Is Christianity good or bad for American democracy? The answer depends on which Christianity and which democracy one has in mind.
There is a version of (mostly) white, Protestant Christianity, known as the Christian Right, that is providing a sacred canopy over a president who would have been considered grossly immoral in any other era. Christian Right leaders traded away Christianity’s integrity in exchange for the appointment of federal judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade, protect their “rights” to discriminate in business, empty public education coffers to fund private schools and establish a Christian nation. For the Christian Right, democracy is a disposable tool.
This version of Christianity is strong in Oklahoma.
But another version of Christianity is also present in Oklahoma, and I hope to strengthen it.
I’m talking about a kind of Christianity that understands itself to be one religion among others in a pluralistic society. This kind of Christianity understands that the U.S. does not exist to grow religions. Rather, a government-free space is made for religions in order that citizens can fulfill their responsibilities to the holy as they (and not the government) understand the holy. At the same time, however, religious persons and institutions may shape culture, society, democracy and even public policy. We can participate on the same terms that anyone else can participate, with the same rights and the same responsibilities.
This is a version of Christianity that is closely aligned with the requirements of a pluralistic democracy. In addition, this kind of Christianity often partners with like-minded persons in other faiths, as well as with persons who don’t consider themselves religious but who resonate with the following core values and practices:
Recognize and respect the dignity of every person — Every person is created in the image of God and should be treated as such. The framers decided there are rights the government cannot grant or remove but can only recognize and protect, rights that exist prior to and outside of governments. Democracy in the U.S. does not work without recognizing the dignity of every person and treating everyone, regardless of social status, with respect.
Exercise justice as a restorative practice — Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that justice is the societal expression of love. I would prefer that the U.S. viewed justice as did the classical prophets in the Hebrew Bible, judging the quality of justice by how “the least” are treated. However, a developed practice of justice as restoration and equal treatment under the law is a reasonable approximation of the prophetic tradition.
Be compassionate — Acting compassionately — to be present with those who suffer, to relieve suffering and to avoid inflicting pain — is the foundation of all morality, as Karen Armstrong (founder of the Charter for Compassion and the Compassionate Cities initiative, to which Tulsa is a signatory) has observed.
Exercise mutuality and reciprocity — Think Golden Rule and its variations in every major religious tradition: treat others as you want to be treated; avoid doing to others what you don’t want done to yourself.
Do good work — God is the creator, and human beings are makers. Making and sustaining a great society takes work. It takes work to build wealth sufficient for roads and bridges, to produce renewable energy, to repair the Earth, for education and the arts, for comfortable homes and refreshing leisure, for safety from natural and human-initiated harm, for defense against real enemies, for curing diseases and delighting in health, for caring for those who cannot care for themselves, for securing rights, for safeguarding liberties and for spiritual growth.
Religions would benefit, the quality of our democracy would benefit, Oklahoma would benefit and the nation would benefit from every religion — especially the majority religion in this state — functioning more often and more effectively to promote the dignity of every person, justice, compassion, mutuality and the blessings of good work.
Gary Peluso-Verdend, Ph.D., is president emeritus of Phillips Theological Seminary and is executive director of the school’s Center for Religion in Public Life.