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Gary Hart on Gods and Caesars

Former senator Gary Hart discusses his new book, in which he issues a challenge to the unholy alliance of faith and government.
 
 
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Former Colorado Senator Gary Hart has written a powerful commentary on religion and democracy, entitled " God And Caesar in America: An Essay on Religion and Politics." Hart speaks with the kind of reflective persuasion born of our Jeffersonian tradition, combining that with his own religious upbringing and pursuit of a divinity degree at Yale (where he also received a law degree).

Note: Read an excerpt from "God and Caesar" at Talk2Action.

Most Americans may not realize that you were raised as a Nazarene and you went to divinity school. What sort of impact did that background have on you, and what sort of denomination is the Nazarene denomination?

Well, when you become a kind of finalist for the presidency, virtually all aspects of one's background come out. But it was vastly different 20 years ago. Religious affiliation was just of minor interest to the press and public. Now that the religious right has occupied the Republican Party -- taken it over -- the whole issue of "faith" and "values" has moved to the forefront. In writing the essay, I simply highlighted my own background to qualify myself to speak on these issues. Given the fact that the religious right had pretty much dominated the conversation for the last five or ten years, I thought it was time for some of us to speak up. I'm gratified that President Carter and others have spoken, as well.

The Church of the Nazarene broke off about 100 years ago from the Methodists on doctrinal issues and issues of practice. The founders of the church felt that the Methodists might be becoming too liberal. The Church of the Nazarene founders emphasized being born again, but also, particularly in the Southern parts of the church, strict practices of no drinking, no smoking, no dancing, no jewelry or makeup on women, no attendance at movies, and things of that sort. In the college that my wife and I attended, and where we met in Oklahoma, those rules were pretty strongly enforced. I gather, since then, that some of those rules have taken a back seat and been less important in the church.

You have a section in " God and Caesar in America" called the "Awful Warmth of the Gospel of Jesus." Drawing on your background -- Bethany Nazarene College, Yale Divinity School, and the Church of the Nazarene -- you seem extremely comfortable talking about Jesus. But you're very uncomfortable with how Jesus has become a political football. You comment that we've gotten to the point that there are arguments over what political party He might belong to if He were around today. Can you embellish that a little bit more?

I made that comment with my tongue in my cheek. I'm not "uncomfortable" with the way Jesus is being tossed around -- I'm angry about it. I'd go well beyond discomfort. I think the religious right is making Jesus into some kind of Old Testament wrathful prophet who is judgmental, divisive, and opposed to any notion of liberalism, whereas the teachings of Jesus tell quite a different story. He was tolerant. He was forgiving. He preached love, not hate. In many ways, the literal reading of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, particularly not filtered through the later apostles in the New Testament, but the literal teachings of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels, are almost totally at odds with the teachings of the present-day religious right.

You cite Micah 6:8: "What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." What do we have to learn from that?

It's an oft-quoted phrase. And it was one of the more tolerant prophetic visions of the prophets. The Old Testament prophets preached wrath, and judgment on the Jewish people when they transgressed, or followed false idols, or adopted other religions; they preached that God would bring wrath down upon them. And quite often it happened. But Micah, in a way, was a forerunner of Jesus in the sense that he was trying to answer the question: What does God really want from us? Micah said that He wanted us to observe justice. By that, I think he meant not just legal justice, but social justice -- to do justice was the way he put it actually.

To love mercy -- again,very much a Jesus and Christian message, and not one of the religious right. And to walk humbly with our God. Again, this is a simple reduction of what the religious life is supposed to be about. It is so diametrically opposed to the preachings and teachings of the religious right today. For them, justice is legal, and they are pro-death penalty, for example. That's their definition of justice. That's not what Micah meant. They don't show mercy. They are divisive. You either support the President or you're going to hell. And they don't talk about humility -- a theme that carries throughout Jesus' teachings also. They are not humble people. They're proud and arrogant people. So I put Micah in there as a kind of a standard for how we are to behave, and to draw the distinction between the simple but profound message that Micah taught, and what we are hearing from the so-called religious figures today.

America is composed of many different faiths. Even within Christianity, there are many different denominations and viewpoints. Sometimes we lose sight of that, because the far right -- the Pat Robertson right and the Jerry Falwell right -- tend to assert themselves as though they're speaking for all of Christianity. They're really speaking for a small segment of Christianity.

No question. It's not that they tend to -- it's that they assume to. It's an assumption that they are the spokespersons for all Christianity, and that's underwritten in everything they say. There's a man who appears on TV from the Southern Baptist Convention -- when you listen to him talk, he positions himself as a spokesperson for all Christianity. This is not true, and I think it's particularly dangerous for people who are not Christians and who do not quite understand the complexity of, first of all, the Reformation and the split between Protestantism and Catholicism, and then the multiplicity of Protestant denominations. There are lots of variations, by the way, in Catholicism, as well. But among the Protestants, each tends to design his own church. And clearly the people on the right had no authority to speak for other Christians.

On the other hand, part of the blame rests with the so-called mainstream Christian churches that haven't done a very good job of communicating a different message to the public at large. If you asked a hundred Americans what the Methodist position on the war was, they'd probably guess it was in support.

In "God and Caesar in America" there is a section called "The Tyranny of the Faithful: The Dangers of Theocracy." Perhaps you can take us back in history a bit. We've certainly covered on BuzzFlash the issue of separation of church and state. Our Constitution was in some way the fruit of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason, when people accepted God and the divine, but said religion was something that should exist separate from the state, because the states in Europe were theocracies. In essence, much of early America was a rebellion against theocratic states and monarchies.

No question. The Founders had in mind, if not from direct experience, certainly the vivid recollection of the history of the intertwining of the church and the state in their ancestral homes in Europe. That kind of theocracy resulted in all kinds of disasters involving the picking of kings, and kings inaugurating popes, and the repression of enlightened thought. That's why they felt so strongly about all this. And all I warn about here, and I think others have as well, is that you don't have to slip very far back into that before it begins to happen.

I have a couple of passages where I say, here's what a theocracy is like, and then say, if we're not there already, we're very close. The vaguely defined "White House" -- probably Karl Rove -- calls James Dobson, or makes a conference call to a select group of religious figures to seek approval of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, or policy issues. To submit any judge -- for their approval -- that's virtually a theocracy right there -- very dangerous.

You provide some extremely enlightening analysis of the issue of separation of church and state. You make the point that some of the Founders feared that, if a religion became too identified with the state, the religion itself would ultimately become impure and tainted by the political process. It wasn't just a question of the state becoming a theocracy, but of the religion itself starting to become corrupted by the machinations of politics.

It works both ways. The separation was not just to protect the state from the church, but to protect the church from the state. The people who are trying to insert themselves into positions of authority in government, through the Republican Party, ought to be awfully careful, because the same state that takes them in is a state that can turn around and, if it chooses to, by using the same authority, begin seriously to condition their behavior. People with a bit in their teeth, and the arrogance of power, don't think that way, but they ought to.

You are an attorney who went from Yale Divinity to Yale Law. Our legal system is based on equal protection for people of divergent backgrounds, divergent beliefs, from divergent income statuses -- it protects them, and it's supposed to level the playing field -- all people are equal in a courtroom and before the court of law under our Constitution. If the Supreme Court starts to view cases through a theological lens, what happens then?

Well, all the bad things one can imagine.

For instance, suppose the Supreme Court looks at the abortion issue. Judges Alito and Scalia have at least intimated that it is against their religious viewpoint. If judges begin to assess constitutional issues through a religious filter, what happens to our legal underpinnings?

It's very murky, and very, very tough. We're living in a time where holding office requires you to have, as I say in the essay, "faith" and "values," often undefined. Then you come up with judicial nominees who do have "faith" and "values," but they say, faced with confirmation for the highest court, I will set those aside when I make decisions. It almost stands the whole process on its head. The religious right believes that, by getting George elected, and a majority of Congress, and having a veto power over judges, it is achieving exactly their objective of putting judges on the courts, including the highest court, who will impose their faith and values on the system.

It makes an objective observer very suspicious when the leaders of the world say, I will set my "faith" and "values" aside. They're being nominated because of their "faith" and "values." Republicans get upset when Democrats are suspicious, but there's good reason for suspicion, since the whole point is to get people on the court who will insert their faith and values into the judicial process.

Your concluding section, entitled "God and Caesar," alludes to the well-known advice, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and render unto God that which is God's." This sums up the dilemma in a nutshell. What is God's, and what belongs to the realm of politics?

There's no simple conclusion. There is not a night-and-day distinction. Almost all of us have faith in something, and we certainly have values. I talk about that old phrase that used to be used -- "the moral majority" -- well, I think, with rare exception, almost everybody in America and the world is moral, or has a moral compass. Obviously some don't always follow that compass, but that's what the judicial process is all about.

My essay is not an argument about taking "values" -- I prefer to call them "principles" -- out of public life, or even causing people of faith or religion to not participate in public life. I think they should. This is not the argument. It's a question of when one wing of one religion dominates one party, and then seeks to impose its values on the rest of America, that we've gone too far. And I would simply say that we've got to get back to the kind of moderate consensus which prevailed up until, let's say, the age of Reagan, and the period in which the religious right began to assert itself through the Republican Party, where people were tolerant. I keep coming back to those values of Jesus -- tolerance, forgiveness, mercy, a sense of social justice and equality. Otherwise, a mass democracy of 300 million people simply will not work.

The divisiveness was introduced by the religious right, and a new set of Republicans in the eighties and nineties, and it has polarized this country. I will make that assertion. I don't think it was liberals that polarized this country. Liberal Democrats got along well with moderate Republicans. I was there in the seventies in the Senate. You could compromise. You could reach agreement. It is when a different kind of Republican began to be elected that the divisiveness set in.

As I point out in the essay, the reason you can't mix religion and politics is, religion is about absolutes, right and wrong, good and evil. Politics is about compromise. If you cannot compromise on issues that are not central to a person's faith -- and that's about 99% of the issues our country faces -- then the country doesn't work. The government doesn't work. That's why we've had government grinding to a halt in recent years. People are frustrated by it.

I'd like to quote from page 84 of your essay: "The time will come, and it will come sooner rather than later, when the ponderous pendulum of American public opinion begins its return to its inevitable moderate center. Politicians hiding behind the robes of ministers, policy makers courting a vociferous religious element, adventurers cloaking foreign military ventures in the crusader's rhetoric, political manipulators cynically using public fears to turn out voters all will be swept back into our nation's nooks and crannies from when they emerged. This must happen, because American cannot be governed otherwise." So the $64 million-dollar question is: When will that happen?

It is happening. It is happening, and what was required, obviously, was that their myth be penetrated. The myth is being penetrated by exposing the corruption in Congress in the majority party. The people who were preaching "faith" and "values" the most cynically were on the take. And I think we've just scratched the tip of the iceberg there. The neo-conservatives who use the religious right to justify a kind of crusader war in the Middle East have proved to be misleading at best, and deceptive at worst. Also, the chickens are coming home to roost.

I often refer to Jefferson's great quote. He used to be questioned about all the things that could go wrong in this new experiment. He said, when the chips are down, the success of the republic depends on the common sense and good judgment of the American people. We all know that, throughout American history, common sense and good judgment often have been swept aside by demagogues and radical movements of one kind or another. But ultimately, always, the salvation of the republic is the returning of the common sense and good judgment of the American people. I think that's what we're witnessing now.

Mark Karlin is the editor of BuzzFlash.com.