TEXAS FAITH: Should the word sin be part of our political vocabulary?

SMU Perkins School of Theology Dean Bill Lawrence and SMU Dedman School of Humanities and Sciences political science professor Matthew Wilson talk about adding the word sin to our political vocabulary.


By Wayne Slater/Reporter

With all the talk about religion and politics in a non-stop cable TV culture that routinely takes up matters of faith in a political context, one word is rarely mentioned: sin. There's plenty of talk about values and morality, but that might be the point - morality carries with it a secular sheen, unsullied by old-time religion.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, notes that even in religious circles we fear the language of sin and rush to avoid it. He suggests that liberals are so anxious to see the good, they are so reasonable and tolerant, that evil is better expressed in secular terms. Conservatives will invoke sin, but often about behavior that they don't like - homosexuality, for example. In other words, in the other person.

As Yoffie recently wrote, "Absent sin, we are not responsible. Absent sin, there is no moral precision. Absent sin, there is no moral judgment. Absent sin, there can be no forgiveness."

So would it be better if sin were part of our political vocabulary?

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

I am opposed to adding the word "sin" to the political vocabulary.

Please understand that I am not trying to suggest we should eliminate the term from broad public discussion. Nor do I think that the western world has become so enlightened and prosperous that we can rid ourselves of the concept, as if we had rid ourselves of the reality, of sin.

My opposition stems from my desire to prevent yet another theologically defined word from falling captive to the political classes and spin-meisters. We have already seen the word "evangelical" become useless in its original theological context, because it has been so corrupted by political commentators and schemers that one can no longer utter it unless one intends to be understood as making a point about conservative political perspectives. Even the word "religion" has lost its value in public discourse. The term previously referred to an ethos of spiritual belief and practice that could refer to various brands of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha'i, and more. But, nowadays, it tends to refer casually to a broad category of human activities that may include ritual prayers or support for athletic teams (witness the ceremonial, cultic activities at an Aggie football game).

I hope we can keep the word sin out of the political vocabulary and instead make better use of it in churches, synagogues, mosques, and similar spaces.

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

Our political discourse and national life, not to mention our own personal lives, are more grounded, realistic and meaningful if we acknowledge the reality of sin. To describe evil in purely secular terms tends to trivialize it, to make it appear less than it is, and thus to sap our will and resolve to resist it. To use phrases like "mistake" or "indiscretion" in describing wrongdoing (even in the context of "accepting full responsibility," whatever that means) seems like an attempt to evade or minimize culpability, to downplay the seriousness of the deeds involved. One refreshing aspect of the way that Louisiana Senator David Vitter, a few years ago, dealt with revelations that he had had encounters with a prostitute was that he actually used the word "sin" in reference to his own behavior, conveying thay he appreciated the seriousness of his transgression. Such unqualified admissions of moral failing are rare indeed in our political class.

In broader perspective, however, the concept of sin is even more important when we are dealing not with the personal failings of our elected leaders, but with sinful, evil laws, social structures, and political systems. To be sure, we must remember that not every political perspective running counter to our own is evil, that not every proposal that we disagree with is "sinful." At the same time, however, some aspects of the social and political order may be so intrinsically evil that they must be identified as such, and not shielded with watered-down, secularist language. Abraham Lincoln did not shy away from characterizing human bondage as a great national sin, reflecting in his Second Inaugural that all the destruction of the Civil War might be divine punishment and purgation for it. To have characterized slavery any other way, to have referred to it (as Southern apologists did) not as "sinful" but as merely "peculiar," would not have done justice to the enormity of the evil that it represented. Importantly, Lincoln did not simply hurl the word "sin" at others, indicting them as a means of, at least implicitly, glorifying himself and his allies. Instead, he used it as an indictment of the entire nation, from the Southern slave owners to the Northern slave traders, of everyone in every region of the country who had profited for centuries from a slave economy. When the concept of sin is used in this way, to honestly acknowledge the gravity of past transgressions and to call a whole people (ourselves included) to moral betterment, then I think we can truly say it has deepened and enriched our political discourse. The rhetoric of sin and salvation should not be thrown around loosely in political life, but when it truly is appropriate, we should not shy away from it.