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).