During one decade of my adult life, when two teenage boys roamed the house, I frequently heard the popular R.E.M. song, “Losing My Religion.” I never understood the song, as if songs are supposed to be understood rather than experienced, but it’s refrain is haunting:
That’s me in the corner.
That’s me in the spotlight.
I’m losing my religion, trying to keep up with you,
and I don’t know if I can do it.
Some think it could be the theme song for the Democratic Party, and others are sure it functions as a commentary on the entire nation. We are, critics contend, less religious than we used to be (even though the data across the decades, from the Revolution until now, tells a very different story).
Republicans have kept their religion. They are against gays and government, against abortion and immigration; they are for God, and guns, and Israel. Not necessarily in that order and not necessarily requiring their leaders to be the religious types in order to take us to their promised land. Two of the least religious leaders in modern American history have been their two great saints, Raegan and Trump.
And this puzzles me: White House chief of staff (a Republican and a Roman Catholic) spoke this week at a national prayer breakfast and asserted that Christian principles are “driving public policy.” It is easy to see how their anti-abortion and pro-Israel initiatives are related to religious values, but what about separating refugee children from parents, or lifting regulations for clean water and clean air, or treating dictators in Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia as best friends?
Democrats, on the other hand, have come a long way from the bible-teaching, gospel-telling governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter (still, perhaps, the most famous and respected Christian in the country). Recent polls reveal that less than half of self-identifying Democrats are also members of a religious organization. And the trend is down. Even with that, it was the black preacher and community organizer William Barber that stirred the crowd to a frenzy when he was given the platform at the 2016 Democratic Convention.
Some Americans want a nation run only by professing Christians. There is a substantial under-the-radar network of political activists who adhere to the Seven Mountain strategy of political dominion: place practicing (and conservative) Christians as leaders in the seven areas of cultural influence and they will bring the nation back to God. Those are business, media, education, entertainment, government, family, and religion. Proponents write books, hold conferences, train leaders, and promote candidates—all for the purpose of shaping court decisions, legislation, and public opinion.
I don’t want that—sounds too religious, too Evangelical, too white! But I do want leaders who are educated, who are people of integrity (and therefore tell the truth), and who have a vision of America that is good for all people: black, white, and brown, gay and straight, young and old, religious and secular, married and single, citizen and visitor, sick and healthy, Republican and Democrat, strong and weak.
We don’t need to “get back to God.” There never was a time when the United States was what God wanted us to be, or even what we want us to be. There has always been too much violence, too much poverty, too much war, too much injustice, too much ignorance, too much selfishness, too much indifference.
That being said, I admit I like a person who believes in God and has a reverence for the things of God. I like it when a mayor or governor or president attends church, stands to sing with the rest of us, and kneels to pray with the worst of us. I like it when the president knows the Bible and reads the Bible and quotes the Bible. But I don’t like it when any president (or any preacher, for that matter) uses the Bible to divide us or denigrate us or defend a foreign or domestic policy that clearly violates the Jesus maxim to do to others what you want them to do to you.
And this: in politics as in medicine or engineering or farming, competence is better than commitment to religion, knowledge of the world and the constitution is needed more than knowledge of the Bible, and empathy with the needs and aspirations of the American people makes a better leader than the ability to recite the Creed or lead the Prayer.