This year’s presidential election process has been in full swing these past two weeks as first the Republicans gathered for their convention in Tampa, followed this week by the Democrats in Charlotte. I found it slightly amusing to read on the internet yesterday that the Democrats had “returned God to the platform” referring to the re-insertion of the words “God given potential” in the party’s platform document, words that had been omitted earlier in the week. Apparently, the Republicans had a field day with the omission of “God” from the Democratic Platform so the Dems had to scramble to put God back!
While I fully understand the partisan politics that were behind this incident and why politicians decided they needed to “return God to the platform,” the irony of the entire controversy is staggering. I find myself very uncomfortable with the extent to which our American political process purports to enlist God on each party’s side as if God were an undecided voter that each party is trying to win over! Or worse, that each party somehow believes that by invoking God in their speeches and platform and campaign documents, God will use divine influence to sway the election their way. Similarly, at the risk of sounding wildly unpatriotic, I cringe every time someone shouts “God Bless America” as they begin or end a speech. Why, you might ask?
We are a country that purports to believe in the separation of church and state, for one thing. By definition, and by our founding principles, we have supposedly recognized that God is above human political interests and that God operates outside of national political processes. Moreover, we also recognize that there are people amongst us who do not believe in God, or at least not in the particular God of a particular candidate at any given time. We are also a country of immigrants, many of whom are now proudly citizens of the United States but who also have deep roots in their countries of origin, countries that God (if one believes in God) must surely also bless. When I hear “God Bless America” I can’t help but whisper a more expansive blessing, “And all the nations and peoples of this planet.” We are also a religiously pluralistic nation where people worship and relate to a divine supreme being in myriad ways, calling that deity by different names, using different prayers and rituals. The complexity of the God of all nations and peoples gets lost in the sound bites of our political rhetoric, and my guess is that many citizens of this country who worship God in traditions other than the prevailing Judeo-Christian model, might feel somewhat marginalized by these breezy political sound-bites invoking God as if God were a team mascot.
Most importantly, this political posturing where references to God are inserted or deleted from political statements or speeches ignores the reality that if God is properly to be a part of our free political process, it isn’t the political candidates that need to invoke the deity, but the voters who need to go deep within themselves and pray and reflect upon the teachings of their particular religious tradition to determine how they can exercise their right to vote in a way truly consistent with the values and morals that their religion instills in them. In churches, synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras, temples and meeting halls, people of all religious traditions, and thoughtful people who do not affiliate with any religious tradition need to reflect long and hard on the values that matter to them as they consider which candidate should receive their vote. And I am not talking about discreet political hot button issues, like abortion or contraception or same sex marriage, but much more fundamental issues like what kind of community do we want to create and by what communal values do we want to live? How do we care for the most vulnerable in our society and how do we exercise hospitality to those who are not like us? What role does wealth play in our culture and how is it distributed? How do we resolve conflict – diplomacy or guns? How do we hold people accountable for their actions – retributive justice or restorative justice? My study of world religions tells me that every tradition has something profound to say on these fundamental issues.
God is not a Democrat nor a Republican. God is not Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Mormon. God is not American or Chinese or African. Putting God back in the Democratic Party Platform won’t make much difference unless and until all citizens of this country, those of religious faith and those of no religious affiliation at all, take the time to think long and hard about the kind of country we want to live in and the responsibilities our citizenship lays upon us. For people of faith, this is something that integrates their religious and spiritual commitments with their responsibilities as citizens of these United States. It calls upon each one of us to apply the moral and ethical teachings of our religious tradition to the realities of the political economy in which we live out our religious faith, alongside people of different religious traditions or of no religious tradition.
So God may be back in the Democratic party platform as God has been resting comfortably in the Republican party platform all along, but as a religious person that doesn’t assure me that the political platforms and the policies and legislation that might flow from them will comport with the priorities I understand to be divine ones. Priorities like caring for the poor, healing the sick, housing the homeless, freeing the oppressed and striving for justice and peace on the earth are what help me determine how much the God to whom I am obedient is reflected in any party’s political platform. Divine name dropping doesn't convince me to vote for someone. As a Christian, I'm more interested in how a candidate's policies will serve the ones Jesus called "the least of these." And I'm interested to know what people of other religious traditions look for as they evaluate a party's platform.