Many of us feel that our faith has been stolen; and it's time to take it back. In particular, an enormous public misrepresentation of Christianity has taken place. And because of an almost uniform media misperception, many people around the world now think Christian faith stands for political commitments that are almost the opposite of its true meaning. How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American? What has happened here? And how do we get back to a historic, biblical, and genuinely evangelical faith rescued from its contemporary distortions. That rescue operation is even more crucial today, in the face of a deepening social crisis that literally cries out for more prophetic religion.
Of course, nobody can steal your personal faith, that's between you and God. The problem is in the political arena, where strident voices claim to represent Christians, when they clearly don't speak for most of us. It's time to take back our faith in the public square, especially in a time when a more authentic social witness is desperately needed.
The religious and political Right gets the public meaning of religion mostly wrong-preferring to focus only on sexual and cultural issues while ignoring the weightier matters of justice. And the secular Left doesn't seem to get the meaning and promise of faith for politics at all-mistakenly dismissing spirituality as irrelevant to social change. I actually happen to be conservative on issues of personal responsibility, the sacredness of human life, the reality of evil in our world, and the critical importance of individual character, parenting, and strong "family values." But the popular presentations of religion in our time (especially in the media) almost completely ignore the biblical vision of social justice and, even worse, dismiss such concerns as merely "left-wing."
It is indeed time to take back our faith.
Take back our faith from whom? To be honest, the confusion comes from many sources. From religious right-wingers who claim to know God's political views on every issue, then ignore the subjects that God seems to care the most about. From pedophile priests and cover-up bishops who destroy lives and shame the church. From television preachers whose extravagant lifestyles and crass fund-raising tactics embarrass more Christians than they know. From liberal secularists who want to banish faith from public life, and deny spiritual values to the soul of politics. And even from liberal theologians whose cultural conformity and creedal modernity serves to erode the foundations of historic biblical faith. From New Age philosophers who want to make Jesus into a non-threatening spiritual guru. And from politicians who love to say how religious they are but utterly fail to apply the values of faith to their public leadership and political policies.
It's time to reassert and reclaim the gospel faith-especially in our public life. When we do, we discover that faith challenges the powers that be to do justice for the poor, instead of preaching a "prosperity gospel" and supporting politicians that further enrich the wealthy. We remember that faith hates violence and tries to reduce it, and exerts a fundamental presumption against war, instead of justifying it in God's name. We see that faith creates community from racial, class, and gender divisions, prefers international community over nationalist religion, and that "God bless America" is found nowhere in the Bible. And we are reminded that faith regards matters such as the sacredness of life and family bonds as so important, that they should never be used as ideological symbols or mere political pawns in partisan warfare.
Similarly, when the poor are defended on moral or religious grounds it is certainly not "class warfare," as the rich often charge, but rather a direct response to the overwhelming focus on the poor in the Scriptures which claims they are regularly neglected, exploited, and oppressed by wealthy elites, political rulers and indifferent affluent populations. Those Scriptures don't simply endorse the social programs of the liberals or the conservatives, but make clear that poverty is indeed a religious issue, and the failure of political leaders to help uplift the poor will be judged a moral failing.
It is precisely because religion takes the problem of evil so seriously that it must always be suspicious of too much concentrated power-politically and economically-either in totalitarian regimes or in huge multi-national corporations which now have more wealth and power than many governments. It is indeed our theology of evil that makes us strong proponents of both political and economic democracy-not because people are so good, but because they often are not, and need clear safeguards and strong systems of checks and balances to avoid the dangerous accumulations of power and wealth.
It's why we doubt the goodness of all superpowers and the righteousness of empires in any era, especially when their claims of inspiration and success invoke theology and the name of God. Given the human tendencies of military and political power for self-delusion and deception, is it any wonder that hardly a religious body in the world regards the ethics of unilateral and pre-emotive war as "just?" Religious wisdom suggests that the more overwhelming the military might, the more dangerous its capacity for self and public deception. If evil in this world is deeply human and very real, and religious people believe it is, it just doesn't make spiritual sense to suggest that the evil all lies "out there" with our adversaries and enemies, and none of it "in here" with us-imbedded in our own attitudes, behaviors, and policies. Powerful nations dangerously claim to "rid the world of evil," but often do enormous harm in their self-appointed vocation to do so.
The loss of religion's prophetic vocation is terribly dangerous for any society. Who will uphold the dignity of economic and political outcasts? Who will question the self-righteousness of nations and their leaders? Who will question the recourse to violence and rush to wars, long before any last resort has been unequivocally proven? Who will not allow God's name to be used to simply justify ourselves, instead of calling us to accountability? And who will love the people enough to challenge their worst habits, coarser entertainments, and selfish neglects?
Prophetic religion always presses the question of the common good. Indeed, the question, "Whatever became of the common good?" must be a constant religious refrain directed to political partisans whose relentless quest for power and wealth makes them forget the "commonwealth" again and again. That common good should always be constructed from the deepest wells of our personal and social responsibility and the absolute insistence to never separate the two.
I am always amazed at the debate around poverty, with one side citing the need for changes in personal behaviors and the other for better social programs, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Obviously, both personal and social responsibility are necessary for overcoming poverty. When this absurd bifurcation is offered by ideological partisans on either side, I am quickly convinced that both sides must never have lived or worked anywhere near poverty or poor people. That there are behaviors that further entrench and even cause poverty is undisputable, as is the undeniable power of systems and structures to institutionalize injustice and oppression. Together, personal and social responsibility creates the common good. Because we know these realities as religious facts, taught to us by our sacred Scriptures, religious communities can teach them to those still searching more for blame than solutions to pressing social problems.
But recovering the faith of the biblical prophets and Jesus is not just about politics; it also shapes the way we live our personal and communal lives. How do we live a faith whose social manifestation is compassion, and whose public expression is justice. And how do we raise our children by those values? That may be the most important battle of spiritual formation in our times, as I am personally discovering as a new father. Our religious congregations are not meant to be social organizations that merely reflect the wider culture's values, but dynamic counter-cultural communities whose purpose is to reshape both lives and societies. That realization perhaps has the most capacity to transform both religion and politics.
We contend today with both religious and secular fundamentalists, neither of whom must have their way. One group would impose the doctrines of a political theocracy on their fellow citizens, while the other would deprive the public square of needed moral and spiritual values often shaped by faith. In a political and media culture that squeezes everything into only two options of left and right, religious people must refuse the ideological categorization and actually build bridges between people of good will in both liberal and conservative camps. We must insist on the deep connections between spirituality and politics, while defending the proper boundaries between church and state which protect religious and non-religious minorities, and keep us all safe from state-controlled religion. We can demonstrate our commitment to pluralistic democracy and support the rightful separation of church and state without segregating moral and spiritual values from our political life.