Less Partisan, More Political: A Way Forward for Churches

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

[From Failing America’s Faithful: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way by Kathleen Townsend. ©2007 by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. By permission of Grand Central Publishing.]

Today, our sense of Christian virtue is both more and less political than it has been throughout our history. It’s more political in that our churches tend to dwell upon a few politically contentious questions—abortion and homosexuality in particular—at the cost of other important issues.

Once we take that first, fundamental risk and let the love of God and of each other fill our lives and actions, it is like the experience of falling in love.

I wouldn’t suggest that abortion be ignored; it’s a critical moral issue for millions of Catholics, myself included. Nor would I belittle the concerns of many of my fellow Catholics regarding our increasingly crass and sexually explicit culture—or about what they perceive as threats to the sanctity of marriage by having the state officially sanction homosexual unions.

At the very same time, our churches have become far less political—by shrinking from the public sphere and redefining morality as a limited set of personal choices alone.

The point here is that religious leaders are subverting their authority on issues of public moral responsibility by focusing exclusively on issues of private moral behavior. Even as it turns up the volume on a subset of moral imperatives, it barely whispers about so many other concerns that any honest reading of the Bible would reveal as central to Jesus’ teachings.

These two “faith-based” movements, one sliding toward partisan politics and the other moving away from participatory politics, have cheapened our churches. They have diminished our civic life. And they have ultimately failed our spirit.

Today, we’ve essentially created a one-dimensional cross: one that looks up and down at the morality in each individual human life, which of course is important, but fails to look consistently across human lives at our collective and social responsibilities. The focus on sexual abstinence, for example, misses the point that we are not just called to avoid evil but to do good. We are called to love, not just refrain from premarital sex.

Now more than ever, we need our churches to recapture and reclaim their true heritage, to get back their conscience and reclaim their credibility—to become, at once, more political and less partisan.

That process will begin by rediscovering the true source of Jesus’ power—what we might call His holy trinity of ideals: faith, hope, and love.

Faith gives us the ability to believe what might, in an increasingly rationalistic world, be increasingly hard for some to accept: that an Intelligent Being beyond our understanding has created this world and me in it. I can’t prove it as though it were a scientific proposition, but, as Emily Dickinson has said about heaven, “Yet certain am I of the spot / As if the Checks were given.” Because I believe there is a Creator, I trust that the world has a purpose, that there is a shaping mind. I know there is something transcendent about my life, something that is holy and sacred, something that laws of physics, chemistry, biology cannot describe; and I know that the same holiness is in every human being.

Hope gives us courage to face the world’s terror, sadness, sickness, and evil. Hope lifts us even where the most powerful pessimism tugs at our heels. With hope, we envision a better future for ourselves, our children, and grandchildren—and for the children and grandchildren of those less fortunate. No longer immobilized, we can act.

Love of course is, as St. Paul said, the greatest virtue—the one that gives birth to all others. It is the virtue we are most in need of today. In a world that seems to build barriers every day, love is a bridge. It asks us to reach beyond ourselves to see the face of God in people who may not look like us, think like us, pray like us, or act like us. Love asks us to listen.

It is time for a spiritual rebirth in America. That might surprise you to hear—because we’re a very religious country. The media reminds us of that fact all the time. But no—it is time for a rebirth that recaptures the true creed of Jesus.

Power of the Parishioner

One of the best examples comes from my hometown of Baltimore: Rev. Frank Reed, pastor of Bethel AME Church, which is home to 16,000 members. Not unlike many urban churches, about 20 percent of Rev. Reed’s congregation is made up of former addicts, and his church has established ministries to reach out to people struggling with addiction and to those in prison. When I spoke to him recently, he said he felt a responsibility to “awaken people to their political responsibility, to the political nature of life.” The Bible, he says, teaches us that we must be engaged in the effort to “meet the needs of the people. We must be involved politically.”

Political involvement must extend beyond our community. God’s Word is universal. Our work to enact it must be as well. Few understand this as well as the author and activist Ronald Sider, who founded Evangelicals for Social Action thirty years ago. Sider has criticized mainline Protestant denominations for their neglect of evangelizing. At the same time, he has been unyielding in his denunciations of evangelical congregations for ignoring economic injustice and hunger. The twin missions of evangelizing and social justice should work together. Speaking to a reporter for Christianity Today, Sider told the story of a young South African who, he said, “was literally afraid that if he became a Christian he would lose his passion for justice.” The lack of social action, he says, is in fact an impediment to evangelism.

Suppose you agree with my vision. How do we get there? What if they continue to resist the call for change—the Catholic hierarchy continuing to underplay too many of Jesus’ teachings, and too many Protestant churches preaching a very private form of virtue?

Then, the power is in the hands of individual worshippers, who can and should try to reform their congregations and the larger institutions.

Meet with your priest or minister. Organize the congregation to do things that benefit the community. If you speak, others of like mind will not only listen. Their voices will join the chorus, too. These “movements” tend to begin locally, but when they are strong and heartfelt, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.

It is probably easier to reform and renew Protestant congregations than the Catholic Church, for they have a long tradition of bottom-up reform. But those who are committed to change in the Catholic Church, too, have happily carved out a path for themselves and our Church. Either way the principles are no different. When progressive members of the congregation believe that their faith is in some way being short-changed, it is their duty and opportunity to lead the faithful somewhere better.

The churches I envision will not hesitate to chastise those who neglect the poor and ignore the sick. Their clergy will be righteously angered by inequality and by unjust war. They will not forget to remind Jesus’ followers that we are “the salt of the earth,” responsible for preserving God’s good earth. They will spurn shallow consumerism. They will be more troubled by the torture of prisoners than by same-sex marriage.

Perhaps most important, the reborn churches of the twenty-first century will care as much about the actions of groups of people and governments as they will about personal moral behavior. Though it’s true that people make the world, the world also makes people. It’s time our most powerful moral authorities made clear that the need to better society comes before self-fulfillment and self-improvement, not the other way around. The Christian self comes with loving one another, not simply from self-improvement. Indeed, we cannot have a purposeful life that is pleasing to God without leading a life devoted to our fellow human beings.

I am encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, which was both a warm-hearted disquisition on love and a ringing call to service to the least among us. He wrote, “Love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel…. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.”

The stakes are high. If the Church refuses to reform or simply obeys the law of inertia and stays stuck in its ways, many of us will continue to meet in smaller Eucharistic communities, or in interfaith groups, to satisfy this yearning. If radio stations stop playing music, you can be sure that the people will find it elsewhere.

The consequences of reinvigorated Christian churches reach far beyond our houses of worship. If our churches are true to their creed, our civic life, too, can be reborn. I believe that if our churches were consistently preaching and teaching and focusing our attention on public morality as well as private actions, our politics—on both sides of the aisle—would be more focused on justice, on attention to the poor, and on preservation of the earth, among other things.

We are called to work for justice—and express rage at injustice. Over and over again, our religious traditions say that the worst injustices are committed by those who care more for money (and power and fame and other material signs of “success”) than for each other.

If you find yourself recoiling at this language, thinking it all sounds too trite and partisan, ask yourself why. Why has the language of justice lost its power? Why have we let it be displaced by partisan rhetoric? Have we become so weary and cynical that the second a moral problem begins to sound “tainted” by politics, we tune it out, for fear of getting trapped in a cycle of political recrimination?

We can do better. In a world with more complex problems and more power to solve them than ever before, we must do better. Much of our political and religious rhetoric may be bankrupt. But we are not impotent. We can join with others to reinvigorate our commitment to the common good. Faith and justice are not only compatible; they are powerfully complementary.

“A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. A mitzvah, he once said, is “a prayer in the form of a deed.”

Once we take that first, fundamental risk and let the love of God and of each other fill our lives and actions, it is like the experience of falling in love. We will find energy, enthusiasm, even joy in the experience of helping one another, even if the objects of our affection are people we don’t know, may never meet, or might even fear if we met them on a deserted street corner. These are the spiritual roots of our work. They give us strength and inspiration to move forward.

This has been our challenge ever since we were ejected from the Garden of Eden, where all our needs were attended to, and we had no need for each other, save companionship. Because we need each other, we have a responsibility to make a contribution to one another, to love our neighbor, and to judge not, lest we be judged.

As my father said in an interview with David Frost nearly forty years ago, “You can always find someone that has a more difficult time than you do, has suffered more, and has faced some more difficult time one way or the other.” You can always find someone; but too many of us, for far too long, have given up even looking.

In claiming that we have a duty to care for the least among us, I may be accused of not living up to what the Lord said myself. That I don’t deny. I can’t pretend that I am not sinful or weak. I am. Still, faith gives the enormous power of transformation. We can forgive, we can heal, and we can be healed and forgiven. The faith that has the power to move mountains can also tackle the seemingly impossible challenges—poverty, hunger, disease, violence. When powered by faith—given strength by Jesus—we can act. Those actions, and the hope that accompanies them, can be a source of enormous liberation. We need not be stuck in our anger, our bitterness, our frustration. Just the opposite. To believe means we can be healed and enjoy an enormous sense of freedom.

Let us let the power of Matthew course through our veins: “You received without paying, give without paying.”

It is time we stopped distorting faith to serve politics or silencing the better angels of our nature. It is time we started allowing faith to breathe freely and speak honestly, seeing the holy in our fellow human beings and our duty to one another on God’s earth.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest child of Robert F. Kennedy, served two terms as lieutenant governor of Maryland (1995-2003).