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Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2005 / 4 Shevat, 5765

Michael Long

Mike Long
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Washington Will Never Understand Religious Faith | The Brookings Institution has invited me to a noon-time panel discussion on "Moral Values, Politics, and the Faith Factor." They didn't bother to mention if lunch will be served, thus lowering the probability that I will attend, but they did note with some disdain that President Bush "infuse[s] the political process with his personal set of values." Like that's unusual— who can forget all those Presidents who infused the political process with somebody else's values?

Anyway, the panelists are, by and large, inside-the-beltway types (save Dr. Richard Land, a Baptist preacher fairly well known out in the pews). They are going to discuss whether "common ground can be found on the role of religion in public life." Among the souls shedding light on why personal faith is so darned inaccessible to the politically inclined will be Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne; that shepherd of the truth John Podesta (late of the Clinton administration); Marian Wright Edelman, president of the famously tradition-friendly Children's Defense Fund; and Sojourner Magazine founder Jim Wallis, the "Christian leader for social change." Rounding out the group is Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, the former head of the $2.5-billion budget Catholic Charities.

Anyone who believes an informed conversation about practical Christian faith in America will take place, stand on your head.

When typical Americans talk about Washington being out of touch, this is exactly what they picture: professional intellectuals sitting around a "panel discussion," guessing what people they don't know, think.

The American left doesn't understand prosaic religious life because many of them know only a caricature of it, and consider it beneath them. They see themselves as sophisticated non-believers, or as enlightened Christians more concerned about food banks and race relations than what the majority of Christians call saving souls.

The American right doesn't have a lock on things, though. The right promotes a set of values that produce stable cultures and economic prosperity, and those values happen to be traditional Christian values. Religious people aren't magically married to the Republicans; they just go where their values are endorsed.

According to the invitation, Mr. Wallis will argue that "the political right has hijacked the language of faith for its political agenda." Yes, sirs, nothing like coming to a big, open-hearted meeting of the minds with open-hearted words like "hijacked" and "political agenda."

As long as Washington insiders see religion as something to be parsed out like an Oprah title at a book club meeting, they will never understand the central role that faith plays in so many lives.

Those of us in Washington intellectualize everything. But that sort of examination does not reward with an understanding of living faith, let alone religious faith itself. Faith is a whole, a single thing in itself; it is a spiritual understanding, and a divine confidence. It is subject to intellectual examination— that's how most of us acquire it— but not in pieces. You cannot forgo understanding the whole and successfully leverage its political cogs.

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Whatever success any policies and politicos find will depend to a great extent on the ability to understand-not merely connect with or hijack the language of- religious people. The way to do that is to tell the intellectuals to listen, not talk. Give the floor to the small-town pastors and their flocks, people with real jobs who live outside the cocktail party circuit, people who know where Wendy's is but couldn't find The Palm.

Some on the left talk about repackaging their ideas about social justice as religious values to attract Christians. But they are buying into the great misconception of the unchurched, that Christians have to rack up good deeds to get into heaven. Most Christians know— and most politicians apparently do not-that G-d asks first for faith, not works. These "mysterious" Christians live the way they do to enhance their relationship with Jesus.

More Americans attend church every week than watch the Super Bowl once a year— they're easier to find than free-range chickens at the Whole Foods market. The Christians that so puzzle politicians demonstrate their faith in how they treat their neighbors, where they let their thoughts go, how they raise their children, how they react to pain. They don't think about what to do, it just "infuses the process," to borrow Brookings' phrase.

If intellectuals would ask a child in Sunday school about religion, they would get more insight than they'll get from this upcoming meeting. But they won't ask. And they wouldn't like the answer, anyway. Too simple.

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JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2004, Michael Long