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Would Religion Serve Us Well by Fading Away From Public Spaces?

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The question, "Does religion have a place in politics," has become a frequently asked one in our world today, but no need to feel threatened. Let's talk about it.


Before​ he lobbed a Molotov cocktail at the window of the Newark Planned Parenthood at 2:15 in the morning, 18-year-old Samuel Gulick spray painted this Latin phrase on the wall of the clinic: “Deus Vult.” In English, it translates to “God Wills It.” A Catholic motto first associated with the Crusades, “Deus Vult” resurfaced during the 2016 presidential election, repurposed as a meme by online alt-right and white nationalist groups. It alludes to an impending “holy war” between Christians and Muslims.

Gulick was no stranger to these online circles. Like so many young, white nationalists in America today, his social media posts reflect racism, homophobia and pro-Trump rhetoric rooted in some form of Christian ideology. In one post from last September, Gulick posted an image of the popular “Coexist” logo crossed out and the word “Convert” beneath it. His caption: “Us white folks don’t oppress minorities, we subjugate minorities.”

When confronted with an event like this, it’s easy to see why many argue that we might be better off if we did away with religion in public spaces. What good is it actually doing, really? In the case of Gulick, it amplified his dangerous ideology and even justified it. “God wills it,” he wrote.

Many would argue that that’s just the way it goes, that exclusion is inherent to religious belief. By believing ​your​ group has a hold of the truth, every other group is outside of that truth. Ideally, the political system should operate in the opposite way: welcoming instead of excluding, serving and protecting all groups. But if religion spills into your politics, well—just look at individuals like Gulick.

That’s one view on it, anyway. And it’s valid. There’s no question that religion can be detrimental to public life. But does it have to be? I don’t think so.

Yes, at its worst, religion can be exclusive. But it can also be a powerful force for inclusivity and human dignity. It’s just a matter of what form of religion we bring into public life. Let me explain.

In their book, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke make a critical distinction between “sects” and “churches.” Sects, in their definition, are “religious bodies in relatively higher tension with their surroundings.” By ​tension​, they mean the “degree of distinctiveness, separation and antagonism” between a group and the rest of the world. In contrast, “churches” have low tension; they work in and alongside the rest of the world.

Do you see the important division being made here? One form of religious group—sects—is at odds with those around them. The other form—churches—is not. Instead, as sociologist Benton Johnson explains, “a church is a religious group that accepts the social environment in which it exists.” In other words, rather than excluding, this form of religion ​includes​ the rest of the world in its vision.

We do not need sects in politics. We need churches. We need individuals and groups of people who are continually reminding our leaders of the inherent worth of a human being, of the ​imago Dei ​that animates every person. We need the language of grace, forgiveness, peace, redemption, virtue and joy injected into our public discourse. We need service-minded folks who champion the broken and downtrodden.

In a fabulous ​interview​ with RELEVANT Magazine, activist and writer Shane Claiborne answers the question at the heart of this article—should religion exist in politics?—by saying:

“The question for me is not are we political, but how are we political? We need to be politically engaged, but peculiar in how we engage…The early Christians felt a deep collision with the empire in which they lived, and with politics as usual. They carelessly crossed party lines and built subversive friendships. And we should do that too.

This is church politics, not sectarian politics. It includes, it welcomes. Do we need the religion of people like Samuel Gulick in our politics? Absolutely not. What we need is true religion, “pure and undefiled,” which, according to James 1:27, looks like this: “To visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” No matter where we are in history, we will always, always need more of that.