Thursday, May 4, 2017

Politically Partisan Clergy: A Cleft in the Bright Side of Faith

Citing religious liberty, President Trump signed an executive order on May 4, 2017, the National Day of Prayer, “directing the Internal Revenue Service to avoid cracking down on political activity by religious organizations.”[1] In particular, clergy could then endorse political candidates without fear that their respective churches would lose their tax-exempt status. It is a bit extreme that such status would be lost simply because a pastor mentions a preference for a political candidate or a particular public policy, for such references are not integral or central to a clergy’s message, which is religious in nature. Nevertheless, the risk of religious faith being usurped by the political merits an attentive watchfulness, at the very least.
Outwardly, religious content can unwittingly, and without notice even to the religionist oneself, give way to political agendas, especially during an election season. In fact, such agendas—in particular, the ideologies—can “rebrand” themselves into religious garb such that even the endorsement of a political candidate can be presumed to be religious in nature. When the U.S. president signed the order, for example, he said, “For too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people for faith, bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs.”[2] The implication is that endorsing a candidate is such a belief. With the distended notion of religious belief comes less room for, or a proportionate decrease in the genuine article.
 A more subtle downside—one that is actually even more likely—has to do with the impact of even occasional politically-partisan statements on the still-dominant religious ethos and message. The overlay of a cross-cutting partisanship compromises the coherence in the primary partisan axis. Don’t despair; this statement needs some unpacking.
Feuerbach (1804-1872), a European philosopher, uncovered a seldom-recognized side of faith by analyzing Christianity. Within the faithful, the partisan nature of faith is obscured by the unity of the faithful. The prejudiced nature of faith—its “(d)ogmatic, exclusive, scrupulous particularly”—does not play out among the faithful, except as it cuts off part of itself as heretics.[3] Far from being universally applicable, love gives way only within the confines of the faithful. “He is not for Christ is against him; that which is not chiristian is antichristian.”[4] It would be to dishonor God to love those who dishonor God. “Hence faith has fellowship with believers only; unbelievers it rejects. It is well-disposed towards believers, but ill-disposed towards unbelievers.”[5] Even as believers actually harbor hatred toward the disbelievers—belief being presumed to be decisive to faith—they overlook their ill-will and thus that in faith itself “lies a malignant principle.”[6] Within the faithful, it does not come into play, so faith is perceived as wholly salubrious—without a back side. Keeping disbelievers at bay ensures the apparent congruence of love and faith. Yet if another sort of partisanship is introduced within a congregation—such as political partisanship—a cleft arises such that can break up the serenity of the love of faith. Put another way, introducing political disagreement disrupts the agreement that exists within the faithful. The cost in endorsing partisan causes or candidates is in terms of the original domain—that of religion. The malignant principle of faith and political anger at the opposition are one and the same; introducing a political cleft into a congregation resonates with the partisan nature of faith, yet even as the latter can remain invisible from within the confines of the faithful.
So clergy in the pulpit should think twice before lapsing into the political arena, even as mere partisan mouthpieces. In addition to the opportunity cost of foregone attention to religious matters, the offense engendered among the faithful creates a rift on the bright side of faith that detracts from it unnecessarily.

[1] Michael D. Shear, “Trump Eases Political Activity by Religious Organizations,” The New York Times, May 4, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 251.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, 252.
[6] Ibid.