Faith That Works in American Politics

Stan Guthrie

Faith That Works in American Politics

The Fourth Estate and its liberal allies see a new threat to the Republic. It’s not Islamic radicalism, spiraling debt, a crashing economy, crumbling education standards or moral decline. No, it’s something even more insidious: politicians with Christian faith. Consider:

Recently David Gregory of Meet the Press asked Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a professing evangelical, if her faith in God was something more than merely a “safe harbor” — in other words, as something that actually affects her life and decisions.

Piers Morgan of CNN told Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic, that accepting Catholic doctrine about homosexuality was “bordering on bigotry.”

Rick Perry, a Methodist who says he once was lost and now is found, said: “As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.” Justin Elliott, a reporter for Salon, says that Perry “is taking his advocacy for public prayer … in a distinctly non-inclusive direction.”

Bill Keller of The New York Times said that “Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are both affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity — and Rick Santorum comes out of the most conservative wing of Catholicism — which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.”

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said in a religious meeting last year, "Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” Theologically unremarkable, the statement nonetheless sparked a political firestorm. An official with the Anti-Defamation League warned, “His comments are not only offensive, but also raise serious questions as to whether non-Christians can expect to receive equal treatment during his tenure as governor.” Bentley apologized.

Besides Christian faith, all of these under-fire politicians share something else: They are all Republicans. The media expressions of concern (and, in some cases, religious bigotry) are not new, of course. George W. Bush, also a Methodist with a born-again conversion story, faced much the same kind of verbal artillery.

“He truly believes he's on a mission from God,” former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett said in an article published by The New York Times Magazine right before the 2004 election. “Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence. But you can't run the world on faith.”

Regardless of the merits of Bartlett’s Bush critique — does Bartlett, for instance, have absolute faith in his analysis? — is it true that sincere Christian faith is incompatible with political service in a pluralistic world? Or are only some kinds of faith out of bounds?

“Americans are a religious people,” one prominent politician said. “Ninety percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians. … The discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical – if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. … To say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

That politician’s name … Barack Obama.

Another prominent Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, has extolled the role of personal faith in her political decisions. At a gathering of fellow Catholics, the former House Speaker said she loved “the Word,” referring to Christ. “And that Word," Pelosi said, "is, we have to give voice to what that means in terms of public policy that would be in keeping with the values of the Word. The Word. Isn’t it a beautiful word when you think of it? It just covers everything. The Word.”

While the liberal outcry against the confused theological certitude of Pelosi — not to mention its impact on her policies — has been faint indeed, that doesn’t mean that conservative Christians should turn a deaf ear to the much louder cries of progressives against them. Sometimes critics can open our eyes to potential problems that friends might miss.

Sojourners leader Jim Wallis, a reliable political liberal, nonetheless has a good word for all who would carry their faith into the political arena. “'Faith can cut in so many ways,” Wallis said. “If you're penitent and not triumphal, it can move us to repentance and accountability and help us reach for something higher than ourselves. That can be a powerful thing, a thing that moves us beyond politics as usual, like Martin Luther King did. But when it's designed to certify our righteousness -- that can be a dangerous thing.”

Knowledge of our sinfulness can keep in check our natural proclivity toward the corrupt use of power (and nothing is worse than the unholy twining of religion and political power). In a recent address at Liberty University, the normally cocksure Perry provided a rare glimpse of his humility in describing his transition to Christian faith.

“I had nowhere else to turn,” the Texas governor said. “I was 27. I had been an officer in the United States Air Force, commanding a fairly substantial piece of sophisticated equipment, telling men and women what to do, but I was lost — spiritually and emotionally. And I didn’t know how to fix it.”

Self-revelation is now the political norm. In our era, politicians are expected to reveal — or at least appear to reveal — something of their deepest selves to a public hungry for personal details. As long as these narratives are truthful and free from manipulation, they are OK. History says Christians can be bold in expressing their faith but should be inclusive in employing American civil religion.

In earlier eras, presidents knew how to call citizens to look heavenward, based upon the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage, during appropriate national moments. During his famous 1983 “evil empire” speech (much criticized at the time but now widely acknowledged as a rhetorical gem), Reagan criticized government “attempts to water down traditional values and even abrogate the original terms of American democracy. Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant and the rule of law under God is acknowledged.” As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Such an acknowledgement, however, must come with humility, an understanding that God ultimately rules in human history, and that we must give an account to him of all we do. As Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, “Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

“Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com/blog.

Publication date: September 19, 2011

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