Spiritualizing Politics without Politicizing Religion

"[S]eparation of Church and State does not mean the divorce of spiritual values from secular affairs. [...] The great social questions — war and peace, civil rights, education, the elimination of poverty at home and abroad — are all, at the bottom, moral questions. They reflect spiritual values.”
Sargent Shriver |New York City | June 12, 1963

Our Quote of the Week conveys a principle that is central for understanding Sargent Shriver. It is also one that we must embrace as a people today, for we can only tackle political polarization and address our most challenging social issues if we infuse our political and cultural conversations, and indeed our everyday lives, with spiritual values.

Sargent Shriver begins his 1963 address, The Meeting of Church and State (Fordham Commencement Address), with the following remembrance of Pope John XXIII:

“’U T UNUM SINI’ John XXIII said in his last days. ‘That we may all be one.’

This phrase, better than any other, sums up his life and work. He was a ‘Pope of Reconciliation’-- reconciliation between East and West, Catholics and non-Catholics, the powerful and the weak, poor nations and wealthy ones. ‘All men,’ he wrote in Pacem in Terris, ‘are equal in their natural dignity.’ He recognized the presence of conflict, of deep differences of belief and desire; but he believed that in the long run the divine spark which unites men would prove stronger than the forces which divide.”

In Shriver’s description of the Pope, we notice a statement that we would do well to reflect on today: although conflict and deep differences may exist between us as people, the “divine spark” that unites us as human beings will prove stronger that any differences that divide us.

Sargent Shriver was a devout Catholic, but his belief in this “divine spark” transcends any one faith. It is linked to the profoundly human-centric convictions that every person has dignity, that we are all inextricably connected to each other, and that if we remain open and curious towards each other, we can respectfully recognize our differences but work to move forward together. These convictions lead us to cultivate a sense of compassion within us and a dedication to service towards others, moving us to act in ways that honor and empower those around us – particularly those who have been marginalized, discriminated against, or forgotten.

Sargent Shriver goes on to affirm that there ought to be an institutional separation between Church and State in our society, but that, nonetheless, “separation of Church and State does not mean the divorce of spiritual values from secular affairs”. He asserts that we must infuse our politics with the spiritual values of service, compassion, and connection, and he gives the Peace Corps as an example of an institution that successfully does this. A program that places volunteers in communities in the developing world to work on local projects, Peace Corps’ mission is:

“To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

Promoting world peace and friendship – that, indeed, is a spiritual mission.

While some may find it naïve to think that bringing spiritual values into our secular lives could transform the conflict and polarization we’re experiencing today, consider the most high-profile news stories of the past year. From the failure to pass Build Back Better, a comprehensive legislative package that would have greatly strengthened our social safety net; to clashes over COVID-19 mandates that turned hostile and sometimes violent; to the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Southern California; and even to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; we can see a distinct pattern: a failure to remember the “divine spark” that binds us all to each other as one, human family.

We believe, as Sargent Shriver did, that transforming polarization is possible. But it will require dedication and consistent effort on all our part. It will require keeping an open mind, interacting with compassion, and serving others, particularly in moments of division and conflict.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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