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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

January 14, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 182




Tom Roberts God-talk in politics

Tom Roberts NCR editor

I first became aware of just how nervous politicians could get about religion -- particularly that sort espoused by the Religious Right -- some months before the first George Bush officially announced he was running for president in 1988.

Recent Takes by Tom Roberts
Jan. 12, 04 Looking before leaping
Nov. 14, 03 Sports fascinate me
Nov. 10, 03 Visible symptoms of deeper troubles
Sept. 5, 03 Horses, a child and a fancy recently revived
Sept. 4, 03 'Not what I thought it was going to be'
Sept. 3, 03 Reporters on the religion beat
To some degree since -- and often to an uncomfortable degree -- the need to establish a religious pedigree has wormed its way into most of our politics. So Howard Dean has to let the world know that, in deference to Southern sensibilities, he will begin talking more about God.

God, I wish he wouldn't. I wish he would just talk about the issues and keep debating his fellow Democrats.

The realization of the importance of the God factor in our politics occurred while I was still working at Religious News Service in New York. I received a call from a woman who was editor of an evangelical Protestant publication. She was excited about a meeting she had just attended at the home of then-vice president George Bush, a gathering that had been organized by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Falwell had gathered editors of evangelical publications so they could hear declarations of faith first-hand from the president to be. Bush accommodated by explaining, as I recall the story went, that he regularly read the Bible growing up. This New England bred and Yale-educated Episcopalian allowed as how he did not always use the same language as the constituents he was courting that evening, but he assured them that his heart and his faith were in the right place.

They apparently all went away reassured -- but only for a time.

In 1992, when the patriotic jolt from the first Iraq war began to wane and the bottom fell out of the economy, many evangelicals and religious supporters of the administration bailed, voted their pocketbooks, and sought the political promised land in none other than Bill Clinton.

I think these musings on politics and God were inspired not just by recent headlines but also by the approach of Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday. I can't help but wonder what he would have to offer the political season today in this time of open-ended war, re-invigorated attacks on civil liberties and a host of preaching voices assuring us that God is on our side, inspiring and sustaining America in all it does.

King, an imperfect vessel of a very demanding mission, wrestled with his God, spent most of his days in Gethsemane and only after losing the match with God decided to take up like a champion to confront the evils of the state, of those in power.

His was a religion of resistance, of humility, of bravery, of compassion, of admitted imperfection, of the joyous realization of the biblical paradox of the power of the powerless. His religion was risky, uncomfortable, not self-assured and certain.

Can you imagine, for a moment, King on the 700 Club? The churches that served as the bosom of the civil rights movement were not triumphalist; they didn't shout their superiority. Quite the contrary, they nurtured a humble but determined struggle for justice.

Martin Luther King knew that slavery and segregation were vicious symptoms of deeper illness, of a societal hubris and a cultural detachment from essential, challenging religion, the kind that wouldn't play well on television. That's why, as his mission matured, he challenged the inherent violence of the culture, the resort to force, the exploitation built into much of our foreign policy. His was not a gospel not of prosperity and expanding empire but of suffering service.

Don't expect to hear his opinions on America's political circuit any time soon. For when he confronted the reality of war in 1967, he said:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing oriented society to a person oriented society. A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

These are revolutionary times. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.

Now that's preaching to get nervous about.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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