More than a year ago, I wrote here on TheNation.com that progressive opinion leaders should consider more seriously and consistently engaging in biblical and religious discussions as part of our political discourse. The goal is not to create half-hearted or cynically manipulative religious justifications for political or ideological positions but instead to take seriously the role of religion in the lives of so many Americans and to better understand how moral lessons gained from those religious traditions influence our political ideas.
Halfway through the holiest week in the Christian calendar, I am reminded again of the dangers and possibilities inherent in such a strategy.
Palm Sunday begins the Christian Holy Week with celebratory enthusiasm. As an adult I learned to love this Sunday best because it temporarily intervenes in the self-denial of Lent. Shaking off the mournful watchfulness of the month, it lets loose with joyful worship. It is a Sunday marked by Hosanna and Hallelujah! This year’s Palm Sunday was the first that I worshipped at my husband’s Catholic church in New Orleans where they observe the day with a brass band, enormous palms, a parade into the church and a spirit of enthusiastic reverence. There is no denying that Palm Sunday is fun.
But for all the excitement of the day, it is also the beginning of a speedy descent into the most meaningful, but also most painful, days of the Christian calendar. Christianity is all about this week that begins with remembering the enthusiastic crowds that welcomed and embraced Jesus of Nazareth and ends with the painful betrayal and bloody crucifixion of the same man. It is these seven days and the faith claims about what happens during these days and why it happened that defines Christian belief. Many lessons can be drawn from interpreting of the miracles, sermons and life of Jesus, but this week is the critical nexus of belief that defines the religion. So understanding how various Christian communities and individuals understand this week is central to understanding what the faith teaches about the world.
Which brings me back to the political possibilities of open, religious conversations.
Our country is in a precarious economic and political moment. News media tend to emphasize partisan divisions as pre-eminent concerns in political action: Republicans are pitted against Democrats in an epic battle taking the country to the brink of economic ruin and full shutdown. With our entrance into the Libyan conflict, it feels to many that we are deepening the attachment to international warfare into which we too hastily entered a decade ago. Neither the President nor the Congress inspires much confidence among most Americans. Neither the populist enthusiasm of the 2008 “Obama for America” campaign nor the 2010 Tea Party backlash appears sustainable. No one is singing “Hosanna” or waving palms for anybody in Washington these days, and it would be pretty tough to wring a “Hallelujah!” out of anyone making less than about $250,000 a year. How we understand our current political moment is informed by individual dispositions, by interpretations of political and economic history, by ideology and partisanship, but for some Americans it is also interpreted through the lens of their Christian beliefs.