What about religion? Christian politics are of sacred value in polarized times


Unifying Theme: Under God: The Role of Religion in a Divided Time 

Instead of being a force of division as argued by many pundits, religion can be a balm to a polarized country if we are willing to address religious practices and ethics as well as its accompanying beliefs. Besides anchoring faith, religious practices and ethics can embody and enliven a democratic community by showing us how to live in and between different politics of sacred value.  


By Aaron Stauffer, Ph.D., Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow, Vanderbilt Divinity School

Americans are partisan idol worshippers.  

This is how today's news stories portray the role of religion in democratic politics.(1) They claim that religious commitments only prevent or frustrate democratic politics, rather than make it possible. We're told that the United States is so deeply mired in cultural wars that holding something as sacred-human dignity, human life, a land or natural resource-only serves to further entrench us in our enclaves.

The democratic politics of the common life and common good are atrophying. To many, religion and religious commitments are responsible for restraining our democracy and stoking our culture wars. When religion and politics mix, things get heated, democracy stalls and the economically and politicalally powerful triumph at its disfunction. Religious commitments are absolute and allow for no compromise or negotiation-strategies necessary for a healthy democratic culture. It's far better, according to this logic, to exclude religion and religious attitudes from political life.

We're told that the United States is so deeply mired in cultural wars that holding something as sacred-human dignity, human life, a land or natural resource-only serves to further entrench us in our enclaves.

However, this common explanation of polarization only holds true if we reduce religion to those absolute "beliefs" and "commitments" that prevent negotiation and compromise. This argument oversimplifies American's religious life by excluding the ethics, practices and actions that bind both communities of faith and the larger society.  

Perceived differently, "religion" is something more akin to the term's ancient Latin roots in the word relegare, which means to bind together. The ethical and democratic practices actively bind a community together and represent an integral component of any faith system beyond the beliefs on which such faith rests.  

When considering the ethical and democratic practices embodied in modern Christianity, consider the rise of the Social Gospel movement (which has its own rich, if complicated, history at Vanderbilt University).(2) Social salvation was the novel idea that the social gospelers shouted from the mountaintop: Salvation had to be personal and social to be real.(3) Led by pastors, theologians, activists and organizers, social gospelers taught that Christians are called to transform the "structures of society in the direction of social justice."(4)  

Arriving at Vanderbilt School of Religion in 1928 from Oberlin College, Alva Taylor was eager to join the chorus of a much larger Southern grassroots movement. Taylor argued that Christian faith made no real sense apart from social engagement. At Vanderbilt, Taylor worked to bring Jesus to life for his students and to make Jesus speak anew to a changing America. Taylor taught that removing Jesus from the lives of everyday people was to put him to death once again. Jesus had not come to bring stiff dogma or theoretical systems, Taylor insisted; rather, in Jesus we find workable social programs that serve as blueprints for contemporary implementation.(5)  

For Taylor and other social gospelers, Christianity was a life to be lived, and the social gospel was a discourse-a way of responding to contemporary social problems by applying the social principles of the Gospel to our economic and political lives. Christianity has much to say about economic and political injustices, and it begins by calling individual Christians to work for greater economic and political democracy. This is why many of the founders of the Social Gospel movement found themselves drawn to cooperative forms of economic and political life, where power is shared and accountability characterizes group life. Here, religion is not so much about beliefs, but about ethical democratic practices-about what we are doing together to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and to build God's cooperative commonwealth.  

Religion is often falsely cited as the cause of modern America's political polarization because religion is often thought of in absolutes. In that line of thinking, it seems easier to say that religion and politics don't mix: Christians should focus on Christ first, then we'll get our politics right. But that analysis overlooks the fact that religion and politics have always been about what we hold most dear and sacred. 

Considering only politics is challenging because religion is as much about our ethical practices as it is about our beliefs. Attempting to focus solely on religion is equally troublesome because religion teaches us to care deeply about the world. In the Christian tradition, God calls us into deeper relationship with the world, and it is through our attitudes of sacred value that we come to be in deeper relationship with God. Throughout the Bible, the sorts of relationships into which God invites people are characterized by a sort of relational power, where agency of all parties is enhanced, and where justice to the marginalized and oppressed is prioritized. When you ask religious people why they are involved in politics, the answers you get have to do with deeply held values and relationships of love and concern. Many of these religious and political attitudes can be captured in the politics of sacred value as epitomized by Social Gospel proponents.(6) The politics of sacred value aren't going anywhere. 

This is not to argue that there is consensus or agreement on attitudes of sacred value within religious communities, or within our political parties. Indeed, deep disagreement and animus characterize political matters of sacred value, and  pluralization abounds. This is because attitudes of sacred value inevitably have to do with a person's unique experience and narrative of democratic politics. Democracy is about our common life together and the pursuit and protection of the goods we hold in common. When what we hold most dear is arbitrarily threatened or attacked, we have reason to work with others to build institutions and communities that prevent such things in the future. This is what Alva Taylor did and what many others are doing by carrying forward the Social Gospel message today in working for economic democracy, racial justice and ecological justice.(7)  

Sacred values play a particular role in our democratic life together. Not only do they inspire us, they sustain us. The goods and people we hold most dear keep us going through the long slog of democratic politics. Democratic politics is often slow and patient work, so it's best to be clear about why you're in the fight. When we are certain in what we hold most dear, we can personalize abstract political issues. Personalizing the issue places it in a narrative, which helps us get a sense for how things came to be the way they are and what we might do to change them. 

Bromides that pretend to solve our current polarization by focusing first either on religion or politics are unhelpful-they treat them as problem and solution. What if we stop trying to separate religion and politics and instead focus on how our religious and political practices can mutually heal each other?(8) What is more, the act of truly listening and witnessing to one another(9) can help bring about what theological ethicist Keri Day calls a process of "being undone"(10) that leads to personal and structural transformation and to examples of church and politics that exemplify the Social Gospel message.(11) 

None of what I've offered suggests abandoning your religious and political practices and commitments. Better to lean into the politics of sacred value and consider how our religious practices and ethics-not only our beliefs -can embody and enliven a democratic community that is bound together by what we hold most dear.

What we need is not further moderation, but a deeper capacity to realize that others, like us, also feel and care deeply about the world.

What we need is not further moderation, but a deeper capacity to realize that others, like us, also feel and care deeply about the world. Democratic politics is a practice that thrives when all members of the community have adequate influence and say over matters that affect their lives. Religious practices can help guide our politics by showing us how to live in and between different politics of sacred value.  

Further reading:

1 Molly Worthen, "Is There a Way to Dial Down the Political Hatred,New York Times, June 11, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/11/opinion/god-religion-politics-partisanship.html 

2 Some of those who led this movement are nationally known, like the Rev. James Lawson. Others are lesser known but no less important, including Dr. Alva Taylor and the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr. See Dunbar, Anthony P.  Against the Grain: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929-1959. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981. 

3 See Luker, Ralph E. "Interpreting the Social Gospel: Reflections on Two Generations of Historiography." inPerspectives on the Social Gospel: Papers from the Inaugural Social Gospel Conference at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, ed. Christopher Hodge Evans, 1-13. Lewiston, N.Y: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999Evans, Christopher Hodge. "Historical Integrity and Theological Recovery: A Reintroduction to the Social Gospel.in The Social Gospel Today, ed. by Christopher Hodge Evans, 1-16. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. 

4 Dorrien, Gary J. Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 1. 

5 In 1936, Taylor was forced out of Vanderbilt due to his radical Social Gospel political activities. 

6 Some of the most well-known figures in the Social Gospel movement were theologically and politically liberal (like Walter Rauschenbusch), but many social gospelers were not (Josiah Strong). As a movement, it was theologically and politically diverse yet bound together as a movement in its adherence to the claim that Christianity had ethical solutions to modern social problems. 

7 See e.g., https://www.religionandjustice.org  

8 Meir Lakein (2021): "On Gathering," DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1080/1462317X.2021.1899706. 

9 Aaron Stauffer (2021): "The Relational Meeting as a Political and Religious Practice,"  DOI, https://doi.org/10.1080/1462317X.2021.1899704. 

10 Kerri L. Day, "How Princeton Seminary's Slavery Audit Created Moments of Unlikely Intimacy," The Christian Century, June 10, 2021.

11 See e.g., https://www.co-opsnow.org/cit-project 

Aaron Stauffer

Aaron Stauffer, Ph.D.

Aaron Stauffer is the Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Vanderbilt Divinity School, working primarily with the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice.  

A recent Ph.D. graduate in social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, his dissertation, "Organizing Lived Religious Practices for Power: Sacred Values in Broad-based Community Organizing," focuses on the political role of sacred value in broad-based community organizing. Drawing from a tradition of radical democracy, constructive feminist and anti-racist critiques of liberal political theory, and the rising field of "lived religion," he argues for the importance of religious values in the practice of community organizing. Before his doctoral work and his seminary degree, Stauffer organized with the Industrial Areas Foundation in San Antonio, Texas. Between his seminary degree and his doctoral work, he led a national anti-Islamophobia initiative based in the Southeast, the Our Muslim Neighbor Initiative, and helped found Faith and Culture Center, a nonprofit that continues this work.