Being Christian in an Election Year, Part 1

February 2nd, 2012

For political junkies, a presidential election year is a joy; it's Christmas, the World Series, and a snow day all rolled into one year-long celebration of democracy. For the rest of the populace, it's something less than that; a year of annoying ads, shrill commentary, and obnoxious political partisans incessantly talking about how the fate of civilization as we know it rests on the election's outcome. Most of us would like to go to sleep for the year and wake up when it's all over.

Except, of course, that we can't. As Christians, we're called to do what we can to make the world look more like the Kingdom of God. The quality of our political leadership will affect how well we can fulfill that calling. For that reason, the electoral process cannot be a matter of indifference to Christians. While too many of us have made the mistake of trying to legislate Christian faith (or at least Christian ethics), that failed experiment doesn't change our responsibility be salt and light in the midst of this political season.

So how do we do that? We can start by thinking about some of the challenges and opportunities this particular election cycle presents to Christians.

1. Mormon, Shmormon

I’ve heard American religious historian Bill Leonard say that a hundred years or so ago you either were a Mormon, or you hated Mormons. The Mormons' particular adaptation of Christian faith has made them suspicious to mainstream Christians in the U.S. ever since their founding. Yet they have worked long and hard to enter the social and cultural mainstream of this country, a process that might have reached a tipping point this year with Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, as a major contender for the presidency. While some other Christians are still uneasy with the prospect of a Mormon president, most of the population seems to have decided that Mormons are “enough like us” to qualify for the country’s highest elective office.

To which I say, “you’ve reached the right conclusion for the wrong reason.” The issue isn’t whether a particular group has become mainstream enough to be acceptable; it’s whether a person’s religious faith should disqualify her or him for office in the first place. In the 2008 election, way too much ink was wasted on arguing whether or not to take Barack Obama’s word for it that he is a Christian, rather than a Muslim. The best thing that anyone said about this came from Colin Powell, who asked on a news program I was watching, “And what if he were a Muslim; so what?” The former general and Secretary of State spoke movingly of Muslim Americans with whom he had served in the U.S. military, and argued that their religious beliefs made them no less worthy to defend their country than anyone else.

Roger Williams, a man of deep Christian convictions and the father of religious liberty in this country, spelled out how all this works way back in 1655. He said that as long as a group believes in and contributes to the common welfare, how or whom they worship should have no bearing on their status as citizens. Since in our democracy leaders are drawn from the ranks of citizens like you and me, this same principle applies to their qualification for elected office.

There are only two questions to ask about a candidate’s religious beliefs as they relate to the quest for public office. First, does the mainstream of the candidate’s religious tradition promote ideas or actions that fundamentally contradict the principles of the U.S. Constitution? (Notice that I said mainstream here; every religious body has fringe groups who don’t represent what that tradition is about. And your information about what a religious group believes must come from representatives of the group itself, not from outsiders with an axe to grind.)

Second, and far more important, what does the candidate say about how his or her religious convictions and civic responsibilities fit together? Will participation in a democratic government require her or him to violate personal religious convictions? If the answer to both questions is “no”–and I can’t think of a major candidate for national office for whom it would be “yes”–then you’ve just taken the question of a person’s religious qualification for office off the table.

The fact of the matter is, religious liberty has to work for everybody, or it works for nobody. It seems to me that religious qualification for elected office is one of the last battlefields in our struggle to live up to our Constitutional ideals. To be Christian in an election year is to defend the principle of religious liberty.

2. “Why can’t you find some nice Christian friends?”

In the 1980 presidential election, white evangelicals abandoned Jimmy Carter and, by and large, gave the election to Ronald Reagan. While Reagan almost certainly shared evangelicals’ beliefs on social issues like abortion, he did not share their urgency about them; his administration expended practically no political capital on legislation related to those issues. This fact set the pattern for the unbalanced relationship between evangelical Protestants and the Republican Party ever since.

Less often remarked upon, but certainly important, has been the dalliance between left-leaning Christians and secular progressives. Especially during the George W. Bush years, liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics made frequent alliance with certain progressive groups that want to relegate religious discourse solely to the private sphere, excising it from the public square. Wishing to give public voice to their religious convictions, these liberal Christians made common cause with folks who had little or no sympathy for the role of religious conviction in public life.

So in both cases, Christians have been played for chumps by those with whom they allied themselves. Am I saying that we shouldn’t enter into such alliances? No, because politics requires working with others, even when we don’t agree with them on everything. I am saying is that to be a Christian in an election year is to be smart about such alliances, knowing when our voices are being heard, and when they aren’t.

3. Hate the sin, love the sinner–but only if the sinner is a member of our party

This election cycle raises again the question of personal character and fitness for office. Major candidate Newt Gingrich admits that infidelity broke up his two previous marriages, for which he has more recently sought redemption as a committed Roman Catholic. The evidence so far indicates that we’ve learned little about how to approach this issue since it last roiled the body politic in the 1990s (a case in which Gingrich was the defender of morality). With the shoe on the other party’s foot, the responses to the question have fallen out along predictably partisan lines.

Do Christians have anything to add to this conversation? As people who believe both in forgiveness and personal responsibility, we should. Yet most Christians I know (me included) face grave difficulty in bracketing their political opinions in order to talk about it. Just like everybody else, you can pretty well guess what we’re going to say about the character debate by knowing whose bumper sticker we put on our car last time around.

This fact indicts us all. It proves that we are more attached to our political opinions than our spiritual convictions. I’ve struggled long and hard with this question, because I believe that personal character and public office is a subject on which Christian faith has a great deal to say. But if individual Christians are only going to generate more partisan heat about it, then the best thing we can say is . . . nothing. When it comes to the “character question,” to be Christian in this election year just might mean keeping our mouths shut.


For more on faith and politics from this author, see "Is the U.S. a Christian Nation?" or "The Gospel and Partisan Politics" on his blog, Think and Believe.

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