The Impact of Cafeteria Religion on Political Engagement

America’s religious diversity is important not solely, or even primarily, because of demography, but because of ideas. The politically significant change in America’s religious landscape is not that we are growing more religiously diverse as a people, but more specifically that our religious public square—the parameters and content of our public religious conversations—is more diverse than ever. Today, it seems, everything is spiritual, yet little is sacred. There is little that is unworthy of an opinion, yet even fewer issues are deemed deserving of moral conviction.

It is this diversity of religious understanding that serves as one of many important lenses through which we can view the recent report, Faith in Equality: Economic Justice and the Future of Religious Progressives, written by EJ Dionne, Bill Galston, Korin Davis and Ross Tilchin. This report looks at the potential for a vibrant, impactful religious coalition organized around the political issue of addressing economic inequality. The intellectual and scriptural framework for a progressive religious movement on income inequality has existed for literally millennia. From the prophets of the Old Testament to Pope Francis, the religious mandate to care for the poor and vulnerable has been clear. The report’s introduction takes care to establish how this framework has shaped American politics:

In the late 19th Century, young men and women witnessing on behalf of the Gospel’s call for service to the poor entered the nation’s slums and began work in Settlement Houses. Many of them sparked the rise of the Progressive movement. “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord,” Theodore Roosevelt declared at the 1912 Progressive Party convention. The Lord was presumed to be a Progressive.

Yet, today, for all of the talk about cafeteria religion—the troubling notion of “picking and choosing” what one wants to believe and follow from religious traditions while ignoring the rest—our politics is also afflicted with a cafeteria approach to religious political engagement.

Of course, for political parties this can be a practical matter. The truth is that there is no single religious constituency in this country. Instead, politicians can pick and choose from the plethora of issues important to people of faith and  ignore the others, if they are allowed to do so.

This strategy worked well for the Republican Party at the end of the last century. By latching onto social issues like LGBT rights and abortion, and unabashedly reaching out to faith voters on those issues, religious political activism came to be defined by those issues in mainstream media and by many Americans. But in the 21st-century, two points of tension have emerged: First, how will the Republicans respond when the views and priorities of an essential part of their base seem to be hindering their broader electoral success? Second, how will people of faith in the Republican Party respond when the GOP works against their values and interest on issues of concern?

These two tension points help to make sense of so much of the Republican Party’s internal conflict over the last decade—from the Party’s divided approach to immigration reform, to Mitch Daniels’ infamous call for a “truce on social issues,” to Bush’s compassionate conservatism.

These tensions are also increasingly relevant to the Democratic Party. After decades of playing defense when it comes to faith and politics, Democrats have begun to coalesce around a set of issues important to the faith community. Organizations like Faith in Public Life, NETWORK, Sojourners, PICO and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (all of whom the authors consulted for the Faith in Equality report), provide external communications and political support to core Democratic issues, including economic fairness and addressing inequality.

But while issues like immigration reform and economic inequality allow Democrats to make a strong case to faith voters, progressive faith voters and organizations as well as the Democratic Party must learn from the lessons of Religious Right.

A faith movement that removes all sources of disagreement with either political party is good for neither the political party nor the movement itself. A faith movement that finds itself in complete alignment with a political party will be taken as imposters by people of faith, and taken for granted by politicians. When faith loses its political independence, it loses its power.

This is not to suggest religious leaders, and certainly not religious people, should never support and invest in political parties and their candidates. Quite the contrary! Faithful religious people have an obligation to be full participants in the political process. Yet they must also be careful not to exchange their religious values for political ideology. They must always be at tension with the politicians they support and the political party of which they consider themselves a member, because this is part of what it means to be religious: to be at tension with this world that is not completely as God created it to be.

This type of religious political engagement is also healthy for political parties and politicians. It forces them to consider views outside of political dogma and compels them to ensure their policy priorities and approaches are meeting not just a political test, but a moral one.

It is in this light that I have been heartened by Congressman Paul Ryan’s recent travels to meet with and understand the urban poor. For a skeptical media, Ryan’s efforts have largely been painted as a cynical ploy. And it may well be. The approach to the federal budget that Ryan has championed is deeply flawed when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable, as Nuns on the Bus testified, and as I certainly made clear when I led faith outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign.

But it may also be a testament to the power of faith to overwhelm everything else that might distract us or draw our attention; the power of faith to transform and direct our hearts and minds. Those who care about poverty, particularly those in the religious community, should always encourage those in power who seek to learn about and address it, while holding them accountable to follow-through.

In our cafeteria age, the opportunity for a religious political engagement that is defined by preference over conviction is always evident. However, self-interest and personal preference makes for awful politics and incoherent faith. A religious movement that takes its lead from the politics of the moment sacrifices the unique power it holds.

A religious coalition committed to economic justice, grounded in faithfulness, can help both parties transcend the politics of the moment and focus our attention on this shared cause of economic justice for the good of all.