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Politics and Religion

02/08/08 7:55AM By Bill Mares
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(HOST) Commentator Bill Mares is a writer, and former legislator and teacher, who thinks that candidates currently running for public office might benefit by taking a refresher course on the relationship between church and state.

(MARES) With Republicans wearing their faith on their sleeves, and at least some Democrats scrambling to show their religious roots, and everyone on a crusade against militant Islam, I'd like to grab the intellectual red-hot poker and muse upon the appropriate balance between religion and politics.

During all my years as a public high school history teacher I emphatically did NOT teach religion. Just as emphatically I did teach ABOUT religion because students simply cannot understand history without grasping religion's profound role in human motivation. To spur debate I used a deliberately open-ended question: "How and why has religion been a force for great good and great evil?"

One of the best tools I found for examining this tension was a powerful Timeline film called "God Fights Back." This 1990 documentary compared the parallel rise of the Religious Right in the United States with that of fudamentalist Islam in Iran in the 1970's and 1980's. It offered a compelling dissection of how tumultuous cultural and political change caused toxic backlashes in the two nations as millions of people sought spiritual and political refuge in religious absolutes.

While millions of other people in this country, including my non-church going wife and children, don't participate in formal religion, they acknowledge that our ethics arise from the Judeo-Christian tradition. They want politicians of courage and a believable moral code, but without the White House prayer breakfasts, thank you. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., they judge politicians not by the words of their creed but by the content of their character.

For me, the man who best described the tug of war between the good and evil in us, as individuals and as political animals, was the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. As a Lutheran pastor in Detroit in the 20's he helped organize auto workers at Ford Motor Company. In the 1930's he preached against the Nazis when America wanted to forget about Europe. After World War Two, he gave intellectual and spiritual heft to a muscular anti-Communism, while simultaneously damning Senator Joseph McCarthy.

With brilliant aphorisms, Niebuhr captured the conflicting impulses in us all. "Original sin," he wrote, "is that thing about man which makes him capable of conceiving of his own perfection and incapable of achieving it." Niebuhr saw how America's ideals could be beacons to the world, and how America's self-righteousness could snuff out those same lights.

His words on extremism fifty years ago are still fresh today. "The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends," he said, "is the source of all religious fanaticism."

And finally, one of the quotes I left on the classroom wall throughout the year: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's capacity for Injustice makes democracy necessary."

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