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Being a Christian in Politics


Battell Chapel, Yale University
New Haven , Connecticut
October 16, 2005

According to the news, the Reverend Jerry Falwell sent out a bumper sticker that says, “Vote Christian.” Suppose we saw the bumper sticker and thought it had a good idea. How would we implement its message?

There's no doubt what Mr. Falwell thinks we should do. He thinks we should vote for candidates and ballot propositions that advance the political agenda of the Christian right. He thinks we should vote against abortion, embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage, and for the Ten Commandments in courthouses. But suppose we rely not on Mr. Falwell's advice, but on the words of Jesus. What does Jesus tell us about voting Christian?

The place to find what Jesus said on any subject is the Gospels. And there we find not a word about voting. What he said about government is in today's lesson: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's.” That's it. Hardly a lesson on how to vote.

This verse is often cited for the notion that government's realm is one thing, God's realm is quite another, and religion has nothing to do with government. But certainly that was not what Jesus meant.

Both Jesus and his interrogators were Jews. In Jewish tradition, religion and government were tied together. One of the books of the Old Testament is called Judges, two are called Kings. That's government. In the Old Testament, God was the ultimate ruler, and kings answered to God. Incompatible realms of God and government could not be what Jesus intended or what his listeners understood him to say. In fact, the opposite.

The Pharisees were practicing Jews who observed religious law. They asked Jesus whether supporting the Roman state by paying taxes was consistent with their faith. The question was a trap, inviting Jesus to offend the Jews or confront the occupying Romans. In effect, Jesus' answer was a simple yes. Pay the taxes. For him, practicing religion and supporting the state were not mutually exclusive.

A religious person can and should support government. But the passage tells us very little about how to do so. It says we should pay taxes, but that's not saying much. Paying taxes is a given.

Asking for a coin with the image of Caesar may have been his way of putting the Roman state in its place. Caesar, representing government, could be reduced to a mere image, but there can be no graven image of God. Perhaps Jesus was hinting that the realm of God transcends the power of the state.

But as instruction for how we should participate in government, much less how we should vote, the Gospels are very, very thin. Jesus tells us we should support government, but he leaves it for us to figure out the how.

In letting us decide the how, Jesus breaks with the Old Testament. The prophets of Israel were quite directive in confronting the authorities of their time. Claiming to speak for God, they told the kings what to do, and they chastised them when they did wrong.

The prophets had no doubt they were the authoritative spokesmen of God. They would never say, “This political view is only a matter of my own opinion.” They prefaced their statements with the absolutely certain words, “Thus says the Lord.”

These Old Testament agents of God chose the kings, and told them where to go, and where not to go. The prophets told the kings which battles to fight, and which to avoid, how to fight and when to surrender, what to build and when, and how to treat the poor, the fatherless, the widows and the aliens. And when the kings did not do as they were told, the prophets, again acting for God, confronted them and meted out punishment.

Then came Jesus, who told us we should support government, but without specific instructions on how we should do it. And that's where we are today. Here in America , in the year 2005, good people want to follow their Lord in their politics, and heatedly debate among themselves just how to do so.

I'm going to try to describe two different approaches to being a Christian in politics, first saying that I think that each side is trying to do the will of God. Let's call the two sides liberal Christians and conservative Christians.

First, the liberals. They see politics in the light of the Love Commandment. We should love our neighbors as ourselves, and that commandment should influence how our government works. In the story of the Last Judgment, Jesus says that those who will inherit the kingdom feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked and visit the sick and prisoners.

Liberals would say that “Voting Christian” means voting for politicians who do the same. It's true that the Love Commandment is directed to people, and isn't a government program, but liberal Christians want a government that at least tries to live by the Love Commandment. And when legalistic rules hem in the Love Commandment, then the law should give way, just as it does in the Gospels.

Liberals would claim to follow the prophetic tradition of Israel and its demand for social justice and fair treatment for the poor. They would condemn government that oppresses or ignores people in need.

Now, let's turn to the conservatives. They think that America has lost its moral compass. The purpose of government is to uphold standards where standards otherwise collapse, and standards are collapsing.

Conservatives note a coarsening of American behavior and speech that they say is encouraged by the entertainment industry. They see a breakdown of the family marked by high rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births. They think that abortion and stem cell research destroy human life, which is God's most precious gift. They want government to intervene, to uphold values, to defend the family, to protect human life.

For conservatives, the Love Commandment is not a guide for government. It can cloak permissiveness: If it feels good, do it. That is not love. It is chaos. Conservatives can point to the teachings of St. Paul . It's the God-ordained job of government to bring evil under control.

Those are two different sides of politics, one liberal, one conservative, one stressing social justice, the other stressing societal values. Each side is avowedly Christian. Each side draws on the Bible for support. Each side is in political combat with the other.

But neither liberal nor conservative Christians can make the claim of the Old Testament prophets. Neither has the authority to speak for God. Neither has warrant to preface political views with the prophetic words, “Thus says the Lord.” Each can claim only to make one's best effort to act out the Christian faith. Each can claim only to see through a glass darkly. To do otherwise, to claim possession of God's political agenda, is to do what Christ himself would not do when he left the decisions to us.

It's tempting for all of us to confuse our perception of truth with God's truth, and to think that our political agenda must be God's agenda. In American politics today, this temptation has overcome the Christian right. With confidence that it is the mouthpiece for God, it endorses candidates, supports constitutional amendments, and mobilizes campaigns to keep poor souls hooked up to feeding tubes. It lacks humility. It knows it is on the side of God. It calls its opponents, “Enemies of the people of faith.”

Today, that is the style, and I think the sin of the Christian right. But, self-righteousness is not the sole possession of one political philosophy. Today, it is the hallmark of the right. It could just as easily become the hallmark of the left. Already, we can note a smugness in their dismissal of the conservatives as liberals advance their own political causes.

Jesus told us to support the government, but he did not tell us how to do this. He gave us the freedom to follow our own best instincts, and we have done this in different ways. Faithful people are liberal. Faithful people are conservative. Both sides try to be true to God. Neither side has the authority to speak to God.

Implying that there is one true Christian way to vote, Jerry Falwell's bumper sticker gets it wrong. It suggests a certainty about religious agendas, and that certainly is the most divisive force in American politics today.

Better than to vote Christian is to act as though we are Christians. That includes confessing that God's truth is greater than ours, and great enough to include the truth of others. Conservatives can make such a confession. So can liberals.

The first step in practicing religion in politics, the first step in holding America together, has nothing to do with a bumper sticker that says, “Vote Christian.” It has everything to do with learning and practicing humility.

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