Thursday, July 15, 2010

“Driven by Faith, Not by Fear”

One of the Internet sites I frequently visit is operated by a grassroots organization known as Faithful America. Faithful America’s focus is to get people of faith involved to address the pressing moral issues of our time, such as poverty, immigration, climate change, and peace. As their website states, they are “building a powerful grassroots movement to put justice and the common good back at the center of the American values debate.”

Recently, Faithful America began a campaign “to counter the fear and the lies the Tea Party and extreme pundits are spewing.” To create a name for this campaign, they held a contest and the winning slogan is, “Driven by Faith, Not by Fear.” When I first read those words, I immediately thought of one of my favorite stories from the Gospels; the one located in Mark 4:35-41 where we find Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat. For me, there is no other biblical story that offers such a contrast between faith and fear.

In the midst of their nautical journey to the other side of the sea, Jesus and his followers encountered a raging storm that appeared quickly and threatened their lives. While the story shows Jesus as a miracle worker who has power over creation, the impact of the story on its readers speaks directly to the empowering strength of faith to overcome the crippling force of fear.

It goes without saying that the disciples were afraid of the storm, for they believed that they were about to perish under the torrent of the sea. But the theology of the story hinges on the dialogue between two characters; Peter, who represents all the disciples in their fear, and Jesus, who calmly sleeps as the storm rages. In Jesus, we discover a peaceful composure and the assurance of God’s presence. In Peter, we witness a dramatic picture of human fear.

How might this story speak to us about the crippling power of fear in our own context?

Since the horrific events of September 11, 2001, many politicians have used the tragedy to attempt to convince us that we ought to be afraid, and that we should especially be afraid of the other. At the heart of the immigration debate is a fear that America will be overrun by immigrants. At the heart of arguments against allowing the construction of a Mosque and Islamic cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero and the building of a Mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is a fear that we are somehow giving leverage to terrorism. At the heart of the past debates over health care, is a fear that we are now on the slippery road toward socialism. It seems that every issue that arises offers an opportunity for some to inject unsubstantiated and irrational fear into the debate as a way of convincing us that this is the end.

This fear mongering rhetoric defines the world in black and white terms, seeing only good or evil and leading those who utilize such rhetoric to more easily define who and what are our enemies. The now infamous “war on terror” tag-line became the rationale for waging war, torturing prisoners, and infringing on the freedoms we have always cherished, all in the name of national security. Arizona’s recent passage of a law targeting immigrants, as well as several other states seeking to pass similar legislation, have come about as a result of the power of fear. Moreover, the use of fear as a tactic of political campaigning has created the illusion that only one political party can save our nation.

What shocks me the most about all of this rhetoric is that many Christians have bought into fear as a thoughtful reaction to terrorism, to immigration, to heath care and many other important issues. Yet, the reality is that if we surrender to fear, our faith in God and in one another will diminish, and we will become less than the humans we were created to be. We will become fear induced extremists instead of humans made in the image of God who are commanded to love others and to do good.

Our succumbing to the power of fear has produced a rising tide of intolerance and xenophobia. Moreover, irrational fear is precisely the motivation behind the ever extending trajectory of stories and opinions that continue to speak of the other, whether they are immigrants, Muslims, gays and lesbians, or the poor, in terms that demonize them as less than human. But this is what fear does.

Faith, on the other hand, embraces the other as made in the image of God and worthy of love and friendship. Indeed, in the story from Mark 4, Jesus desires to cross the Sea of Galilee because he knows that on the other side are the Gentiles, enemies of his own race, and he is compelled to cross boundaries to embrace them in friendship and love. While faith does not deny the existence of evil or those who may cause evil, faith relies on the eternal goodness of God whose love conquers evil. Faith is truly the power that overcomes fear.

Fear is a powerful force, but if allowed to have control, fear draws us from God and God’s call for us to live faithfully in the world. While so-called threats to our security and to our way of life, whether real or imagine, naturally produce feelings of fear, we must follow the model of Jesus, who at the most vulnerable point in his life, turned to the God who gives faith that triumphs over all fear. May all that we think, say and do be “Drive by Faith, Not by Fear.”

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Candidate’s Religion, or Lack Thereof, Should be Personal, not Political

The relationship between religion and politics is always a messy one; sometimes too messy. As the recent primary elections in South Carolina and Nevada have demonstrated, politicians can easily use religion as a weapon against political rivals (See Brian Kaylor’s Baptist Attacks Fail on Candidate's Religion at

This is not new. Candidate Obama faced continual questions over his own faith, even though he repeatedly claimed to be a Christian. But folks still question his faith, even after he has been elected president.

However, these religious inquisitions within the political arena raise serious questions about political candidates, the nature of political campaigns and the proper place of religion in our politics. Should a political candidate be forced to defend his or her faith in order to be elected? And, should candidates legitimately use religion as a weapon against political opponents?

In reading Kaylor’s story, and in my own following of this kind of back and forth religious examination between candidates in which candidate ‘A” claims to be more religious than candidate “B”, or candidate “B’ claims to be a member of the right religion, as opposed to candidate “A”, whose religion is somehow less true, I am reminded of something I heard one morning during the early campaigning of the last presidential election.

While sipping my morning coffee, I watched a reporter interview folks in a local diner on the day of one of the presidential primaries. The journalist was asking patrons of the restaurant who they would choose as their candidate for president and why they were choosing that particular contender. Most were concerned about the economy, or about immigration, or about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or about any number of issues. Yet the response of one woman caught my attention and almost caused me to spill my morning cup.

When asked for whom she would vote, this particular voter responded with the name of her choice candidate, and when asked why she would cast her vote for this particular candidate, she simply replied that he would be the right person to turn America back to religion. I thought I had actually misheard what she had said, but I was wrong. Not only had she said what I thought she said, she was also very sincere in what she said.

Don’t misunderstand me; I firmly believe that all people have the right to vote their religious consciences, even if I or anyone else does not agree with them. Indeed, in our democracy, people who are eligible to vote can vote for any particular candidate for any particular reason. Moreover, there is certainly nothing wrong with voting for a person because that candidate is religious.

The problem that I see in making the religious faith of a candidate a determining factor for voting for that candidate, and especially in using religion as a political tool to either make oneself look better to the voters, or to cast religious doubt on one’s opposition, is that we can confuse the personal faith of a public official with the idea that he or she should be a religious leader in our government. This seems to be what the woman in that coffee shop was saying, and it seems to be what happened in both South Carolina and Nevada, and probably in other elections.

But, should a candidate’s religious preference or the lack of religious preference be a vital part of his or her campaign? Should a candidate’s personal faith be fair game in political elections? Must a candidate for any office succumb to the constant badgering from those who question his or her faith as a qualification for carrying out the duties of the office for which he or she seeks election?

The short answer to this question ought to be that while the personal faith of a candidate for public office may be important to a block of voters, this does not mean that the candidate needs to prove his or her faith, and it certainly does not mean that the candidate’s role in government is to lead America back to religion, as if religion has somehow vacated our country.

There are some very important reasons that such a distinction must be kept. First, America was founded on the principle of the separation of church and state. While some have challenged this fundamental principle of American identity, history is on the side of those who maintain this separation.

Learning from the long history of religious violence and oppression in Europe, the founders of this nation, while affirming the importance of religion, drew a clear line between the roles of the church and those of the state. That line is always hard to keep clear, but it becomes very blurry when political candidates are valued foremost for their religious views.

Second, while the U.S. Constitution gives many roles and authorities to those elected to federal offices, and while various state constitutions outline the responsibilities of state officials, these documents do not include religious leadership as a duty.

There are certainly times in the life and struggle of a nation where certain elected officials, such as a president or a governor of a state, symbolically serve a quasi-pastoral function, giving comfort to those who have suffered great tragedies. Moreover, by virtue of the power of these offices, elected officials must act justly by making just legislation, which can have religious correlations. But in no way do elected officials serve as religious leaders.

Third, and perhaps most important for the modern era of American life, the multicultural fabric of our society has also produced a multi-religious civilization in which all should have freedom of religion and equal rights. While a candidate is free to choose his or her personal religious faith, and he or she may find strength from that faith to carry out the role to which she or he is elected, no elected official can become the promoter of any religion, including their own religion or the dominant religion of their constituency. To do so will inevitably lead to the endorsement of one religion over others, whether such an endorsement is implicit or explicit. In a democracy of religious diversity, to promote one religious perspective over others would result in the suppression, and perhaps oppression, of other religious views.

In a democracy, where the power over government rests with the vote of each citizen, the fundamental belief is that people can make reasonable and moral choices. And while those citizens have the right to make their choices based on religion, they must also understand that moral choices and good government are not solely dependent on religion or on a person who is a religious leader. The key to a just and moral society in which the religious and non-religious are free and equal citizens is in finding the common moral ground on which just legislation is promoted to achieve the common good for all, religious or not.