God's Politics

Diana Butler BassA couple friends asked me why I’d been so quiet on this site since the Democrats won both the House and Senate — as well as a fair number of governor’s seats — last week.

I confess: I was stunned by the Democratic wins. Then, reading the polls and surveys, especially the changes in the religious vote (the “God gap” between Republicans and Democrats shrank in all religious categories), I felt grateful that religious people broadened their understanding of “values” to include the war in Iraq and the problems of poverty. Candidates, issues, and points of view that matter to me had emerged victorious in a national election for the first time in a decade.

Winning is a funny thing, especially where faith and politics are involved. It is tempting to think, “Alleluia! God has vindicated his people!” We might believe that God has uniquely blessed us, vanquished our enemies, and led us to the Promised Land. That is, of course, the way that the Religious Right interprets elections — each one is a barometer of a cosmic holy war.

But the tendency to interpret human events as a measure of God’s blessing is not unique to the Religious Right. About eighty years ago, American Christians were embroiled in another great conflict between fundamentalist and liberal versions of faith involving toleration for Catholics and Jews, the social gospel, changing views of biblical interpretation and Christian history, and the relationship between faith and science. The 1920s were one of the most contentious, contested decades in American religious history — people lost jobs, churches split, families and communities divided, and entire religious institutions were threatened.

In 1922, at the height of the conflict, Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great liberal ministers of the day, preached his famous (and by some standards, infamous) sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” By the end of the decade, the answer to Fosdick’s question became apparent: the Fundamentalists did not win. Instead, liberals won — they controlled every major institution in American Protestantism. And liberals basked in their victory.

In 1935, at the height of liberal prestige and power, Fosdick preached another sermon — one far less noticed — called “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism.” In it, Fosdick accused liberalism of being overly intellectual, “dangerously sentimental,” of losing a sense of “the reality of God,” and abandoning its ethics. He complained that liberalism had won its battle with fundamentalism, but lost its soul. Liberals had accommodated so much to culture that they were failing to be Christian; they were just like “the world.” “What Christ does to modern culture,” he finished, “is to challenge it.”

For Fosdick, winning engendered wisdom — the wisdom of internal critique, of being able to see the pitfalls of success, and of recognizing the hypocrisy of self-righteousness. “Unless the church can go deeper and reach higher,” Fosdick warned, “it will fail indeed.” No wonder his great hymn, God of Grace and God of Glory, includes the prayer, “Grant us wisdom.”

I think that is why I’ve been quiet this week. I haven’t been thinking about Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton, about exit strategies or balancing budgets. I’ve been thinking about Harry Emerson Fosdick. Winning gives you a rush of success — a rush that can be interpreted as spiritual success and “God is on our side” religion. But for mature Christians, winning should give pause. Can the church go deeper and reach higher? At this moment in history, to what depth and height is God calling us? Winning should not only yield the rush of victory; winning might yet yield a harvest of wisdom. At the very least, we should pray for that.

And maybe the Democrats should consider praying for wisdom, too.

Diana Butler Bass ( is an independent scholar and author. Last week, Publishers Weekly named her recent book, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper San Francisco) one of the best books of 2006.

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