The following is the first essay from my new devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, available both in the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.com.
Worshiping Yahweh in the Midst of Gods
Some years back I took a tour of the National Mall in Washington, DC. The religious nature of the place struck me. I do not mean Christian, but religious. The giant buildings, the beautiful architecture of the monuments, the larger than life sculptures of national figures all evoke awe and wonder from visitors. When I stood in the Capitol Rotunda at the east end of the Mall, I looked up at the giant fresco Constantino Brumidi painted on the inside of the Capitol’s Dome. In “The Apotheosis of Washington,” George Washington, representing America as a whole, sits in the heavens, surrounded by goddesses and figures of ancient mythology as he becomes a god. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial people mourn and pray for loved ones who died in that war. The area around the black stone wall is as hushed and solemn as a church sanctuary before a funeral.
At the west end of the National Mall the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln sits on his throne gazing out over America like the Greek god Zeus. Consider the epitaph, dripping with sacred terminology, inscribed in the Lincoln Memorial: “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” The National Mall’s architecture and sculpture are as religious as the Vatican’s. The buildings and statues urge us to revere the nation and the government they represent. Being at the National Mall reminded me religion and politics inhabit the same space. Politics will adopt religious language and symbolism and religion has its own political agendas.
Many people find the idea of mixing Christian faith with politics troubling. We worry religion will force itself on the state and seek to establish a theocratic dictatorship, or the state will co-opt religion for its own purposes, confusing patriotism for our commitment to God’s kingdom. To be sure, we have historical examples of these negative outcomes happening. Thus we hear voices telling us not to mix faith and politics, to keep faith out of the seats of government, and to keep politics out of the pulpit.
Eugene Peterson addresses our hesitation to mix religion and politics:
The people who warn that “religion and politics don’t mix” certainly know what they are talking about. The mix has resulted in no end of ills—crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, exploitation. All the same, God says, “Mix them.” But be very careful how you mix them. The only safe way is in prayer.
For followers of Jesus, keeping religion and politics separate is a dangerous move that relegates faith to the private sphere where we reduce prayer to mere requests for personal comfort and blessing. We also reduce Jesus to a self-help guru whose only concern is our fulfillment. Despite the serious malfunctions of Christianity’s political involvement, we also see magnificent benefits for the common good when Christians have brought their faith into the public square—the Civil Rights movement in the United States under the very religious leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. being an obvious example.
Readers of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures cannot escape the deeply political nature of these texts. God does not deal only with the private lives of the people of Israel and the Church. We see God shaping and clashing with people groups, including nations and governments. Neither does God use political terms like justice and peace as if they are empty containers void of any concrete meaning. Rather, God defines these concepts. We read about Yahweh’s expectations for neighbors to peacefully interact with each other. The Bible brims with God imploring people to act justly toward the most vulnerable people in society.
The majority of God’s people throughout history have learned to pray using the psalms. If we mediate on them they will teach us how to pray for our civic life, that is, how to safely mix religion and politics. This devotional will guide readers through praying Psalms 72 and 146, two psalms that shaped the political and religious life of the people of Israel. These psalms offer us a vision of God’s political agenda and give us the means to hold our leaders accountable. They do not exhaust all the Book of Psalms or the Bible say about politics, but the pictures of justice and wellbeing found in them are consistent with other political passages in Scripture.
Readers will pray through Psalm 146 first. This brief hymn minimizes the importance of government leaders, praises Yahweh for being eternal and powerful, and describes God’s political agenda. Praying Psalm 146 will correctly order our relationships with God and our political leaders. The psalmist reminds us of the transience of government officials and their agendas. If we were to only pray Psalm 146, however, we might think God says governments are unimportant. Therefore readers will then pray through Psalm 72, a prayer for governmental leaders. The psalmist describes the kind of good governance that God blesses. This prayer becomes our measure for how well our leaders do their job.
How do we maintain our focus on God when we stand before those majestic statues on the National Mall? How do we keep our commitment to Yahweh first even as other powers, especially our governments, demand our allegiance? How do we pursue God’s agenda in public and hold our leaders accountable to that agenda? I believe the answer to all these questions must start with prayer. In this devotional guide I will not offer a comprehensive vision for how Christians are to engage in public and civic life. I do know, however, that a comprehensive vision of mixing faith and politics will be anemic if it does not begin and remain saturated with prayer.
 Eugene H. Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms that Summon You from Self to Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) Kindle Edition, locations 103-105.