In a recent commentary for Religious Dispatches, Daniel Schultz is disappointed by what he sees as recent string of legislative failures in the Democratic Party. He wonders if “nice guys” really do finish last. He states: “Simply put, the religious left is far less effective than the religious right because it won't turn political questions into us-versus-them. It's too divisive for them” He suggests that religious liberals should get there hands dirty by responding to the religious right using equally uncivilized discourse. His proposal is for the religious left to come out and say something along the lines of “My God is the God of the poor. You can be for the poor or you can go to hell.” Why? Because although “There's nothing nice about it”, that’s what it takes to win, to get results.
I too have felt the bitter disappointment that Schultz expresses in his commentary. I cringe every time abortion and gay marriage become the touchstones of religious political discourse over the poor and needy ones. I too have felt like saying, “God is on my side.” However, in my last blog I suggested that “Today, Christians must become again a model of civility and reconciliation. If we fail to rescue our prophetic voice then the Christian contribution to the political community will be regrettably linked to violence, ignorance, and intolerance. As Christians and Americans this would be a failure to live up to our religious principles as well as our democratic values”.
Schultz argues that we must balance civility with effective strategy. I agree that liberal Christians should take a strong stance on political issues, maintaining a powerful voice in the public sphere. However I am also aware of my own lamentable moments of political mud-slinging. In the end, all I gained from these tactics was a type of regrettable triumphalism a, ‘hooray for our side’ mentality, that seemed utterly disconnected from my Christian values. It also ceased to be persuasive, or compelling to my audience. If anything it made conversation more difficult between myself and those with whom I disagree.
The role of religious discourse in political life has both its dangers and its contributions. At times we must speak critically about the ways in which Christians have engaged in political discourse. At other times we can recognize the powerful impact religion has played in securing human rights, and speaking on behalf of the marginalized. Our finest moments, as Christians, and ultimately our most successful ones, have not been the result of political finger pointing, but the power of prophetic truth untainted by and with no need for intolerable language. If we lower the standards by which we engage, we will undermine our own cause, costing us the moral high ground, and turning us into the hypocrites we claim to despise. Our job as Christians is to be faithful witnesses in the world not to be politically successful. Of course success is desirable, but we shan’t base our definition of success on how many bills we pass or how many debates we win or even how many votes we secure, but on weather or not we have been faithful witnesses to the Christian faith.
So what do we do, how do we engage? A first step is admitting humbly that we all see through a glass darkly, meaning we should take a giant step off our moral high horse. Listening respectfully has a place, especially between conservative and liberal Christians who ultimately confess the same faith. That being said, Daniel Schultz has a point. Christian claims are important and compelling and we can and must state them assertively, while avoiding bad behavior. Instead of telling our opponents to go to hell we could say as Schultz also suggests “My God is the God of the poor. A vote against [unemployment benefits, child nutrition] or a vote for tax breaks for the obscenely wealthy is a vote against that God, and it's a vote against those who follow him.” This statement is confessional, but provocative; it’s strong, but not violent. What we should take away from Schultz’ commentary is that there is a place in between violent and pointless rhetoric and constructive but firm witnessing. The power of Christian claims doesn’t require intolerance, but sometimes it will require commanding and spirited speech.