Prophets and politicos in the public square

In the summer of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson sent his right-hand man to visit Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

It was a high-stakes trip, because Hamer and her flock were challenging the state's all-white slate of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Johnson feared an ugly floor fight and hoped that Hubert Humphrey could convince Hamer to back down.

The future vice president opened the negotiations by asking what she wanted.

"The beginning of a New Kingdom, right here on earth," replied Hamer.

Anyone looking for the line between political rhetoric and Christian prophecy can find it right there, argues Yale Law professor Stephen Carter, in "God's Name in Vain," his latest book on modern tensions between church and state.

The stunned Humphrey pleaded with Hamer. Couldn't she see that her stance would hurt the Democrats? "Fannie Lou Hamer, who had survived beating and torture in a Mississippi jail for insisting on her constitutional rights, was unimpressed," noted Carter. "Hamer sought justice. Humphrey sought political victory (with justice as a possible, but not certain, side effect)." Hamer concluded: "I'm gonna pray to Jesus for you."

American politicians always get nervous when passionate religious voices start preaching in the public square, noted Carter, in a recent the Ethics and Public Policy Center forum called "Does God Belong on the Stump?" But there's no reason for religious people to be singled out for condemnation by the powers that be in media, academia and politics, said Carter.

Some folks get especially nervous when mainstream political candidates start spouting "God talk" during national campaigns. This time around, the designated preachers are Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. Joseph Lieberman. This controversy flares up, like clockwork, every four years. And, every four years, the experts are shocked -- shocked -- to discover that faith plays a major role in American life and, thus, in politics.

But if politicians are going to talk about their faith, it's crucial for someone to push them to probe deeper, past sound bites about compassion, values and spirituality.

"I think the candidate who is going to talk about his own faith owes us more than just saying, 'Isn't it neat that I'm a religious guy?' That candidate owes us at least some discussion of how that religiosity affects his decision-making, his reasoning, his thinking about public issues. It is only in that way that we can judge its relevancy," said Carter.

This is crucial, because if religious faith is real, "if it has bite," then that tradition will affect how a person lives his or her life, he said. A faith that does not affect actions and decisions is meaningless. This means there will be times, unless a politician "is a member of a extraordinarily convenient religion," when tensions exist between his beliefs and the policies he must accept or advocate.

Yet candid discussions of these tensions are politically risky -- entering the minefield between politics and prophecy.

The British writer C.S. Lewis once noted that it would be unwise to attempt to form a "Christian political party," noted Carter. If it were truly Christian, it would preach the whole package of the Christian faith and, thus, would be too demanding to succeed at the ballot box. But if it were truly a political party, added Lewis, it would be driven to make the kinds of compromises that were necessary to win elections. Thus, it would not be truly Christian.

It's spiritually dangerous for prophets to try to function as politicians. Carter noted that the lofty and idealistic vision of the Civil Rights Movement faded when the black church all but married the Democratic Party. Today, it's clear that the Religious Right has watered down its prophetic moral messages in an attempt to please the Republican hierarchy.

"The world of politics tends to be the world of the short run, the compromise that lets you win in the here and now," said Carter, after the forum. "Prophets rarely win in the short run. But, thank God, prophets are rarely the kind of people who focus on the short run. They tend to care about the long run -- eternity."