About This Blog

Saturday, October 3, 2015

"The Relevance of Religion" (John Danforth)

TITLE: The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics
AUTHOR: John Danforth
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Random House, (288 pages).

Is absolute separation of Church and State truly possible? If yes, does that mean politics are only for secularists, atheists, and people who willingly suppress their religious beliefs before entering the political arena? If no, how can religion be relevant in the complicated arena of politics? Former United States Senator, John Danforth looks back on his years of political experience and believes that religion and politics can do better by "balancing power, not practicing sacrificial love." In order words, religion has an important role to play in this broken world of politics and power. The task for people of faith to work with government becomes more urgent as the nation becomes gridlock with infighting, policy shifts, national debt, immigration complexities, and so on. Many political leaders seem stuck with so much to do and lack the knowledge and will of what to do about it. According to Danforth, here is where people of faith can do their part in helping to fix what is broken. The author also notes that people of faith, particularly Christians need to recognize that God is sovereign over all, including politics; Love is to be central in our living; and working together and connecting with one another are universal traits of a good and democratic society. That is why he urges people of faith to be actively engaged in all spheres of life, even politics. Not politicizing religion, but living as responsible citizens who help to shape societal values through genuine care for the welfare of the nation. Let me summarize the book in six key points.

First of all, it is important to know what to do and what not to do. Do not confuse religion with topical issues. Do not turn faith principles into some political platform. Do not equate a religious stand with a political party. Danforth puts forth four fundamental concepts to begin this collaborative work.
  1. Keep politics in its proper place and recognize that the State is not God.
  2. Advocate for the common good, not just the good of any one religious stand.
  3. Work for national unity and reconciliation.
  4. Be willing to work toward a common agreement with a spirit of compromise.
Far too many Americans are fixated on the first ten amendments of the constitution, which are basically on individual rights and freedoms. The concern of "We the People" must take precedence over "I the individual." He advocates for people of faith to participate in the spirit of serving the people rather than fighting for individual rights.

Second, be clear about the role of politics and religion. Politics in its proper sense holds the nation together. It needs to respect the cultural diversities and uphold the rule of law. While religion can enrich politics, we cannot let religion dominate politics. A good politician recognizes the complexity of the environment and not settle for simplistic solutions. That is why Danforth believes that "in sum, politics is a world of competing interests and trade-offs." He uses two key principles in distinguishing politics from religion. The first principle is that politics aim at balancing powers on earth while religion acknowledges that we are all under a Higher Power. The second principle is that politics aim to assign rights for individuals as fairly as possible while religious beliefs like Paul's exhortation to the Philippians urges us to look more to the interest of others than ourselves. Rather than to condemn or to dismiss political involvement altogether, religious people have a lot to contribute for the improvement of the political climate and process.

Third, a nation thrives when virtues and values become central to the way citizens live. Danforth believes that religions is the "most persistent and effective teacher of virtue." He compares the violence that frequently happens at European soccer stadiums and the relatively restrained environment of Cardinals' fans in America. He traces the development of "virtuous citizens" with the environment that we grow up with. Those living in a house with present fathers will grow up better. We must cultivate a big picture mentality by recognizing that we have a role to play in protecting humankind. We need to build trust between the people and government. He cautions us against adopting "libertarianism" policies that have underlying egoism values. This self-interest philosophy is contrasted with the Christian message of loving our neighbour.

Fourth, we need to cultivate a sense of "one nation." Our social cohesion and community spirit are key to nation building. We need to find ways to battle individualism and to honour the practice of community living. Politics by nature is a collective activity. Instead of constantly asking "What's in it for me?" we need to ask more of "What can I do for my country?" By sharing a common bond, people of faith can build relationships via ministries of reconciliation as exemplified by Matthew 5:23-34, the part where we learn to be reconciled to one another before offering our gifts to God at the altar. Churches and congregations can lead the way by showing the unity and love needed in nation building. Danforth learns from Martin Luther King Jr on how we can bring together a racially diverse nation. Poorer churches can be turned into community places of help, and churches playing their roles in helping to connect communities. Like Paul's teaching in Romans 12:16, Christians can learn to associate with the lowly and to share resources.

Fifth, people of faith can choose to be creative and encourage orderliness in a world where chaos can run amok. Chaos can come in many forms. From the breakdown of government to the broken processes and systems that bind communities together. The way to bring order is not totalitarianism but co-creating, tilling, and keeping of God's garden. Policy changes cannot be haphazard but slowly done after much deliberation and discussion. This is where the leadership maxim is appropriate: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Sadly, modern political environment has become more fragmented, polarized, and dysfunctional. Some practical things the author suggests are the improvement of collegiality among families of politicians; encourage travel together through appropriate financial packages; and to work to create a government that works rather than to put stumbling blocks to make government look bad. Accept that politicians are human too, not super people who never make mistakes. Christians can play the role of active reformers not simply on the basis of policy making but people relationships building.

Sixth, learn to walk the fine rope of when to compromise and when to stick to basic principles. This is perhaps the most tricky of all as Christians often come with staunch principles. According to Danforth, compromise may sometimes be necessary in order to move positive changes forward. There is no need to use absolute principles as a hammer to get things done. Compromise must be honourable to all. It needs to be respectful. Danforth takes aim at erroneous ideas of conservatism that tends to be more stubbornness rather than noble principles. Whatever it is, people of faith have a responsibility to encourage the formation and running of an effective government.

As a Republican and a Christian, this book represents the hard work and personal quest of the author who believes that God is neither Republican nor Democrat. Faithful people can be found in both camps. They can use their gifts for the betterment of the nation without degenerating into name calling or irresponsible lobbying. Danforth believes that as long as people of faith stay on the peripherals or outside of politics, it is difficult to influence positive changes. The way forward is:
  • Work toward structural changes rather than ideologies or policies
  • More people who believe and who respond to a higher calling
  • Faithful people who believe that mending a broken nation is possible.
Can religion and politics be truly separated? No. It's not possible. Politics by its nature will infiltrate all levels of society, including the religious realms. Will religious adherents take everything the government throws at them? Marxism, Communism, Islamic regimes, and even state-led Christendom, have all done that. Unless Christians all become hermits, flee to the secluded places of the earth, and totally disengage from all levels of society, it is not possible for Christians to practice their faith without at some point of time contending with political powers on issues of faith. The question is not whether to keep religion and politics separate. The question is HOW to engage at a healthy level for the good of all. This book certainly gives readers an inside look at how government functions and more importantly, how people of faith can assist and encourage the formation of a functioning government that not only works but works for the people. In doing so, they are participants of the prayer that let God's will be done in heaven as well as on earth. For the benefit not just for Christians or people of faith, but for all citizens. Politics is not dirty. It's sin that makes people dirty, not politics.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Random House Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

No comments:

Post a Comment