In American society, religion has been an incredible source for good, the catalyst and driving force behind many national reform movements. For example, the Second Great Awakening, that sweeping spiritual fire that led to mass religious conversions in the early 1800s, eventually helped give birth to the anti-slavery movement. It did so by impressing upon converts that blacks were created in the image of God, and as such in his eyes black souls were no different from white souls. They were both equal. God had created no man to be a slave.
This time of spiritual awakening in America also helped inspire other social reform movements, such as the temperance, women’s rights, health care for the mentally ill and prison reform movements. In modern times it was the energy and resolute dynamism of the Christian faith that served as the foundation and fuel of the civil rights movement.
Conversely, though, religion in American society also has been used for ill. In the antebellum or pre-Civil War South, pastors and politicians plucked from the pages of the Bible justification for the enslavement of blacks. With the establishment of Jim Crow segregation in the South after the collapse of post-Civil War Reconstruction efforts, the same two groups would use the words of the Holy Scriptures to justify and give cover to an apartheid-type society. Religion has been consequential.
One observer has noted, “Whatever your view of the role biblical Christianity played in the founding of America, intellectual honesty demands that one recognize that religion, religious values and specifically Christianity have all played a defining role in the development of American civilization.” Indeed, another has succinctly added, “You can’t divorce faith from the American experience.”
Religion’s presence and impact upon the unfolding story of America is undeniable. However, equally undeniable is the fact that its presence and impact has been both positive and negative. Religion by its very nature is a powerful and compelling force — a force that is able to redeem, transform and liberate, or ignite and fan the flames of bigotry, backwardness and intolerance. A society must take care how such a force is allowed to be used.
To me the question of whether religion has a vital place in society is an easy one — yes! The more crucial or apt question, though, is to what ends or purposes will the power of faith be put to use?
In our day, the politicization of the Christian faith is leading to its marginalization. As it more and more becomes associated with a political party, its ability to serve as a redemptive and transformative power in American society diminishes accordingly. Additionally, as that political party’s fortunes go, so to goes the value society attaches to the religion as a whole.
But just as God doesn’t have a favorite football team or basketball team, neither does he have a favorite political party. Yet, particularly in our part of the country, it would be hard to think God has not chosen sides politically. As a consequence of this perception, when political leaders who self-servingly wrap themselves in the banner of religious faith to garner votes then collapse morally (often spectacularly), the place and purpose of religious faith in society suffers as well. When such political leaders go down the rabbit hole of moral depravity and malfeasance, they drag the name of God and the esteem of religious faith down with them.
As someone who was raised with a deep respect of and appreciation for the value of religion, it is incredibly disturbing to see it so misused by politicians in Alabama and across the South. All they have to do is say they are against certain social issues and that seems to get them an instant “Christian” stamp of approval. But that’s not how it should be.
I am struck by the fact that one of the resounding themes of the Old Testament is God’s frequent anger with and indictment of the nation of Israel’s leaders. Leaders who often put money and greed before the interest of the people. Leaders who cared little for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. Leaders who used religion to further their own interest rather than the interest of the people.
The Old Testament biblical prophet Micah even declared, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” However, we often see the exact opposite from our “Christian” political leaders.
If religion is to play its rightful role in society, its adherent have to show more discernment and stop blindly accepting the superficial utterances and trite religious platitudes of political leaders who could not care less about the religion they claim to follow, and even less about the people they seek to lead.
If religion is to play its rightful role in society, its adherents must be more careful and circumspect in how they align themselves with political power. If religion is to play its rightful role in society, its adherents must stop allowing faith to be misused for the attainment of personal political power.
If religion is to play its rightful role in society, its adherents must remember that we don’t live in a theocratic state. Therefore, why should a political leader’s faith be questioned because he or she personally believes that abortion is wrong, but yet firmly believes that from a civil standpoint the Courts have ruled and society has decided that such a monumental decision should be left to the mother? Why should a political leader’s faith be questioned because he or she firmly believes that, from a civil standpoint, the Courts have ruled and society has decided that who an adult chooses to love and marry is his or her own business?
Religion can and should be a positive, unifying and transformative societal force, one that affects society for the better. Will people of faith allow it to be that force?