The Political Packaging of Religion?

The Political Packaging of Religion?
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Today the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and the Yale Forum on Faith and Politics are co-hosting Voices and Votes: Religious Convictions in the Public Sphere, a conference on the intersection of religion and politics in America. I'll be liveblogging from the conference throughout the day.

Below is a running summary of the afternoon's first panel, "The Political Packaging of Religion?"

Ryan Anderson, Fellow at First Things; Hardon Dalton, a Professor at Yale Law School and Episcopal Priest; Barrett Duke, VP for Public Policy and Research; Eric Sapp, Democratic Consultant, Common Good Strategies; Mark Totten, Fellow at Yale Center for Faith & Culture. The Moderator is Linda Lader.

LADER: Eric, are you prostituting the Christian Faith? You seem like a nice person and a sincere Christian, but you started your marketing firm to teach Democrats how to get elected.

SAPP: We've certainly been criticized by both side, by bloggers on the left and the traditional values coalition on the right. To a certain extent, I take that as a badge of acceptance.... My quick and short answer to your question is that I would take issue with the way it's framed. The bigger issue is the way politics itself is packaged. There is a big difference between saying we need to repackage religion to make It amenable in the public sphere, and saying we need to repackage politics to do something more.

LADER: How do you repackage politics?

SAPP: That's a good question ... Democrats were the politicians of the 2nd great commandment, "to love they neighbor as thyself." But they weren't getting that they were seen as being antithetical to the 1st reat commandment, "to love God with all thy heart and soul and mind."

LADER: I lived in D.C. for several decades, and watched many people change over time. How have you personally observed people change or avoid being changed by the power in Washington?

DUKE: One of the surprising things to me was the degree to which faith was open in D.C. I really expected a much more callous environment than I ran into. I found that there was actually a very vibrant community in D.C., including in Congress. I found a very rich and robust faith tradition on the right and left in D.C. I think many people have found that it's there faith that stops them from the corruption that's possible in DC. ... But not many people have extreme power, either. You have to learn to work with people or else you get shut out, which leads to a kind of humility. If they don't have that they often become ineffective.

LADER: I could actually agree with a lot of that ... What about the work in DC appealed to you so that you left the pastorate to work there?

DUKE: It wasn't until I became a Christian that I gained new perspective on life and the way things could be. It was shortly after that that I felt the Lord's call to go into ministry. I ended up in Denver, Colorado, and I was there for 13 years.... As I watched people enter the church, I realized that these people pretty much had the same problems as people outside the church. They were struggling with the same issues. Popular culture had pervaded everything; there was no support for moral values on the American scene. So I felt it was necessary to try to do something ... and then Richard Land called me up and asked me if I wanted to take a position. The more I looked at the issues, the more research I did, the more I realized that if I was going to do anything I needed to do it at the level of public policy. If you have good public policy, you can at least do something to protect moral values. I'm exactly where I'd like to be.

DALTON: Linda, I know you have a script but can I just jump for a second? ... Well I'm also Episcopal priest. And I got a call late on Friday night. He'd just come from a meeting with campus crusade for Christ, and he was upset that they'd mentioned how'd 60% of professors are liberal. So we looked at the Bible, at its values. We talked about how Jesus wouldn't know the difference between Republican or Democrat. Then he began to talk about cultural corruption. Not politics. Cultural corruption. So I told him that being liberal doesn't necessarily mean being in favor of that. Somehow culture got associated with one political party and not the other.

LADER: Ryan Anderson is a fellow at First Things. Why did you decide to join that magazine?

ANDERSON: As opposed to Commonweal, say, or Sojourners, I thought that the second great commandment and Matthew 25 alone didn't create a political philosophy ... To me the project that First Things was engaging in resonates deeply with my own feelings about politics and morality and philosophy.

LADER: Mark, Let's look at the example of the IRS. We have the law, and we have perceptions of the law. How do you tie them together?

TOTTEN: ... How do churches as institutions inform the electoral process? Most Americans think that's an issue of constitutional law. But in fact it's not an issue of constitutional law. It's a statute, and it shows up in our tax codes. It applies to all non-profits, and declares that any non-profit cannot intervene in the electoral process. That's fairly broad, so the IRS had to figure out what it means. What they've said is that that doesn't cover issue advocacy. But they also have said that we're going to look not just at direct action, but indirect action and the effect it has on a campaign ... My own personal take is that the IRS is just too vague. When a candidate becomes identified with specific issues, then it affects whether churches can preach on it, because it can be read as indirect action. Personally I think there should be a statute exempting pulpits.


DUKE: I think Christians have contributed to a discussion about values. Fortunately, it isn't only Christians that are talking about values. Evangelical community raised debate about limitations of individual freedom in society.

[]: To me, the term values have ceased to communicate what it might have years ago.

DUKE: Well now that everyone is using the term it does have a broader meaning. If Jesus were here today he'd say that some people were just plain wrong, others were partly right. Jesus certainly had clear positions on certain issues.

SAPP: There's a great line, "I am as conservative as the word of God, and as liberal as the love of God." I agree, I think Jesus would definitely have stood for specific values. I just don't think he would specifically associate them with political parties.


DALTON: I'd like to raise the notion that some people feel prophetic call to speak of an issue. But I'd hate to have laws that impinge that. I don't know how that line is drawn between prophetic and political. But in the pulpit I need to remember I need to be pastoral, and so not necessarily alienate congregants. But how the government should be involved in setting that line I don't get.

BRINTON: In my experience, any time a pronouncement comes down from on high it tends to be divisive among the parishioners. How do such pronouncements by Church leaders affect unity of Church?

ANDERSON: The bishops need to express that there are some issues they are addressing personally and not as institutional officers.

SAPP: Poverty is associated as Democratic issue. Family is associated as a Republican issue. What the Church should be able to do is reclaim those issues, reclaim its moral credibility to speak about them.

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