Religious Worship As Political Act: a book review

It is an election year and so the circus begins again. Republicans and Democrats have begun Caucusing. If you examine where the candidates of both parties stand on various issues, you will see evidence of a great divide in the American political consciousness. Democrats and Republicans share increasingly little common ground. However both parties employ a common a strategic use of religious language in support of their divergent political aims.

Sacramental PoliticsBrian Kaylor (Ph.D, University of Missouri) is the Communications and Engagement leader at Churchnet. He is also a journalist who has taught political communication at James Madison University. Sacramental Politics  examines the way religion is co-opted in the political sphere and suggestively explores the political nature of Christian praxis.

Kaylor calls the use of religion in politics,’transubstantiated rhetoric,’ and pulls up plenty examples from the past decades.  The first part of his book, Kaylor considers ‘the obvious examples of worship as political action’: when politicians pray, speak at or attend religious gatherings or church services, or when clergy speaks up on political issues, parties or candidates. In the second half of the book, he turns his focus towards the non-partisan, but altogether political/religious acts: communion, baptism, confirmation, confession, etc.

This is a well-researched book. Kaylor presents many examples from past and current politicians, all documented with copious footnotes. He shows how politicians use religion to justify their ends (i.e. praying campaign slogans) and to project certainty (52). While the Right is the more overtly religious, the political left also makes use of religious rhetoric.

It is the second part of the book that I think is the most interesting. Here Kaylor explores the political dimensions of religious ritual (focused particularly of Christian religious ritual). The power of ritual is not just about forming you into a good American, but the idea is that things like liturgy, Eucharist or Baptism and sacred song makes you into something else. Quoting William Cavanaugh, Kaylor writes, “The Liturgy does more than generate interior motivations to be better citizens. The liturgy generates a body, the Body of Christ–the Eucharist makes the church” (158).  He discusses how religious ritual transcends and calls into question, partisan allegiance. He also shows examples of how church worship and religious practice provided the wherewithal to take stands for civil rights (in the case of MLK or Clarence Jordan) or Nationalism (like the Mennonites).

Kaylor is descriptive of the way religion and politics meld in the American political landscape. He argues that religion inherently carries with it political implications:

[S]everal different types of political actions are possible within religious worship. It may be partisan or nationalistic, or it might serve to offer allegiance to an alternative rule; it may promote public policies or political messages, or it might serve to create a space for doing politics differently. Regardless of which political response is undertaken, religious worship carries  political messages, expectations, and deeds. (225).

The central argument of this book, pushes us toward a conscious awareness of the political implications of our own faith. Kaylor wants to move us beyond partisan religious rhetoric to see how our religious practice shapes us into an alternative polis. Kaylor wants us to see that our worship is poltical, and therefore political worship is a political act (193). This helps us imagine new possibilities.

Kaylor has plenty of examples from the Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan administrations. Carter gets few mentions, and George H.W. Bush is missing from his analysis, but the general principles still apply. The book was published in 2015 before the players in this election were sorted out. Thus he covers some of the major players of partisan politics for this cycle (i.e. folks like Rubio, Cruz, Huckabee) but doesn’t address other significant players like Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders.  I  did notice a couple of textual errors(i.e., he mistakenly calls Wayne Grudem, ‘Wayne Gruden’ on page 60), nothing major. Kaylor’s analysis is comprehensive but not exhaustive and certainly more can be added to his argument as this election season shakes out.

This book has a very Mennonite-y feel (which I like).  Kaylor’s arguments reminded me of similar ones made by Hauerwas, and Yoder, though they aren’t cited in the text (he cites Cavanaugh which is enough).  I give this four stars.

note: I received this from SpeakEasy on Tap in exchange for my honest review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s