Faith and politics in the age of Trump


Religion and politics: two topics you are not supposed to discuss in the public square. Yet, if one surfs cable television or navigates Youtube and social media, these windows into our public life quickly showcase politicians, mechanics and grade-school teachers all weighing in on the topic with great passion and reflective commonsense smarts. (Not really!) Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump dominates the news cycle with his ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and his recent attacks on Muslim and Latino judges. Fear of the other is a motivating factor, evident in public discussions and the behavior of crowds at Trump rallies. And it’s not just presidential candidates spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric; thousands of Americans have bawled them and other religious minorities have been targeted, too.

{mosads}As a minister, professor and right-of-center Republican, I’m struck by the lack of critical thinking in theo-politcal centered debates. I’ve been in forums and classrooms where political liberals and conservatives go at each other without ever attempting to identify, thoughtfully, how their faith influences their politics and vice versa. While both sides argue their political opinions and spout their faith beliefs, what’s missing from these debates is political theology.

Political theology, coming out of the German theological tradition, typically means the political use of sociology; taking theology into account of the modern social world. However, what I mean by the term is hard, sustained investigating, thinking about who “God” is in our midst and who and what we are called to be in response to the political practices of life. Be clear: I believe that religion should play a role in American political life. But if it is going to, then the people who are engaged in the conversation and process must be “theologically reflective” in order to have meaningful, robust transformative public policy results for the common good. I don’t mean in the sense of a trained theologian, but rather taking seriously, perhaps, the impact of one’s faith on his or her public life.

On the evangelical side, it is often assumed that if you cite a Bible verse or say, “I believe it with all my heart,” then you have made a faith-grounded claim about a crucial social political issue. However, if you lift the tablecloth, there’s no theology underneath. Additionally, there is the disestablishment of white Protestantism as one of the central organizing religious voices in American political life. And this scares some people.

I must confess that this theological lacuna is not just a problem for the political right. Many political liberals squirm at the mere thought of publicly articulating the religious grounds for their liberal politics. Giving a theological defense of liberalism is one of the oldest arguments in America, but many have been convinced that religiously neutered political discourse is the safest form of public speech about the things that matter most — other such conversations are private and not to be had in public. But now we see this conversation spilling into the public, for good or for worse.

For millions of Americans, faith is fundamental; the freedom to worship and to worship as they choose is as important as any other right. The diversity of religions in America has increased and it does intersect in our politics. In the midst of a presidential election with fervently religious candidates, the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting, the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, Islam in public life, attacks on Sikhs and the growing increase of “nones” are all expressions of faith and in the forefront. Americans must begin to think deeper about how their politics are demonstrative of their faith and in such a way that does not cause suffering to others who are different.

This sentiment was given powerful expression in my classroom one evening. One of my students raised the question, “I am more aware that religion influences my politics, and how might it look if I still hold to my beliefs but engage in politics with others who believe differently? How should I engage in the conversation as a person of faith?” Some of her peers said she should support candidates who believe as she does; others said she should align herself with a religious liberty group. One student shouted, “Don’t vote for Trump!” I simply said, in the spirit of deep political-theological reflection, “Keep asking that question and tell us what you hear.”

Driskell is a lobbyist and adjunct professor of religion and politics at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. Follow him on Twitter @q_driskell4.

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