Can religion play a constructive role in politics? Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, religion has a bad name as a driving force in politics. It is not hard to see why. From Al Qaeda’s terror campaign to the Arab-Israeli conflict, killing in the name of God is a growth enterprise. Closer to home, religion can be a divisive force also. As we enter election season, John C. Dansforth, an Episcopal priest, former ambassador to the United Nations, peace envoy to Sudan and retired Republican senator from Missouri, warns that an intolerant brand of Christianity is being used to divide our country with wedge issues. In his recent book Faith and Politics, he argues that we need to reclaim Christianity as a source of solidarity rather than division.
Given these problems, some argue we should expunge religion from politics. Some say the separation of church and state demands that we leave our personal religious values at democracy’s door. Others believe that religious values undermine the war on terrorism. Terrorists fight dirty, so we must respond in kind. Whether the issue is torture, detention or civilian casualties, we can’t afford the luxury of respecting religious, ethical or legal norms against an enemy who ignores these. As Thomas Friedman put it, We have to fight the terrorists as if there were no rules. The clash of civilizations view also paints religion in politics as a destructive force. Religion, it claims, is a key cause of global conflict, not part of the solution.
Throughout this public dialogue, skepticism reigns; religious communities and people of faith are said to have little to contribute to politics. This view is misguided and argues that because some seek to steal religious ideas as vehicles for violence and division, the rest of us ought to stand silent at the scene of the crime. Religions are neither irrelevant, merely destructive nor mute when facing the challenges of our day. This assertion ignores the constructive roles religions are playing today in the service of peace and in coalition with civil society.
Today we face historic opportunities to practice what I call resurrection politics. This is a politics of life and hope, taking issues thought previously dead on arrival, raising them up onto the public agenda, reframing issues with values and powerful images, and thereby changing the political space to include those previously marginalized, by drawing on the language and symbols of faith.
Consider international debt relief. The idea behind the movement is that the world’s poor have paid enough. Most heavily indebted poor countries have paid back the amount of the original loans three or four times over; but they will never be able to pay the escalating interest on the loans, which have profited the banks of rich countries and corrupt rulers but have deprived citizens in poor countries of resources and basic services. In the millennium year, a coalition of faith groups and nongovernmental organizations took up the words of Leviticus, Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you. This is not your typical political sound bite. But the jubilee debt relief movement reasoned that these words could be a point of focus to unite political and religious conservatives and liberals behind common ideals. Armed with these words from Scripture alone, the coalition was told its cause was dead on arrival. There was no political will or interest in debt relief in Washington or in key countries and intergovernmental institutions. The issue was seen as a narrow, economic, technical issue. It did not capture much public attention. Yet the movement persisted and practiced resurrection politics, taking an issue previously thought dead and raising it onto the political agenda. As a result of these efforts, the world’s poor have seen more debt relief and forgiveness in the last six years than in the previous 60. While the work continues, religion has helped change politics for the better.
This is not an isolated example. Why do Catholic and other faith-based groups have historic opportunities to constructively influence politics now? Because in the information age, ideas, values, symbols and civil society networks do matter. We acknowledge that this works for Al Qaeda’s destructive purposes. Why do we doubt it can work for our constructive purposes? We as religious networks have rich resources able to reframe political spaces. Faith-based groups in civil society coalitions have radically altered the political landscapes on issues as diverse as H.I.V./AIDS, global poverty, the international campaign to ban land mines, international aid and trade for the poor, and trafficking in human persons, to name just a few areas of success in the last decade. All of these efforts were at first deemed politically dead on arrival, and all reframed these issues by means of effective global networks and appeals to deeply held moral convictions. The information revolution helps faith-based groups make up for their lack of money or munitions with the power of their principles and their skill in spreading ideas.
People of faith can build coalitions and institutions that support a practical politics of peace and solidarity. At a time when others use religion to promote conflict, it is more important now than ever that we live up to our call to be an Easter people and practice resurrection politics in our lives and in our world.