Most of us have heard it said that people should not bring their religious views into the public square. At first this seems reasonable, until you consider, say, our own history.
In his recently released book Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America (Thomas Nelson, 2017), Michael Wear who advised candidate and President Obama on faith issues, quotes a speech his boss gave as a senator in 2006 to support his claim that Democrats and progressives should neither ignore nor seek to marginalize faith. The quote offers a compelling reason why we should not ask people to check their religion at the door of the public square – namely, because faith has impelled many to fight for some of the most important and desirable political and social changes in our nation. (Another reason is that there is no such thing as a morally “neutral” public square; everyone, religious or not, appeals to ultimate values and beliefs. The question then becomes: Whose values, whose morality, should dictate discourse at the public square?)
“Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition” (18).
Read the full speech here.
In his book Reclaiming Politics: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America (Thomas Nelson, 2016), Michael Wear, who directed outreach to faith-based organizations for the White House, reminds Christians that their faith can motivate working with others who believe differently but who share common ground. He articulates this using the quote below from President Obama’s speech at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast.
I like this quote because it is crucial for Christians to remember that our faith does not prescribe a particular political program. There is not a direct line from Scripture to either lower taxes, smaller government, and charter schools, or to higher taxes, a more active government, and more investment in public schools and other public enterprises. (Here I’m borrowing from Robert Benne’s superb book Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics – the best treatment of this topic I’ve come across.) When Christians forget this, it’s easier for any one party to “hijack” Christianity. This is why some people end up believing, sincerely, that if Jesus were alive today he would be a Republican, or a Democrat. (Admittedly, it is the Republican Party that has fallen into this pit more clearly in recent years and decades; Democrats, on the other hand, have too often belittled, ignored, or even maligned religion, to their fault and loss.) Moreover, whether or not Obama has consistently practiced what he said below, I believe his statement is absolutely correct and worth heeding as our nation grapples with intense division and mutual mistrust.
“Now, we can earnestly seek to see these values lived out in our politics and our policies, and we can earnestly disagree on the best way to achieve these values. In the words of C. S. Lewis, ‘Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another.’
“Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us. Michelle reminds me of this often. So instead, it is our hope that people of goodwill can pursue their values and common ground and the common good as best they know how, with respect for each other” (98).
In his just-released book Reclaiming Hope, Michael Wear writes about his time working in the Obama White House as Director of Faith Outreach (including for the 2012 reelection campaign), and the reasons people of faith should engage in politics. (We should get involved, says Wear, as a matter of fulfilling the command to love our neighbors and seek the well being of society.) In the excerpt below, Wear discusses how politics can affect (and has affected) the state of our souls to our detriment given the division and toxicity marking so much of our political discourse. This is the first in a series of posts featuring excerpts from the book I think are worth sharing.
“One lesson from my time working with the president and religious leaders is that politics is a central influencer of the cultural health of our nation. This book focuses on politics because political institutions create and drive culture, and we can no longer ignore this aspect of how politics functions. As I have talked to pastors around the country, I’ve come to understand that many of those who refrain from political engagement do so not because they believe it is unimportant, but because they know, for too many of their congregants, politics is important in all of the wrong ways. If we are to reclaim hope, we must understand our nation’s political life and our role in it. Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics to have their inner needs met.
“One dictionary defines ‘reclaim’ this way: “to bring (uncultivated areas or wasteland) into a condition for cultivation or other use.” This book takes that process quite literally” (xxix).
Don’t take yourself, or others, so seriously that you cannot abandon yourself laughter or keep in high esteem those who do. Take Lincoln, for example:
“…not only throughout his life but on out into his posthumous fame and glory his penetrating mental activity would be obscured by his reputation as a teller of jokes, by the greater thread of humor that ran through his life and being. One can’t tell jokes and stories like those, and collapse in convulsions of laughter, and have humor as an essential constant part of one’s being, if one is an intellectually serious person” (5).
– William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 5.
Who are the “celebrities” of Christendom?
We might think of important historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Aquinas, Joan of Arc, and Luther, and run up to the present day with people like C.S. Lewis, John Henry Newman, Francis Schaeffer, J.I. Packer, John Piper, and Pope Francis (who of this group probably comes closest to true celebrity status).
But we know the dangers of too highly exalting someone and forgetting that all they were and did was given by God, the Giver whom we dare not take our eyes off even as we thank and praise him for his gifts. And besides, it is appropriate and biblical to remember that true greatness usually lies where we least think to look – in the lives of suffering and weak saints whose childlike trusting and leaning on Christ for succor and comfort amid life’s troubles may seem unremarkable to us but is in God’s eyes precious. So look not to the famed preacher who’s written dozens of bestsellers and whose ministry reaches every corner of the world, but to the woman at church sitting in the back who feels socially disconnected and is struggling with depression but who comes to church anyways because she knows that God intends to use the preaching of his word and the fellowship of his people for her good, even when she doesn’t see immediate results. This is what Tony Reinke calls “gospel simplicity” in his book John Newton on the Christian Life (Crossway, 2015):
“Newton supposes that if he could search out the world to award a man, woman, or child with a trophy for being the most godly Christian on the planet, the award would not go to an eminent Christian, or even to a public Christian—not to a pastor, seminary professor, or author. The greatest Christian in the world, Newton supposes, is most likely a man of faith who just barely survives in this world thanks to a homeless shelter and the meager employment he finds on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Or perhaps, Newton speculates, the greatest Christian is a bedridden old woman in a mud cottage who has learned through years of trials to adore Christ and trust him and his timing in everything. Low thoughts of self and high and admiring thoughts of Christ are the sure marks of the godliest Christian, even if such a Christian is likely unnoticed by the world and overlooked by most Christians. The best models of gospel simplicity are the poorest and the weakest Christians who have been emptied of all self-sufficiency, and who have learned to fully submit their lives to the lordship of Christ, his will, his wisdom, and his timing” (105).
The Complete Plain Words (1954) is a classic book on writing by Sir Ernest Gowers, an accomplished civil servant, aimed at curing the British Civil Service of its habit of writing in officialese rather than in plain English. Though written for civil servants, it soon became a hit with the general public and has not been out of print since.
In it Gowers writes, “The secret to style is to have something to say and to say it as clearly as you can.” He then asks why it is that adults are so prone to write in a complicated rather than simple way, the way children do. To illustrate this, Gowers offers an example of clear writing from a ten-year-old that’s not only impressive for its clarity but also hilarious:
“Why do so many writers prefer complexity to simplicity? Officials are far from being the only offenders. It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay on a bird and a beast:
What’s more important: intelligence and knowledge, or wisdom and goodness of heart?
I think most of us would say wisdom and goodness, but that’s not always how we approach education, is it? We worry about our tots getting into the right preschool because this could determine the rate of their early cognitive development, which could mean the difference between a public school and a magnet school, which could mean the difference between a great and just an average college, which could make or ruin their lives! We put time and effort seeking ways to make our little ones smart, whether through having them listen to Bach from the womb, to buying everything Dora the Explorer so that they can learn Spanish (this is in fact a great idea if your child lives in the United States), to putting them in Chinese immersion schools or classes so that they can compete in the global economy.
Of course, none of these things is bad in itself. But it’s worth asking if we’re neglecting our children’s moral formation at the expense of their intellectual development. Here we can learn from our nation’s second president, John Adams. As we learn in Harlow Giles Unger’s excellent biography John Quincy Adams, though Adams was deeply concerned about and demanding when it came to his son John Quincy’s education, he recognized that character trumped intellect, that the “sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head,” as he wonderfully put it. Listen to Adams, abroad serving as an ambassador, instructing his wife Abigail on their son’s education:
“I am under no apprehension about his proficiency in learning. With his capacities and and opportunities he can not fail to acquire knowledge. But let him know that the sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head. Let him be sure that he possesses the great virtue of temperance, justice, magnanimity, honor, and generosity, and with these added to his parts, he cannot fail to become a wise and great man.
“… Treachery, perfidy, cruelty, hypocrisy, avarice, &c & should be pointed out to him for his contempt as well as detestation” (18).