Krista's Journal: Unheard Voices in the Religious Landscape of Politics

October 21, 2004

In a Crossfire culture, I persist in my conviction that there are always more than two sides to any interesting issue, and that religious ideas and ideals are there precisely to help us dwell in the messy, gray, essential human middle — even in politics.

So this week, before the election year ends, we're making one more contribution in that direction. This week's guests, Muqtedar Khan and Cheryl Sanders, don't reflect the wisdom to be found in opinion polls. Their perspectives defy the sweeping generalizations about religious issues and voices that have permeated this year's presidential campaign.

And after all, those generalizations have usually referred to white Christian voters. But Khan and Sanders assert that there is room for all of us to imagine a more generous range of opinions and categories. They refuse to categorize themselves, and those around them, neatly as "liberals" or "conservatives." Cheryl Sanders calls African Americans "theologically conservative" and "socially progressive." Muqtedar Khan describes Muslim Americans as "social conservatives" and "political and economic liberals."

Normally we ask our guests to speak in the "first person," rather than as representatives of a particular group, but we've made something of an exception in this program. We have very intentionally taken the voices and perspectives of these two people as windows into their communities. They speak with passion from their particular places on the political and religious map. Cheryl Sanders is a Christian ethicist who grounds her ideas in a practice of ministry and the life of a congregation — The Third Church of God in Washington D.C. Muqtedar Khan is a professor and a non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution. More importantly, as he describes it, he is one of 11 Muslims in the town of Adrian, Michigan. All of them are doctors or teachers that, as Khan says, are either saving lives in the hospital or saving spirits at school.

Khan and Sanders have pointed things to say about the political leanings of their communities in this particular election, and how religion influences those leanings. They also have passionate concerns that are not on every political radar screen — and not always perceived as religious issues — such as the Patriot Act, and poverty.

But as we look forward to American life beyond this election, I'm more intrigued by the way these two individuals frame their basic approach to religion in politics.

Cheryl Sanders, for example, takes seriously the historic underpinnings of her Holiness tradition, which has its roots in great 19th century social justice movements. As a person involved in 21st century politics, she still cleaves to biblical metaphors from the Sermon on the Mount, that Christians are to be like salt and light — not hiding from the hardest realities of our common existence, but accentuating and throwing a light on those realities and modeling practical alternatives to them. If we believe God is a God of justice, Cheryl Sanders insists, then we must determine what justice looks like in our time and act in a way to reflect that.

And for Muqtedar Khan, being a Muslim implies that his first task as a political actor is not to maneuver for power, but to be a robust part of the moral conscience of any society he inhabits. The point of religion, he says — any religion — is to live your life as if it can be a blueprint for a moral existence. And as someone who moved to this country as an adult, he has an interesting perspective on American culture. Muslims will often do things for secular reasons, he criticizes, but justify their actions in religious terms. Americans in politics, he believes, are more likely to do things for religious reasons, but to legitimize their actions in secular terms. But Khan points out that religious traditions like Islam and Christianity have at their heart an ethic of self-restraint. Bringing faith or religion into politics with integrity, he concludes, should often limit our options rather than provide justifications for them.

This is the kind of distinctive, constructive, challenging language that I would wish to hear and read more of, if religious language continues to permeate our public life. Then, if "the religious voice" in all its richness and diversity continues to develop as a more substantive force in American life, it could begin to challenge the narrow structures of our partisan, poll-driven political world.

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is director of International Studies and chair of of the Political Science Department at Adrian College, and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C..

Cheryl Sanders

is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity, and Associate Pastor at the Third Street Church of God in Washington D.C..