Dan Lee

Dan Lee

The relationship between religion and the public arena is a complicated matter fraught with controversy.

Should one’s religious views have any impact on how one votes? Or should religion be limited to Sunday morning and not get mixed up with political decisions and the other decisions that one makes during the rest of the week?

The latter view has traditionally been held by many Lutherans and other Protestants. Martin Luther himself distinguished between the religious and secular orders and, at least in some of his writings, argued that these were two separate realms.

This view, however, is by no means universally held, including by many Lutherans today. And indeed, the matter is far more complex than a simple dichotomy might suggest.

There is a very important question underlying all of this: What really defines one’s religion -- what one does on Sunday morning or what one does the rest of the week? There is a strong case to be made for saying that it is the latter.

In an insightful essay entitled “Faith in Gods and in God,” American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) used the language of “center of value” to refer to what faith involves -- the center of value that informs the way that people live their lives. He observed that “sometimes they live for Jesus’ God, sometimes for country and sometimes for Yale.” (Niebuhr taught at Yale, hence the reference.)

The underlying notion here is that the faith that one has, be it religious or  entirely secular in nature, informs the views that one has and the way that one lives one’s life. There is a certain sense that this is what defines one’s religion, not what one says or does on Sunday mornings.

Coming at this from the other direction, there is a very basic way in which one’s religious beliefs must inform and shape one’s views on political issues and many other matters.

If they do not, then, when all things are considered, they are really not religious beliefs -- or any other kind of beliefs -- at all.

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It is for precisely this reason that religious beliefs that inform one’s views on political issues and many other matters appropriately are part of the public discourse in the public arena about these matters. This is something that Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics have understood far better than their mainline Protestant brothers and sisters.

There is, however, more to this matter. Should churches as institutions actively engage in political activity in the public arena? That is open to question.

If churches in effect become extensions of particular political parties, that can be problematic. At a bare minimum, it can make those with differing political views feel very unwelcome on Sunday morning.

However, that is not to say that churches, whether on the local level or the national level, should remain detached from all political and social issues. Though I had no part in the decision, the churchwide assembly of the church of which I am a member recently voted to declare that it is a sanctuary denomination that believes that reaching out to and walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith.

Had I been a delegate to the churchwide assembly, would I have voted for this resolution? Yes, I would have.

In short, there is a very real sense in which one’s religion is not what one does on Sunday morning but what one does the rest of the week.

And if one takes one’s beliefs seriously, be they religious or secular in nature, they must inform the decisions that one makes, including the decisions one makes in the voting booth.

If they do not, what a person claims is her or his faith is not really that person’s faith at all.

Daniel E. Lee is the Marian Taft Cannon Professor in the Humanities at Augustana; danlee@augustana.edu.


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