What does faith say about politics?
Dan Sehlhorst | Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.” This notion has consistently held great truth in American politics for decades. Religion is a primary motivator in U.S. politics, especially for conservatives since the realignment of the American South over the second half of the 20th century.
A recent POLITICO article by Kevin Kruse, “How Corporate America invented Christian America,” discusses how the modern religious strategy of the American political right emerged in Dec. 1940 at an annual meeting of the National Association of Manufacturers at the Waldolf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. The convention concluded with an address by Rev. James W. Fifield Jr., who gave a withering criticism of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as an “encroachment on our American freedoms” and warned of “the menace of autocracy approaching through the bureaucracy.”
For Fifield, capitalism and Christianity were not only “inextricably intertwined,” but “political soul-mates,” and ministers across the country must be mobilized to combat Roosevelt in the national political-religious discussion. As Kruse states, these criticisms are common in today’s political rhetoric, and they fit squarely within one of the most common broad debates in political history: the role, power and size of the federal government.
Fifield’s strategy was a response to Roosevelt’s use of religious language to justify massive growth in social welfare programs. Kruse notes that Roosevelt’s “first inaugural address was so laden with references to Scripture that the National Bible Press published an extensive chart linking his text with the ‘Corresponding Biblical Quotions.’” President Roosevelt did not hold back in criticizing this strategy, remarking, “The two particular tenets of this organization say you shall love God and then forget your neighbor.”
Fifield’s argument grew from a larger political ideological trend that is largely attributed to Max Weber, author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. For Weber, one’s salvation as a Christian was rooted in hard work, frugality and diligence. Weber’s Calvinist theological upbringing taught that only some were predestined to be saved by God. While faith for Weber was demonstrated by a rejection of worldly affairs, he also believed that worldly work was a duty to society and oneself. Since it was impossible to know who was predestined, Weber viewed the Protestant ethic as a sign of being predestined.
Under Weber’s framework, the Catholic principle that faith could not be justified without good works was redirected into work diligently as a sign of grace. However, the Catholic Church has long extoled the value of work. In an encyclical by Pope John Paul II, Laborem exercens, work is established as an act that can only be embarked upon with the gifts of human intellect and will. Work is a calling, one from which humankind derives its specific dignity. While the object of work varies, the subject of work is, in fact, ourselves, and it is in working that we fulfill our nature of being made in the image of God.
Kruse’s point that Roosevelt was exposing Fifield’s neglect of many New Testament passages about wealth and poverty is absolutely true. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the Son of Man sits on his throne with the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. He says to those on his left, “Depart from me … for I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
When those on His left ask when they committed this affront, He replies, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
Political polarization only divides us further and shreds our basic values as people of faith. We cannot neglect work and responsibility, and we cannot ignore the basic needs of fellow human beings. If we are to behave as men and women of faith, we must not allow one principle, such as the dignity of workers, to be elevated above care for God’s creation. We cannot allow rights to be asserted without also reaffirming responsibilities.
This thought reminds me of a famous Ralph Waldo Emerson line for which I have great affection: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” It is time for a clarion call for nuance in the discussion of religion in politics and for men and women of faith to recognize that the teachings that they hear at the pulpit don’t align clearly with any political party or ideology, but rather a set of values.
It is time for proponents of the value of work to human dignity to stand alongside advocates of social welfare and declare their shared goals with one voice. The moment is long overdue for religious political leaders of conservative and liberal stripes to assert their vision can not only coexist but depends on each other.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.