WASHINGTON -- With varied motivations, human beings tend to invoke the name of God in foxholes, in the throes of passion and in budget debates.
During the recent debt-limit showdown, Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., credited "divine inspiration" for his opposition to Speaker John Boehner's initial proposal. Democratic activist Donna Brazile tweeted, "Last time I checked, God is above this partisan stuff. But I believe (as a woman of faith) Jesus would be fair and support shared sacrifice." It was not immediately clear if the Son of God endorses corporate loophole closings or prefers tax-rate increases.
On the testimony of some of his followers, God is both to the right of Boehner and to the left of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (who didn't include revenues in his approach). Both parties read the same Bible and pray to the same God -- but apparently listen to different economists.
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 And when religion becomes too closely identified with a detailed political platform, both are quickly outdated.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?
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.