Review of Robert Benne’s Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics

Rachel Bomberger
Rachel Bomberger

Rachel Bomberger is the Internet Marketing Manager at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and voting a split ticket.

The United States constitution has for over two hundred years guaranteed that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Hooray for that.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that this much-touted “separation of church and state” doesn’t, never has, probably never will (and almost certainly shouldn’t) create an impenetrable barrier between religion and politics.

This has never been more obvious for me than it is now, as we are once again gearing up for another hot-and-heavy presidential election cycle, peppered with vigorous op/ed pieces like this and its counterpoints, this and this.

I confess that I know very little about the political platforms of the major presidential hopefuls. I’m just  not that familiar yet with where most of the Republican challengers to Barack Obama stand on the recession, health care reform, foreign policy, the national debt, education, the environment, and other important issues. (I think some of them may be tea-partiers? Or is that hobbits?)

However, I do know that:

  • Rick Perry is an enthusiastic Christian of some kind of Protestant or evangelical persuasion who once, in his official capacity as governor, encouraged the entire state of Texas to pray for rain.
  • Mitt Romney is a lifelong, devoted, and active participant in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (more often known as the Mormons).
  • Jon Huntsman, also a Mormon, considers himself a spiritual-but-not-that-religious adherent to the church. A “cafeteria Mormon,” I think I read somewhere.
  • Sarah Palin, though now “non-denominational,” attended an Assemblies of God church for many years and holds many classic Pentecostal beliefs, including in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and ongoing direct revelation from God.
  • Michele Bachmann (don’t get me started!) was raised in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod — part of a broader confessional Lutheran tradition that, for more than four hundred years, has maintained a strongly worded dissent against the legitimacy of the papal office. After a “born-again”-syle conversion experience in high school (not a classically Lutheran rite of passage, by the way), she attended conservative evangelical schools and has by now officially dissolved her WELS membership in favor of her more mainstream conservative evangelical allegiance. She also may or may not hold to the traditional biblical principle of wifely submission (in the same way that Bill Clinton may or may not have had sex with that woman).

Normally, in writing a list like this, I would look a bunch of stuff up and hyperlink to relevant sources as I go. This list, however, I wrote almost entirely from memory. And while I may be off in one or two details, I think it underscores the fact that religion — or, at least, the religious proclivities of the major candidates — is playing a major role in our current political discourse.

Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics
Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics

This is why Robert Benne’s short-but-meaty book Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics is such a godsend for me.

The relationship of religion and politics has gotten awfully muddied in recent years. Benne — in a refreshingly sane, sensible, occasionally gruff, and generally straightforward way — offers a few good solutions and a whole lot of good questions to help politically interested Christians clear the waters.

He begins by deconstructing and tearing apart the “bad ways” of thinking about religion and politics, arguing first against the “separationists” — both secularists and sectarians — who try to enforce a rigid (and impractical) separation between religious and political discourse. The Constitution, Benne reminds us, guarantees all people “religious freedom, not only the freedom to worship as they choose but also the freedom to exercise their religion privately and publicly” (emphasis mine). Even if it were possible to separate religion and politics completely, he says, it would remain morally untenable for Christians to do so. Christians (even those working from within the Lutheran Two Kingdoms tradition, as Benne is) are called to bring their moral and intellectual beliefs to bear on every aspect of their lives — including their political activities.

Benne also, however, takes to task the people he calls “fusionists”— Christians who attempt (often unwittingly) to meld their faith and their politics seamlessly into one. (Westboro Baptist Church, anyone?) This group, he points out, includes just as many liberals as conservatives. (He criticizes his own church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for being a little too vocal and polarizing in their political advocacy.) Fusionism in any direction, he says — whether it is pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-equal rights, or pro-environment — threatens the integrity of the democratic system and (more dangerously) cheapens the sanctity and transcendence of Christian faith.

So much for the bad ways of thinking about religion and politics. What about the good? It’s here that Benne proves his mettle. (This is especially impressive in a world where complaints are legion but solutions are scarce.)

He begins by distilling (in five pithy pages) what he considers the core “theological essentials” of Christian faith. He then looks carefully at how these basic principles can inform and impact political ideology. He helpfully points out that even mutually agreed-upon Christian principles — for example, the need to show compassion and concern for the most vulnerable persons in society — can translate into sometimes widely divergent political stances and policies. He describes, too, in practical terms, what he considers to be the best way of thinking about religion and politics: critical engagement.

All in all, it makes good sense. Of course seriously religious people shouldn’t have to stuff their faith in a closet before stepping into the public sphere (or worse, keep out of the public sphere altogether). Of course the free exercise clause means that lots of nonreligious and religious people will be freely participating in political life. Of course that participation should be done in such a way that it neither infringes on the democratic rights of others nor reduces Christian faith to a series of political talking points.

Good sense. When was the last time I heard that in a discussion about religion and politics?

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