certain topics for their own, or their network or newspaper’s gain, or their “cause.”

In our separation of church and state, we’ve somehow got to a place where many seem to think that religion is solely for private devotion and private salvation, set off from how one actually lives one’s life in interacting with one’s community and the world. There are others, of course, who in their pronouncements that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, seek to infuse laws and practice with “Christian values,” with all of those “values” closely tied to their own understanding of what it means to be “Christian,” as if Christianity is a singular monolith (or it is that their church that is the one and true).

The Pope’s visit, especially, but the Kim Davis and the Ben Carson stories too, offer a window into the troubling, perplexing and problematic reality of religion and specifically “Christianity,” in American public life. We simply don’t seem to know how to consider the role of religion, faith and spirituality in the public domain. Some wish for religion to be banished from our public lives, and others try to make their own beliefs into laws and practices for all.

Religion and spirituality, for those who practice, cannot be placed in a sort of special “box,” informing only our own private devotion and ensuring our own private salvation. Faith is a part of who we are. It informs many of our decisions, as it frames and supports our values, our priorities, our interests in all aspects of our lives—including politics.

Yet, somehow in all of this, those who are religious fail to balance religious zeal with humility, that to worship God is to know that one is not God. Therefore, even some of our most closely held priorities may not actually be shared by God.

To be people of God is to strive for common purpose, despite the bickering tribes of political parties. Through the Pope’s visit, we have an opportunity to consider and reflect on where some common ground might exist. We may not agree on climate change, but we Christians ought to be able to agree that we are stewards of this creation. Creation is not just for our exploitation, but must be cared for. We may not agree on abortion, but perhaps we can find some common purpose in lifting up the value and dignity of children who have entered this world in the midst of horrific violence, hunger and poverty.

There is common ground, and more than that, if we take our faith seriously, we ought to be able to transcend the divides of political squabbling, and to work for a higher purpose, a world that God points to, to blend our values with a good dose of humility. We ought to strive to recognize that it is more important to be about the work of God’s people than to stand firm in our own posturing. It ought to be Thy will be done, rather than my will . . .

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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