Reading the newspaper one day late as I normally do, only this morning did I run across Michael Gerson’s op-ed in the Sunday paper commenting on the prominence of religious appeals in the recent public debate over the national debt crisis, and I thought the piece well-worth a brief blog entry. In this piece, he contrasts two action groups in particular that lay claim to Christian moral principles in advocating two diametrically opposed responses to the unsustainable fiscal situation our government now faces.

On the one hand, there is a group of high profile Christian figures called Circle of Protection, which calls for the redirection of funding cuts from programs that aid those most in need. On the other hand, the group calling itself Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) focuses on financial stewardship and economic responsibility as the more fundamental conditions for the possibility of meeting the needs of the poor.

Both groups adopt theological language and ground their appeals in claims of faith; yet both also seem to represent mere religious transpositions of party platforms. All too predictably, this kind of correspondence leads more and more people to reject outright any religious arguments in the public square.  As Gerson puts it,

This use of religion in politics is a source of cynicism. It should raise alarms when the views of the Almighty conveniently match our most urgent political needs. A faith that conforms exactly to the contours of a political ideology has lost its independence. Churches become clubs of the politically like-minded. Political dialogue suffers, since opponents are viewed as heretics. And when religion becomes too closely identified with a detailed political platform, both are quickly outdated. Despite William Jennings Bryan’s best efforts, who now recalls God’s view of bimetallism?

It was encouraging to find a major political commentator expressing this sentiment, which I feel many of us (most?) who participate in this blog share. Gerson goes on to give a brief account outlining the proper boundaries of religious arguments in the public arena:

Yet religion is not a purely private matter. There is a reason that, two millennia after his execution as a rebel in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, people still ask, “What would Jesus do?” Despite his indifference to Roman politics, his teachings on compassion and human dignity have had dramatic public consequences. While a Christian position on monetary policy is a stretch, Christian opposition to slavery or segregation is a matter of consistency. Faith does not dictate specific policies, which are properly determined by the prudent assessment of likely outcomes. But religion helps define the priorities of politics, which include solidarity with the disadvantaged.

While I wish he wouldn’t have called faith-based moral judgments on monetary policy a “stretch” (how about “relatively more indeterminate” instead?), he asserts here the crucially important point that religious ethical claims in political contexts need to be properly differentiated. Word care and the circumscription of communal boundaries are paramount in this era where a sitting congressman can publicly declare divine intervention for his actions and a sitting governor (and potential presidential candidate) can organize a prayer rally in a football stadium.

Religion and politics cannot and should not be completely compartmentalized, but nevertheless Christians have from the very beginning been very careful (and for good reason) about what they disclose to the “world” and how they disclose it. My family and I attend a Byzantine church where part of the ancient liturgy of John Chrysostom has the deacon yell out just prior to the profession of the Creed “”the doors, the doors, in wisdom let us be attentive,” which hearkens back to the days when the Christian worshipers would literally close the church doors to the wider public. I feel the line could apply equally well to the present challenges of Christian participation in the political arena: we need to know the proper limits of where and how our faith should impel us to enter into the fray and for what end– “the doors, the doors, in wisdom let us be attentive.”

To this end, Gerson himself (of whose religious background and identity I know nothing) suggests a very reasonable line of attack:

The arguments of the Circle and CASE both have merit. But the Circle’s approach is more urgent. Public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt. A political argument giving equal weight to cuts in poverty programs and reductions in entitlement spending is uninformed about the nature of the budget crisis, which is largely a health-entitlement crisis. A simplistic philosophy of “shared sacrifice,” focused mainly on cuts in discretionary spending, requires disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable. If religious people do not make this case, it is difficult to determine what distinctive message they offer.

I heartily agree with Mr. Gerson, and just as heartily recommend his brief op-ed. This is precisely the direction which I feel Christians can and should take in their forays into the public square.