Not long ago religious leaders such as Reinhold Niebuhr or
Martin Luther King Jr. knew how to engage politically without
becoming partisan priests. When they spoke, they spoke as prophets,
above the political fray. Niebuhr denounced the smug isolationists
of the 1930s who wanted no part in a war against Hitler's Germany.
King, of course, took on the deeply-rooted racism that darkened
both political parties.
But today much of the religious right marches in lock step with the Republican Party, while the religious left functions like an echo chamber for the Democrats.
Christian conservatives join Republicans to mobilize against gay marriage, but don't muster great interest in families at risk in the inner city. They seem to like the Bush administration's economic policies, but offer little criticism of corporate scandals or the Bush record on affordable health care. Before the election, Pat Robertson even claimed that God told him Bush would win handily. "It doesn't make any difference what he does, good or bad," Robertson said. "God picks him up because he's a man of prayer."
The religious left is just as smitten with the Democratic Party. Rev. Jim Wallis, who leads a coalition of churches devoted to social justice, usually sounds more like an operative for the Democratic National Committee. No matter what the social problem, their answer is always more government spending. But what about the decline in personal responsibility, the breakdown of the family, or a media culture that denigrates religious values? Democratic leaders almost never raise these questions, and neither do their faith-based supporters.
A few religious authorities can still challenge their political allies. For example, the Catholic Church angers Democrats and Republicans with its opposition both to abortion and the death penalty. But for the most part, church leaders offer us selective moral indignation: They don't like to leave the comfort zone of their favorite party platforms.
Consider some of our foreign policy debates. Religious conservatives strongly support Israel, but mostly ignore the plight of ordinary Palestinians. Religious liberals condemn the policies of Israel and the U.S. prison abuses at Abu Ghraib. But they remain absolutely mute about the human rights records of China, Syria, North Korea and other brutal regimes. Thus the bizarre judgment of Bob Edgar, secretary general of the National Council of Churches: "The United States," he says, "needs to…rebuild its relationship not only with the Arab world but with the rest of humanity."
That doesn't sound like the plaintive cry of a Jeremiah.
Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel once described a prophet as a person whose "life and soul are at stake in what he says," who can perceive "the silent sigh" of human anguish. Many of today's religious leaders don't discern that "silent sigh" because they can't seem to escape the din of political rhetoric. They camouflage their partisanship with piety and, like the Biblical character Esau, sell their birthright for a bowl of soup.
Joseph Loconte is a research fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation and editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm."
Aired on NPR's "All Things Considered"