“My religion is kindness.” – The Dalai Lama
“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” – Jesus (John 13:34)
The idea of politics being informed by religion is a thorny one in American society. We were established as a secular democratic republic where religion and politics are meant to be kept separate. It is the law that there shall be no established religion of the state, and all are free to practice their religion as they understand it, providing it does not transgress the laws of society. From the very beginning, however, and certainly continuing today, people’s religious convictions have been deeply intertwined with their political views and the establishment of law in this country.
To say something is one’s religion, if a person means this sincerely, is as strong a commitment as can be made to whatever that principle is. The nation’s founders were divided into essentially those of traditional Christian inclination, some toward Puritan judgmentalism, and those who tended toward being Deists, a non-doctrinal belief in God and the ethical teachings of Jesus (but not the deification of Jesus) coupled with what amounted to a religious conviction in democracy and rationalism producing a liberalism that was the basis for the legal and moral foundation of the country. The design of the country was mostly by the Deist faction of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Thomas Paine, and John and John Q. Adams, with the first President, Washington, also considered among this group. From this Deist/Rationalist/Democratic beginning there have always been those who held a religious-like fervor for establishing and protecting the freedom and right to dignity for all as the bedrock of this nation. And then there have been those who have been uncomfortable with the notion of “for all” and believed their religious freedom allowed them to discriminate against and exclude those they felt were offensive to their religious code. These two religious perspectives have been in ongoing tension throughout the history of this nation.
A fine and shaky line has had to be drawn between the separation of church and state, while still looking to religious ethics as a moral compass for the state. Abolitionism was deeply steeped in religious conviction leading to the ending of slavery. The civil rights movement led by Protestant minister Martin Luther King, Jr. was deeply informed by religious conviction and dedicated to fulfilling the promise of “liberty and justice for all.” Currently, The Rev. William Barber seeks to reawaken the legacy of Dr. King in bringing humanist and inclusive ethics informed in religious tradition back into the forefront of American politics. In this society’s evolution of increased inclusion for women, the working class, people of color, and non-traditional sexual identity persons, as well as the struggles for peace, economic fairness and environmental concern, progressive religious leaders and people have been in high profile along with humanist-secularists. That being said, it is then important to note that in opposition to these groups and causes, conservative religious people and leaders have often been central. The compass of religion seemingly can point in what appears to be diametrically opposite directions.
As the predominant religious tradition of America has been Christianity steeped in Old Testament Jewish origins, it would seem logical that Jesus’s teachings of tolerance, charity, non-judgmentalism, peace and material simplicity would be oft-cited guides by those who use their Christian religion as inspiration for their political positions. Unfortunately, this has not universally been the case. To the contrary, the intermingling of religion and politics in America has frequently had a history of religion being invoked to justify the cruelest of policies, as we recently saw when Attorney General Jeff Session attempted to give moral cover by quoting scripture to the deeply immoral, profoundly unkind Trump administration policy of separating children from their parents when crossing illegally into the United States. I am quite certain the Deist Founders would have been aghast.
Similar Biblical justifications have been given to slavery, to the genocide of Native Americans, to racism, to sexism, to homophobia, to classism and worker and environmental exploitation. For many, it is a conundrum on how to reconcile the religion that teaches, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40) with the Dickensian, Ayn Randian political/economic philosophies that so many of those who call themselves disciples of Jesus espouse and support.
Certainly, the issue of religious underpinning to attitudes of public policy is deeply complex, yet when an important religious leader from outside the Western tradition, the Dalai Lama, declares that his religion is kindness, I am struck by the inspiring simplicity and the implications of such a dedication in every sphere of life, and particularly in the sphere of politics. And while this great religious leader is outside the American and Western traditions, his simple faith seems exactly in line with the teachings of Jesus and with Christianity’s Judaic origins as well as the Deist philosophy with its rational application of the concepts of tolerance and “freedom and justice for all.” It would seem reasonable to assume that the intent of this nation’s founding was based with strong religious conviction on the recognition of the universal right to kindness with all its applications and implications. It certainly seems to be so in the preambles and contents of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, intending us toward “more perfect union.”
To apply the path of kindness with rational honesty, as do Buddhists, to all of life would seem to be an excellent guide to the resolution of this country’s and humanity’s problems. It would seem, in these times of conflict and great anxiety, a very good idea to commit with religious conviction to making this country one guided by the principle of kindness in every sphere – and to invite those who have interpreted their religion to justify cruelty to see this as a clear distortion of the religion of Jesus, for he too was an avatar of kindness, teaching love as really his first and only guide of conduct.
Imagine the society we could create based on aligning our political guideposts in the Constitution with a commitment, strengthened by religious conviction, to the kindness and love Jesus taught. And if it seems like an impossible aspiration, look to the instruction in the Talmud, the ethical guide of Judaism: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – (The Talmud, 303)
Let us put an end to this religious tribalistic bickering and forfeiture of humanity’s future to what is clearly shaping into dystopian ugliness. To those who declare we are a “Christian nation” in argument for prejudicial and oppressive policies based in their interpretation of Christian teachings, know that this nation’s founders were explicit in their denunciation of this notion. Let us end the misappropriation of religion by those who engage in warfare, usury, exploitation, bigotry and hatefulness while invoking religious sanctity by clarifying and simplifying our understanding of religious obligation as the Dalai Lama does, and as Jesus did, to kindness and love. This would seem much more in line with the Deism of the founders. All policy and its implementation would seem to naturally flow from such a religious conviction in the honest asking: What, in this situation, would be the kind thing to do, the just thing, the merciful thing, the humble thing? What would be the loving thing to do? And then with religious conviction seek to make it so. What a beautiful world we could create by applying true idealism religiously to our political endeavors.