The Republican Party's national platform is a not simply a political document, though for sure it is that. It also is very much a theological document.
Consider this: The word "religious" appears in it 50 times; "religion" six times; "faith" 26 times, though not always meaning religious faith; the word Christian 8 times; "Islam" or "Islamic" seven times, each time connected to terrorism and never once referring to, say, American Muslims; the word "Bible" appears three times, while the word "Qur'an" never appears; the word "Jewish" appears once and the term "Judeo," connected to "Christian" appears once; "God" appears 15 times, and "prayer" once.
Now, of course, merely counting the number of times certain faith-based words appear doesn't tell you much, though it does reveal that this document seems to have a fairly deep interest in matters of religion.
But let's look at some of the details of the GOP document (I later plan to read the Democratic Party's 2016 platform to see if there's anything to say about its theological nature, if any, but I haven't had the time to get that done yet) and see what those details tell us about the party's approach to matters of faith.
Perhaps a tone-setter is found in the first words of the Preamble: "We believe in American exceptionalism." Over the years, those words have had several meanings, including concepts that nearly all Americans can support, such as the notion that the United States has as one of its tasks the advocacy of foundational human rights and freedom here and elsewhere.
But, beyond that, American exceptionalism has acquired a more faith-based meaning having to do with the idea that God somehow has ordained or anointed the U.S. to be special among nations -- indeed, superior to others -- and to spread word of that divinely mandated superiority around the globe in various ways.
Whoever wrote that first sentence in the platform's preamble had to know that the words would be seen by at least some people as making a theological statement about America's unique position in the world. As individuals, many Americans feel called to defend, protect and advocate for religious freedom, and I'm glad about that. What I find more troubling is when politicians seek to claim that our government is of divine origin.
The GOP platform seems almost unable to speak of such matters as America's natural resources and other attributes without declaring them to be "God-given." Several times, for instance, we read of Americans' "God-given, natural, inalienable rights" and in a section on the Second Amendment's protection of the right to bear arms, there's a reference to the "God-given right of self-defense." Some of this is language in harmony with some of our founding documents, which in many ways also can be read as theological statements.
The platform properly acknowledges that evil exists: "We seek friendship with all peoples and all nations, but we recognize and are prepared to deal with evil in the world." What you won't find, however, is any acknowledgement that even Americans -- including America's elected leaders -- are quite capable for evil. So it's easy to come away from the platform with an us-them sense of the globe -- "us" being the good guys and "them" being what George W. Bush regularly called the "evil-doers." That's a binary system that leads to a distorted view of the world, one that makes us seem arrogant to much of the world and, in fact, makes us a target.
In a time when roughly 25 percent of American adults declare themselves to be religiously unaffiliated, and when religious diversity has never been greater in the U.S., it seems somehow odd to read sentences like these in the GOP platform: "Every time we sing, 'God Bless America,' we are asking for help. We ask for divine help that our country can fulfill its promise. We earn that help by recommitting ourselves to the ideas and ideals that are the true greatness of America."
Several strange things going on there: One, we really don't know which "God" is being referenced. Perhaps it's the bland, non-particular God of what's called "civil religion," a harmless, warm being who hangs around with Uncle Sam. Two, it looks for all the world as though what theologians call "works righteousness" is at play here, which means that God doesn't give you grace -- free unmerited favor -- but, rather, you get only what you earn by your own efforts. Thus, in the platform, we "earn" "divine help" by our commitment to "the ideas and ideals that are the true greatness of America," whatever those might be.
Also: Getting back to the growing religious pluralism of the nation, this kind of wording reflects thinking that seems unaware of that diversity: "We value the right of America’s churches, pastors, and religious leaders to preach and speak freely according to their faith. Republicans believe the federal government, specifically the IRS, is constitutionally prohibited from policing or censoring the speech of America’s churches, pastors, and religious leaders." Perhaps the authors of such sentences don't realize that the U.S. now also contains many synagogues, mosques and gurdwaras and other houses of worship, not just "churches."
Well, there's much more, but let me mention just one or two other things. The platform says this: "We support the public display of the Ten Commandments as a reflection of our history and our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage and further affirm the rights of religious students to engage in voluntary prayer at public school events and to have equal access to school facilities."
Over and over our courts have ruled that it's unconstitutional to have a display of the Ten Commandments on public property, such as courthouse lawns, if the display doesn't include much broader elements that speak to the ethical underpinnings of our government. The platform's wording is vague enough here that perhaps it's referring to, say, a church or synagogue putting up a display of the Ten Commandments on its lawn that the public regularly passes by. But I suspect that, instead, it means advocating specifically Christian and/or Jewish symbols on or in government buildings.
As a Christian, my view is that putting up a display of specifically Christian symbols on courthouse lawns or similar public property cheapens those symbols and gives control of them to the government. I say let the government worry about such symbols as the flag and the eagle and let the church worry about how and where to display Nativity Scenes, Ten Commandments and other such items infused with religious meanings. I don't want a Nativity Scene to be seen as somehow morally equivalent to Santa's reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. (And if Christians want to display words from the Bible, why do so many of them seem to prefer the Ten Commandments to, say, the Beatitudes?)
Oh, and you could not imagine the Republican platform this year without the words "radical Islamic terrorism." Those words certainly are there. Worded in that way, however, the presumption is that somehow terrorism finds its source in traditional Islam. That's not true. Which is why I use the term "radical Islamist terrorism." The radicals have turned Islam from a religion into an "ism." They have distorted the faith and justified their unjust, deadly and reprehensible actions on a wild misreading of Islam and its teachings and traditions. Islamism is not Islam but, rather, a gross distortion of it.
I hope you'll give the GOP platform a read -- and the Democratic platform -- and see if they somehow speak to your values. As you do, I hope you will read them with your theological lenses on. In fact, the whole world will make a lot more sense if you think theologically as you watch what happens before your wondering eyes.
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WORSHIPING GOD ON HIGH?
An Alabama county jail guard has been charged with trying to smuggle drugs into the facility by hiding them in a Bible. In which book? Judges?