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Putting Faith in Politics

August 26, 2000|REV. CONNIE REGENER | Connie Regener, an Irvine resident and doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, is a member of the teaching staff at Irvine Presbyterian Church

This year's heated presidential contest involving religion and politics is as explosive as a fireworks stand on the Fourth of July.

A steady agenda of religious and political conflict greets voters on subjects as varied as school vouchers, sex education, welfare reform, abortion, refugee quotas, the ozone layer, military spending and the definition of marriage.

Indeed, theology seems to play a role in every major issue. We just can't get away from topics that involve loving our neighbor, honoring divine revelation or caring for the Earth.

Just the fact that we are wrestling with those issues puts us in good company. Many reformers--Gandhi, Jesus, Muhammad--locked horns in moral conflict with the political leaders of their time. Good religion should serve as a renewing, liberating force in society. Religion that is exclusively a private choice or personal decision condemns society's victims to the status quo.

But in our nation of pluralistic religious beliefs, how can we act on our moral consciences? Despite our differences, people of faith still share many common values. Christians want to bring the kingdom of God in peace and justice. Jews want to build up the world and "finish" creation while welcoming the stranger. Muslims want everyone to be what they should be, not what they are. And we all recognize our responsibility for the stewardship of the planet.

Realistically speaking, not just our religion but our demographics plays a role here. This is the first election in which the presidential candidates identify with the Baby Boom generation. The boomers, who went through great rebellion and social upheaval in the 1960s, are now coming into positions of power, property and prestige.

Society, I contend, is reaping the results of anomie and angst brought about by a generation that was eager to cut its ties to the establishment and inherited values. But hedonism and other social experiments adopted by the Me Generation have probably paved the way for much of today's violence and broken relationships. The result is an underlying hunger for the meaning and purpose of life. Do the prophets see the pendulum now swinging?

I am not talking about another social revolution here, where one social system is simply replaced by another. I do not believe new political or economic structures by themselves will ever eliminate injustice in the world. Evil is present beyond its invasion of political and economic arenas.

Rather, I am talking about a paradox: The way up is the way down. We must wise up to the fact that the way to peace is through conversion and submission, not rebellion and domination. Change must take place first on the inside--in the heart, from which actions to redeem society will flow. We have been looking for answers in all the wrong places. Institutions and people will ultimately fail us. Faith, hope and love will ultimately see us through.

I submit that the way to diminish prejudice, evil and injustice is to fence it in and ultimately embrace it with a wall of peace and goodwill. Are you ready for the plan of action?

People of all religions pray to a strength greater than their own. Those of all faiths have influence through churches, temples, synagogues and centers. People of all religions have economic clout through consumer purchases, investments and wills. All can become volunteers for charity. I am talking about using our collective prayer, power, property and prestige to accomplish a common agenda.

Yes, I believe that governments hold some sovereign power to change the world, but they have their areas of powerlessness. That is why in recent years we have seen alliances between government and communities of faith address stubborn social issues that government could not solve alone. The Salvation Army, for example, is the provider of essential services for many welfare recipients. Faith-based institutions have produced better results in substance abuse programs than government-only programs. Nongovernmental groups play a crucial role in worldwide refugee relief alongside military aid.

So what is the relationship between the government and faith? Catholics believe that all authority was given to the church when Jesus invested Peter with his authority (Matthew 16:17-19). In contrast, the Protestant tradition teaches that civil powers are never subordinate to the church. The Westminster Confession states, "Ecclesiastical persons are not exempted from the magistrates' power, even though they be infidels." Today, however, most Protestants would uphold that only with an added provision of liberty of conscience and an inclination against economic and social injustice. May we never again support the political theology of Carl Schmitt with its nationalism wherein German Christians legitimized Hitler's slaughter of Jews. Muslims, of course, want the law of the land and the law of God to be one and the same. Obviously, we have some differences.

How did Jesus answer the question of the relationship between the government and communities of faith? He replied, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." He upheld the sovereignty of both institutions.

So let's get on with it. No more infighting. No more holy wars, crusades or jihads. Let's unite against the common enemy that oppresses and enslaves the innocent and powerless. Let's find out what ecumenism and interfaith efforts can do that politics alone cannot. And let's do it regardless of the election calendar.

On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor Deanne Brandon.

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