A huge interfaith effort begins: 2-11-19
Commemorating arrival of the first slaves in 1619: 2-13-19

The role of religion in the public square: 2-12-19


The other day at the YMCA on East Linwood in Kansas City, a couple of dozen folks -- clergy and other religious leaders -- gathered for what was billed as a conversation on "Faith & Politics: Living Authentically in Private What We Proclaim in Public."

Kansas City mayoral candidate Steve Miller (left in the photo here) had invited people to the conversation, which included his long-time friend and former Rockhurst High School classmate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the vice-presidential running mate of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

The subject was way too broad for the barely-an-hour time we had. In fact, this topic could not be exhausted in a semester-long college class. Still, it allowed Miller to introduce himself to more people as a serious candidate for mayor and it allowed Kaine to say a few things that are worth repeating.

(As an aside: I take it as a measure of the health of Kansas City that we have a long list of people running for mayor and that most of them, in my view, would do very well in the job. I'm not sure how we've managed to stir up this much interest among highly qualified people, but perhaps it's a testimony to the generally good job that Mayor Sly James has done in his two terms.)

Kaine acknowledged that because of the several current scandals in Virginia involving the governor, the lieutenant governor and the state's attorney general, he had spent most of the last 24 hours on the phone trying to make sense of it all and find a way toward resolution. But even in this case, he said that “All the issues I grapple with, I really do grapple with from a faith perspective.”

Kaine's Catholic faith, he said, grounds him so that he tries to look at whatever public issue he's facing by asking first what his faith tradition guides him to do. Miller, also a Catholic, echoed that thought.

“Because I’m a person of faith," Kaine said, "I look at (things) a little bit differently. . .I don’t know how I would deal with (things) if I didn’t have a faith background.”

I asked Kaine what, if anything, politicians like him can do about the reality that rigid, fundamentalist, only-one-answer religion has literally been killing people around the world. Is there a role for local or national political leaders to address that difficult matter?

“Humans," he said, "can pervert any good thing to a bad end.” People can “pervert religion. That’s not religion’s fault, that’s humans’ fault. . .I think religion done right is a humility inducer. I’d be a lot cockier and arrogant if I didn’t have a faith life."

Kaine is exactly right about that. If religion finds its initial impulse -- as it often does -- in awe and wonder, it should lead followers of any tradition to be humble about what they think they know, especially about divine or eternal matters. To have all the answers before even hearing the questions is the great sickness that plagues some followers of religion today both in the U.S. and around the world.

Kaine added this: "Leaders and people who talk about their faith should model this, too. This (religion) should make us more vulnerable. . .more able to acknowledge that we learn from one another. So to bring religion into the public square, you’re not bringing it in to proselytize and tell people to be like me but to show people, ‘Hey, I have a yardstick and here’s what it is.’. . .We should be humble. God knows the right answer; we don’t.”

(I'm pretty sure that Kaine spoke that semi-colon into existence.)

In both politics and religion, one of the scarcest resources these days is humility. Thus, principled compromise is often seen as some kind if immoral capitulation to evil. It's that black-and-white thinking in a gray world that leads us to violent trouble.

I may or may not agree with Miller and Kaine on all matters of civics and politics, but I think they grasp the right role of religion in the public square. And that's important whether we're talking about local trash pickup or international terrorism.

(By the way, as coincidence would have it, my pastor, Paul Rock, preached about faith in the public square this past Sunday. Another excellent Rock sermon, which you can watch here.)

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After a Hindu temple in Louisville, Ky., was vandalized in what appears to be a religious hate crime, people of other faith traditions gathered there to fix the damage and support temple members. That's a good model. But while the evidence of vandalism can disappear, what about whatever causes someone to be infected with such odious hatred? That's what needs to be fixed.


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