'God in America:' Faith and Politics

Night Three ofexplores the relationship of faith and politics through the lives of three men who dominated the political and religious landscape of the 20th century: Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jerry Falwell. Each of these men became preachers whose words swayed millions; each addressed the themes of salvation, prophecy and deliverance; each had a vision of what America was -- and what Americato be.
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When I first started the research and development of God in America, I became intrigued by this question: What happens when people of faith become engaged in politics? What is gained, what is lost? Politics inevitably involves negotiation, compromise, power and dealing with people whose values diverge from your own. Yet, if you are a person of faith living in the modern world, chances are that you feel a duty to put your religious principles into practice. For many Americans, those principles include the injunction to be "my brother's keeper," to try to right social wrongs, to work to make the world a better place. So political engagement seems like a necessary step. But is there a price to pay?

Night Three of God in America explores the relationship of faith and politics through the lives of three men who dominated the political and religious landscape of the 20th century: Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jerry Falwell. Each of these men became preachers whose words swayed millions; each addressed the themes of salvation, prophecy and deliverance; each had a vision of what America was -- and what America ought to be. In their speeches and sermons, they all spoke to that amorphous but pervasive notion that America is a providential nation favored by God.

Catapulted to fame by his 1949 Los Angeles crusade, Graham has preached his message of sin and salvation to more people on this planet than anyone in human history. During the Cold War, his call was coupled with the war against "godless Communism." In the presidential campaign of 1960, Graham promised Democratic candidate John Kennedy that he would not bring the religion question into the contest, yet he shared a widespread concern that a Catholic president would receive instructions from the Vatican. Graham worked quietly behind the scenes to defeat Kennedy and elect the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. Yet he never played his political hand in public, appearing to remain above the fray. Once Kennedy was elected, Graham moved quickly to befriend him; the two played golf even before Kennedy took the oath of office. And in the following years, Graham kept public company with a series of American presidents, both Republicans and Democrats.

By contrast, consider Martin Luther King. As a graduate student, he had studied scripture, the work of Gandhi (who had studied Thoreau) and the thinking of leading theologians. King knew his Bible, including the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures that contain the voices of the prophets of ancient Israel --
Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah. These prophets believed that the Israelites had violated the Covenant that bound them to their God. They forgot the moral precepts set forth in the Ten Commandments, they permitted gross social inequalities and gaping disparities between the rich and the poor, they worshipped false gods and they committed apostasy. The prophets denounced the Israelites for these sins and predicted divine punishment. But their predictions were moderated by calls for repentance and chance for renewal.

In his speeches and sermons, King resonated with these prophetic voices. On August 28, 1963, he spoke at the March on Washington, where thousands of civil rights workers gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. In a voice suffused with the rhythm and cadence of scripture, King admonished the country for failing to abide by its founding principles of equality and justice. Quoting the prophet Amos -- "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" -- he linked biblical precepts with the principles of the founding fathers. The moral urgency of the moment propelled President John Kennedy to introduce the civil rights bill. After Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson pushed for its passage. Invited by the White House to the signing ceremony, King was euphoric.

King broke with Johnson over the Vietnam War. Johnson was furious. But King did not back down. He drew a line. Abiding by his principles was more important to him then access to power. King seemed to understand that you can be a prophet, or you can be an advisor to people in power. You have to choose. By the time he was assassinated at age 39, King had assumed the mantle of an American Moses.

In the 1970s, Jerry Falwell also issued a prophetic call, but from a rather different place on the political spectrum. He denounced America, warning that the nation had lost its moral compass and was sinking into a morass of relativism where "anything goes." He, too, appealed to the nation to return to the Christian values he believed were present at the founding. Both King and Falwell admonished America for its social sins and both called the nation back to its roots -- although they had very different ideas about the nature of those roots. For King, the foundation was about social justice; for Falwell, it was about Christian morality.

For evangelicals like Falwell who stepped into the political arena, the tension between moral conviction and the enticement of power played out with particular force. Their support helped sweep into office two Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Yet neither president delivered on the evangelical agenda. After 30 years of political engagement, some religious conservatives wondered if it was worth it. Ed Dobson, former associate pastor of Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., said in hour five of the series, "Soul of a Nation": "There's a huge danger in getting too involved in the political process. You can either be a prophet who stands on the outside of culture and argues against the injustices, or you can be the king, and I don't think you can be both."

So perhaps there is an inherent dilemma here. Political engagement carries a price. But so does lack of engagement. And the prophetic voice has its own limits. It has the power to highlight moral problems often ignored by powerful elites, but does not have the actual authority to solve them. That is a matter for political institutions. As political scientist John C. Green has pointed out, the prophetic voice gives way to the "priestly" voice -- the voice that in ancient times advised the royal court and today advises the governing class. But religion can quickly find itself on a slippery slope, seduced by power or condoning the actions of those it previously criticized. As Green suggests, the prophetic voice of King was essential to ending segregation, but the process required powerful political institutions. King's successors became political operatives.

The series God in America explores the historical dynamic between religion and public life in this nation for more than four centuries. But it does not presume to answer the question, how should faith and politics engage each other? President Barack Obama offered his answer in his 2006 Call to Renewal speech. We hope that the series will encourage viewers to explore this question and that the programs and the web site will give Americans of all faiths and no faith the common ground of shared history as a place to start this conversation.

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