MANY OF US feel that our faith has been stolen, and it's time to take it back. A misrepresentation of Christianity has taken place. Many people around the world now think Christian faith stands for political commitments that are almost the opposite of its true meaning. How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American? What has happened? How do we get back to a historic, biblical, and genuinely evangelical faith rescued from its contemporary distortions?
That rescue operation is crucial today in the face of a social crisis that cries out for prophetic religion. The problem is clear in the political arena, where strident voices claim to represent Christians when they clearly don't speak for most of us. We hear politicians who love to say how religious they are but fail to apply the values of faith to their leadership and policies.
When we take back our faith, we will discover that faith challenges the powers that be to do justice for the poor instead of preaching a "prosperity gospel" and supporting politicians who further enrich the wealthy. We will remember that faith hates violence and tries to reduce it and exerts a fundamental presumption against war instead of justifying it in God's name. We will see that faith creates community from racial, class, and gender divisions, prefers international community over nationalist religion and that "God bless America" is found nowhere in the Bible. And we will be reminded that faith regards matters such as the sacredness of life and family bonds as so important that they should never be used as ideological symbols or mere political pawns in partisan warfare.
The media like to say, "Oh, then you must be the religious left." No, and the very question is the problem. Just because a religious right has fashioned itself for political power in one predictable ideological guise does not mean those who question this political seduction must be their opposite political counterpart.
The best public contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable or a loyal partisan. To always raise the moral issues of human rights, for example, will challenge both left- and right-wing governments who put power above principles. Religious action is rooted in a much deeper place than "rights"-- that being the image of God in every human being.
Similarly, when the poor are defended on moral or religious grounds, it is not "class warfare," as the rich will always charge, but rather a direct response to the overwhelming focus in the Scriptures, which claims they are regularly neglected, exploited, and oppressed by wealthy elites, political rulers, and indifferent affluent populations. Those Scriptures don't simply endorse the social programs of liberals or conservatives but make clear that poverty is indeed a religious issue, and the failure of political leaders to help uplift those in poverty will be judged a moral failing.
It is because religion takes the problem of evil so seriously that it must always be suspicious of too much concentrated power -- politically and economically -- either in totalitarian regimes or in huge multinational corporations that now have more wealth and power than many governments. It is indeed our theology of evil that makes us strong proponents of both political and economic democracy -- not because people are so good but because they often are not and need clear safeguards and strong systems of checks and balances to avoid the dangerous accumulations of power and wealth.
It's why we doubt the goodness of all superpowers and the righteousness of empires in any era, especially when their claims of inspiration and success invoke theology and the name of God. Given human tendencies for self-delusion and deception, is it any wonder that hardly a religious body in the world regards the ethics of unilateral and preemptive war as "just"? Religious wisdom suggests that the more overwhelming the military might, the more dangerous its capacity for self and public deception. Powerful nations dangerously claim to "rid the world of evil" but often do enormous harm in their self-appointed vocation to do so.
The loss of religion's prophetic vocation is dangerous for any society. Who will uphold the dignity of economic and political outcasts? Who will question the self-righteousness of nations and their leaders? Who will question the recourse to violence and rush to wars, long before any last resort has been unequivocally proven? Who will not allow God's name to be used to simply justify ourselves, instead of calling us to accountability?
In an election year, the particular religiosity of a candidate, or even how devout he might be, is less important than how his religious and/or moral commitments and values shape political vision and policy commitments. Understanding the moral compass a candidate brings to his public life and how his convictions shape his political priorities is the true litmus test.
Jim Wallis is convener of Call to Renewal and executive director of Sojourners.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.