God's Politics

Jim WallisThis week, The Washington Post and Newsweek launched a new feature – “On Faith” – an online discussion of religion and its impact. I have joined with more than 50 other religious leaders, scholars and activists from different faiths and different places on the political spectrum on a panel that includes Desmond Tutu, Karen Armstrong, Elie Wiesel, and many more. Each week, a question on a religious or spiritual topic will be posed and panel members as well as readers will respond.

The first question is: If some religious people believe they have a monopoly on truth, then are conversation and common ground possible? If so, what would be the difficulties and benefits of such a conversation? Here are the other panelists’ responses.

Here is my response:

On the road recently in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was doing another book store event and signing for God’s Politics. In the question and answer time, two young men said that they were quite “secular” and “even agnostic.” Yet, they both testified to feeling very warmly welcomed into the evening town meeting discussion, “because you said the nation is hungry for a new moral discourse on politics—that it’s something we all need and are all needed for.” I did indeed say that. And I also say at most every speaking event that religion has no monopoly on morality. Religious people need to say things like that, and often, because many people do believe that we think we have that monopoly.

I believe that religion does indeed have a great contribution to the nation’s moral discourse on public life, but religion must be disciplined by democracy. That means that we don’t claim that our religious authority must be everyone’s or dictate their moral or political fate. Rather, religious people must win the debate, just like everybody else, about what is best—not for the religious community or only faith-inspired citizens—but for the common good.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, never said anything like, “I’m a Christian; and in a Judeo-Christian country, we get to win. “ No, he knew that he had to convince a majority of Americans—whether Baptists like him, or Methodists, or Catholics, or Jews, or agnostics, or atheists—that a civil rights law in 1964 and a voting rights act in 1965 were the best thing for the country, and all its citizens.

Today, whether it be the death toll in Iraq, the culture of corruption in Washington, the growing inequality of American life, the dangers of global warming, the alarming abortion rate, the breakdown of the family, or the epidemic of violence against women—we are dealing with moral issues with inescapable religious dimensions. They will not be resolved publicly on explicitly religious terms, but we could reach enough moral consensus on some of them to move us forward. Only a “moral discussion” is open to all citizens where a purely religious debate is not. That kind of moral discourse is indeed possible, even across political dividing lines—I’ve seen it. In fact, the only way to reach common ground is to reach for higher ground.

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