When we talk about mixing religion and politics, my first reaction is that it tends to be volatile because we Christians are so bad at it.
There is the camp that among Christians that believes that we are here to conquer the world, even if it has to be a hostile takeover;
There are those who believe that Christianity is wholly personal and that aside from the most perfunctory exercises of citizenship, we should pray and spread the Gospel far and wide;
There are those of us who believe that the primary purpose of the Gospel is to provide us with a moral platform for a prophetic ministry emphasizing social justice
And there are those of us who believe that Christianity is to affirm American tenants of capitalism and meritocracy - signs that the blessings of God rests upon the hard work and rugged individualism and is evidenced by the success we experience in its pursuit.
There is a brand of politics which fits all four (and there are subsets of each one of these. It's also true that expressions of the Christian faith find different categories across the planet).
And in each one of these categories there are those of us who have been intolerant, self righteous, obnoxious and over zealous (myself included).
But politics (like religion), is not simply about our individual ideological (or theological) stances. They ultimately are about our life together. My friend and mentor, Ernie Cortez, is fond of quoting Aristotle and saying 'We are political beings.' True politics, he goes on to teach is the art of debate, argument, negotiation and compromise. The latter two, don't always lend themselves to the sphere of religion. We find negotiation and compromise signs of weakness and unfaithfulness. But in community, with people who don't believe as we do; in the marketplace of ideas and in a democratic republic, negotiation and compromise, rather than Divine Revelation is how we must get things done. We argue and debate in an effort to persuade vs. diminish or browbeat, which some believers tend to resort when engaged in the public sphere.
And then there is the 'God has led me to...' take your pick: support a particular political party; advocate for a particular policy or even run for political office. When those who don't share a Christian faith commitment read that, the logic runs, 'If X is called by God to run for office, does that mean that his opponent is doomed to failure (or worse?!). Does it mean opposing him or her means opposing God? If God has ordained a candidacy or policy, why do we even need to vote?'
It should be clear by now that there is also the question of which part of the Christian Church speaks for Christians? Which denomination, or sectarian group actually holds the key to Universal truth? Is it the Catholic Church? Or Baptists? What of Presbyterians or Episcopalian? What of Churches of Christs? Or Churches of God in Christ? Who actually knows what God is saying about pressing public issues? Is the issue of abortion more important than that of poverty? Is economic oppression a greater issue than war? And who is it that makes that decision?
We, as Christians, tend to approach complex issues with a certitude that others simply do not have and that we - as Christians - often have no right to assume.
So yes, we believers, particularly in America - tend to do politics poorly.
Here's what I think we should be doing: gathering as much information about what we care most deeply about as we can and, armed with that information, prayerfully enter into the public arena prepared to debate, argue, negotiate, compromise and collaborate with a pluralistic society that often does not share our values. We should do so humbly, knowing that there is much that we do not know. We should do so respectfully, treating others the way we wish to be treated. We should be willing to engage again, without resentfulness, bitterness or acrimony when we lose (because the nature of politics means to lose sometimes), knowing that opponents on one issue can, at times be allies on another. We don't do this often enough, so there are times when the discussion of politics comes up involving people of faith, even those whose faith commitment is similar to ours hate to see us coming!
When decisions that come from the public square violate our faith principals, we should resist. If they violate the human dignity of others - Christian or not - we should engage in protests and demonstrations, but in the process we shouldn't degrade ourselves or our opponent. We should nobly seek the highest good for all.
Sounds like heady objectives right? They are. But these are just a few steps in which we can let our light shine.
All of that being said, does this means Christians should stay out of politics or political discussions? No more than businessmen, single issue educators, scientists or healthcare professionals. We all belong in the square, arguing our perspectives and values. And although we all argue as if we are 100% right, we must all have the humility to know that we be at least 50% wrong.
It could be messy, but that's politics...and religion!