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Politics and religion in (not so polite) society

The recent US election had less to do with mature debate and more with lobbying and finger-pointing to garner votes. Sarah-Leah Pimentel is especially disappointed with the part that Christians played in further dividing a fractured nation. Despite that, she believes that it is possible for politics and religion to coexist and contribute to a better society for all.

There are three topics one should avoid in polite society: money, religion, and politics. Discussing these in public never ends well, the old saying goes.

When society was run by erudite gentlemen of distinguished upbringing, political decisions were made behind the closed doors of the House of Lords and other such like. The ordinary man had little political consciousness or influence. Any political commentary might, at most, have been a bawdy comment made over a pint of ale.

Religion also remained within the confines of the private domain, probably a post-Reformation Protestant response to the very dominant influence (and interference) of the Catholic Church in public life. The separation of church and state are the enduring legacies of the French and American revolutions. The ideal was the creation of a new society in which freedom of thought, association, and expression were not bound to religious precepts, which were thought (for better or worse) to stifle human progress.

It is not possible to espouse one religious perspective in the home and a completely different vision of the world in public life.

This 300-year experiment has not worked. Quite simply, human beings are both political and religious creatures and this forced separation has been unnatural. Even the agnostic or the atheist has a central religious premise that informs his or her worldview. Any religious conviction colours and informs political standpoints. It is not possible to espouse one religious perspective in the home and a completely different vision of the world in public life.

The uneasy relationship between church and state

I am not for one moment saying that we should return to the Middle Ages when the Church governed both the Pope and the King. Rather, if the citizens of nation states are to participate in the full spectrum of religious and civic public life, there needs to be a space where the two can co-exist to the benefit of the whole of society.

Unlike the unhealthy and unchristian display we witnessed in the United States over the last few recent weeks and months. On the one hand, we saw how politicians unashamedly used their ties to organized religion to grow their support base. We watched them make promises to their respective largely Christian bases that we know they cannot keep (to cease government-funding for abortion, or to stop climate change).

On the other hand, we saw deposed cardinals with large followings endorsing Donald Trump. We read of priests trying to convince their congregations to vote in a particular way under threat of eternal damnation that even the Sacrament of Reconciliation could not overturn. Ordinary Catholics did not think twice about slandering the good name of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden just to convince their friends and family of the depravity of one candidate over the saintliness of the other.

I watched most of the US electoral campaign with an increasing disenchantment and a growing nausea at how we use religion and our alleged devotion to our moral values to practice all kind of meanness, lack of charity, and even a basic violation of the commandments.

If this is how we, as Catholics, behave in public, how can we possibly represent the Christ we claim to follow? Furthermore, how can anyone take us seriously? Blessed are the peacemakers, says Jesus, but we sowed division among ourselves. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, says Jesus, but we were willing to trample the rights of others to pursue our own.

we use religion and our alleged devotion to our moral values to practice all kind of meanness, lack of charity, and even a basic violation of the commandments.

There has to be a better way. As Christians, we have a duty to speak out against immorality and the loss of values in society. However, we will not win over followers by presenting thunderous arguments or by calling down condemnation on those who do not follow our standard of the moral life.

Any constructive debate must begin with love. Love of God. Love of neighbour. Love tempers our speech. It allows us to call for a restoration of values in our wider society with greater compassion, openness of heart, and the humility to recognize that at times our own understanding might be incomplete, or quite simply, wrong.

Love also means that sometimes we must choose the middle ground. We might not fully agree with it, but it is a starting point, a common platform for engagement. A very good example is the ever-contentious abortion issue. We need to accept that most countries that have legalized abortion are not going back. We are not going to win the argument by fighting it on legal grounds. This is partly because the legal and the religious definition of the start of life differ.

That does not mean, however, that we are any less pro-life. Instead of trying to repeal laws that are now a fait accompli, the Church can exercise far greater influence by working within communities to transform structures, cultures, attitudes, and economic realities that make abortion so attractive to the desperate. Instead of fighting abortion on legal grounds, would the Church not leave a far greater legacy by combatting the conditions that promote abortion, ultimately making abortion unnecessary?

This same argument applies to all the other hot-button issues in the recent US election: climate change, economic exclusion, migration, gender-related issues, even foreign policy.

This is not just an American problem

It is very easy to sit on this side of the planet and point a finger at American politics and the embarrassing Christian response. At its core, this commentary is not about the United States. The recent events in the US are merely an example that shine an uncomfortable light on the way in which religion and public life interact in many other parts of the world.

The recent events in the US are merely an example that shine an uncomfortable light on the way in which religion and public life interact.

We saw some of that here in our 2019 presidential election. We’ve seen it play out in the abortion debacle in Poland. We see vestiges of this in Uganda where sectors of the Church openly support the government’s decision to criminalize homosexuality, making same sex relations punishable by death. We see it in the many states across Europe that feel that they have reached saturation point on the refugee crisis.

Society is enriched when we can speak about religion and politics in the public domain. For this to evolve in a way that edifies both the church and the state, eliciting greater openness to the contribution of religious and moral values in society, we need to engage in religious and political debates in a more mature way.

The old dictum cautions against all talk of politics and religion in polite society. There will be no society without an interplay between the philosophies that underpin church and state. So speak we must.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.