What Americans Can Learn From the British About Setting a Religious Vision For Change

(RNS) Nearly three months before the U.K.’s general election, the bishops of the Church of England are trying to frame the vision and values that should guide their country.


Recently, those bishops published a nearly 52-page letter that received a public response by the Labour Party’s policy review coordinator, Jon Cruddas. The fact that Cruddas, a member of Parliament, was inclined to respond says something about the role of the Church of England and also very significantly about the evolution of the Labour Party. Their public exchange reveals a glimpse into what role religion can play in politics; not simply because it is the established Church of England, but because religious frameworks are how many people make meaning of their lives.

Meanwhile, many contemporary American progressives seem to believe that the work of social progress and change stands outside of religious frameworks.

Indeed, the progressive movement is often viewed and acts as if it is hostile to religion, faith, theology and even spirituality.

Given the historic role religion has played in birthing progressive movements in America, this is a tragedy. Since clergy at Philadelphia’s Christ Church rewrote the Sunday prayers to lay the foundation for the public reading of the Declaration of Independence, religion has been essential to movements for justice. Today, the U.S. continues to be the most religious country in the developed world. It’s hard to imagine how progressives think they will be able to make sense to people, and lead our country, from this position.

While there are important efforts happening among progressives to organize religious communities within the movement, far too often these efforts fail to understand the full extent and potential these religious communities can bring.

At worst, a rabbi might say, “Because of tikkun olam (the Jewish imperative to “repair the world”) I support the Affordable Care Act.” Or a minister might say, “Because Jesus walked with the poor, I believe we should raise the minimum wage.” These are instances when we proof-text Judaism or Christianity to justify previously agreed-upon political positions.

But this is an underwhelming form of religious leadership. In the British example it isn’t the Labour Party laying out a platform and having the bishops respond. It is the bishops laying out a vision for society and then allowing voters and politicians to decide how they want to relate to that vision.

So, what can we learn from our cousins across the pond?

It is not time to call on our religious leaders to validate political positions that have already been hashed out through party politics. It is certainly not the time to diminish or belittle religion or treat it like a thing of the past. Rather, it’s time for our religious leaders to step forward and set a vision, agenda and values; to hope that we, our politicians and our political parties can find our way to help America live up to its promise.

Today, there are organizations in our country trying to do just that. Groups like the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation and PICO National Network forge politics that are not simply about positioning in favor of one candidate or another. Instead, they ask congregants to imagine something more spiritually and faithfully grounded about the country we live in. They don’t seek to water down each tradition and turn it into one bland voice. Rather, they seek to find what’s unique and distinctive about each and weave that together into a values-based commitment to the common good.

In my own religious community, there are leaders like Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who writes about Judaism as a way human beings survive the dissonance between the world as it is and the world as it should be. There is also Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles’ Ikar congregation, who believes that our faith traditions teach us about the kind of world we want to create.

This view of faith as central to political and social change is one that has had a profound impact on me personally. Each year at Passover the Jewish community celebrates freedom. Forty-nine days later at Shavuot, we celebrate covenant or obligation.

It isn’t that Judaism teaches us to support equal marriage or oppose universal pre-K for our children, but rather that it teaches us of the need to reconcile our individual freedoms and our collective obligations. That is a religious and spiritual construct in which we can think about how we treat all our own children’s educational needs, as well as how we secure liberty and sanctity.

For many Americans, ideas like freedom and obligation are frameworks that make sense. Politics outside these types of frameworks may well seem outside of what makes sense to many Americans.

It is naive for any political movement, including the progressive movement, to try to make political change outside of these religious frameworks. Such action fails to read our history and the workings of our contemporaries around the world.

Thank you, bishops of the Church of England and Parliament member Cruddas, for having the courage to advance and engage a religious framework, for making sense of the challenges we face and proclaiming a faithful vision for their country.

There is a lesson there for all of us.

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