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God's Politics

Diana Butler BassA couple weeks ago, I was having lunch with a neo-conservative Christian friend, a person with whom I disagree, yet whose faith and intellectual perspectives I respect. In our wide-ranging discussion, we wound up talking about the politics of sexuality, and he made the off-handed comment that students in mainline Protestant seminaries were “more likely” to engage in pre-martial sexual activity than those in evangelical seminaries—that sexual misconduct occurs more among liberals than conservatives.

“Sexual morality or immorality is NOT linked to either theology or politics,” I argued back. “Sexuality is part of human nature. Whether left or right, all Christians struggle to be faithful people and live out our commitments to chastity or monogamy. Human sexuality isn’t a liberal-conservative thing.”

He laughed, realizing, of course, that every Christian theologian from St. Paul and St. Augustine forward has pretty much said the same thing.

Making sexuality a political issue, as much of the Religious Right has done, distracts from a host of other issues, such as poverty, war, and environmental concerns. But it also obscures the fact that Christians agree (as my friend and I do) on many things regarding this intimate part of our lives. We agree that sexuality is a gift from God, that love and commitment are foundational to sexual expression, that marriage is the best vessel for human sexuality, and that authenticity, honesty, fidelity, and mutual regard form the basis of Christian sexual relationships. Sex is, theologically, an ultimate expression of self-giving and surrender, qualities that resemble those in Christian spirituality. As the medieval mystics taught, humanity sexuality is a metaphor for our relationship with God.

We also know, as the Christian tradition teaches, that all of this is hard. Sexuality is difficult because it is potentially holy and potentially sinful at the same time. In the midst of this powerful mystery, we are merely human. And none of these things—honesty, holiness, fidelity, or mutual regard—come easily to us. Thus, to politicize sexuality divides us at the very point at which we are united—our shared human nature and our shared quests to live in faith-filled grace.

Which, of course, brings us to the terrible revelations this past weekend about (now former) Congressman Mark Foley (R-Fla.), caught in an explicit email tryst with a teenage page.

In the last two days, I have heard people (in both the media and on the streets) politicize Mr. Foley’s misconduct, exalting in the lurid revelations about the hypocrisy of “Republican moralists.” Ah ha! God’s own political party is covering up sin in its midst! Elmer Gantry lives! Those who live by politicizing sexuality, die by sexual politics.

This is NOT a Christian response. If Christians are to be involved in political life, it needs to be a political life of pastoral compassion. Mr. Foley’s alleged activity and subsequent resignation will have lifelong consequences for some unnamed (thank goodness) teenage boy. As in the Roman Catholic Church sex scandal, the victims are the people who must relive the abuse every time a pundit makes political points by bringing up the whole sordid mess. Our prayers and sympathies go out to those hurt by sexual misconduct of all sorts. Our churches must do better ministering to the victims of disordered sexuality.

And then there’s Mr. Foley himself. Who knows what sad personal struggle exists between his private sexuality and his public crusade against sexual predators? I had never heard of this congressman before, but his story is nothing short of spiritual tragedy—allegedly acting out of one persona in private and another in public, violating and degrading his own humanity in the process, evidently victimized by his own hubris, power, and lust, consumed by several of the “big seven” deadly sins.

Christian political compassion extends, as it extended in Jesus’ own teaching and ministry, toward both victims and oppressors (theologian Miroslav Volf refers to this double action as “exclusion and embrace”), for each has to bear the cross of twisted humanity. Our hearts naturally extend to the innocent victim in the story, and in the case of Mr. Foley, we do well to remember with pastoral concern his young victims (as well as all victims of sexual abuse). Yet oppressors cry out for Christian compassion as well, even when they are members of Congress. In pastoral mercy, we do well to remember the counsel of Proverbs 24:17:

“Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.”

God is, as scripture tells us, the author of all goodness. God never rejoices in sin, and we know that sin is not the exclusive possession of any political party. The darkness that stalks us is neither Republican nor Democratic. It is part of the human condition, that which makes us all cry out for compassion—and that compassion is an apt starting point for a Christian politics of grace, not partisan vindictiveness.

Diana Butler Bass is an independent scholar and author. Her latest book is Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper, September 2006).

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