The first post with a title such as this is here.
One of my students sent me a Facebook message last night; she wants to come in for a chat about politics and theology. Raised in a conservative Christian (Reformed) household — the sort where Five Point Calvinism is taken seriously — she shocked her parents three weeks ago by coming home with an Obama bumper sticker on her car. Her mother and father tried to convince her, she said, that the “only way a Christian could vote” was against Obama and for the Republican ticket. (To be fair, her parents agonized, she said, as to whether to vote for Alan Keyes, a marginal and comical far-right African-American figure, or to vote for McCain-Palin. They ended up voting for the latter.)
My student’s parents cited abortion and gay marriage as the two most important issues, trumping all others on the ballot. As far as they are concerned, authentic and thoughtful faith can lead to only one possible set of conclusions about God’s intent for sexuality, reproduction, and life itself. “A vote for Obama is a vote against Christ”, my student reports her father saying. She and her parents share the same house, but things have not been the same. Though her parents were relieved and pleased Proposition 8 passed (banning gay marriage), they have been depressed by the rest of the results state and nation-wide, indicating a fairly significant shift towards the political and cultural left. And some of that depression is manifesting in iciness towards their only daughter. She’s pretty unhappy, and in her message last night, asked “Is there anything you can give me that can help me convince my parents it’s possible to be a good Christian and a liberal?”
I don’t know about “convincing” anyone. I’ll give my student the usual bible verses (Micah 6:8, for starters), but with the caveat that getting into a “proof-text war” with one’s nearest and dearest is generally a recipe for disaster: lots of shouting and gesticulating with one hand while clutching one’s preferred translation in the other. This sort of unproductive and unpleasant exchange is familiar to many who have grown up in religious households. And of course, we can make the Scripture say what we want it to say. Lefties like me can find every phrase in the Good Book which emphasizes the central importance of justice, particularly economic justice, as most pleasing to God; righties, like my student’s parents, can find every phrase in that same text which centers sexual righteousnesss in the Christian moral universe. (Call it the “pelvis” versus “pocketbook” wars.)
In the modern world, we can also quote from our favorite websites and pastors. Right-leaning Christians can quote James Dobson, John Macarthur, and Richard Land (or, if they’re inclined to self-parody, Pat Robertson). Liberals can quote Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Ron Sider. If we’re Catholic and conservative, we’ll quote Ronald George or Richard Neuhaus; if we’re Catholic and left-leaning, we’ll quote Rosemary Ruether or Frances Kissling. Mormons can quote the prophets and the assemblies (or their critics); Catholics can always find a bishop somewhere whose views match up nicely with their own. And Pentecostals? Heck, Pentecostals have the easiest time of all — they already give pride of place to the spirit and to prophecy, which allows for a delicious variety of interpretation of every theological and political issue.
What I will say to my student is this: as much as we pretend that it is the other way around, most of us look to our faith to shore up our preconceived notions about the world. Rather than letting our relationship with God (or even the teachings of the magisteria) shape our world view, we use our religious texts and authorities as buttresses to support our pre-existing notions about politics, sexuality, and the relationship between the individual and the state. This is a conservative habit and a liberal habit; neither side is necessarily more guilty than the other. At its worst, it leads to competing claims about Jesus, as each side claims the imprimatur of Christ Himself for their views on abortion, marriage, the war in Iraq or the proposed bailout of General Motors. Sometimes those claims are based on nothing more than a “gut feeling” that “the Jesus I know would feel this way”; sometimes those claims are based on a long and established history of church teaching. But in the end, the collected wisdom of the magisterium is no more reliable than one’s own intuiting of the Holy Spirit — both lack the authority to offer insight into God’s “real views” on public policy.
The Roman Catholic Church — at least, the teaching magisterium of the Church — has chosen in recent years to elevate abortion to a position of “primacy” among all political issues. Conservative bishops in particular have insisted (to poor effect in the latest election, thank goodness) that a candidate’s position on abortion trumped all other concerns. But Catholics voted for Obama (and Joe Biden, our first-ever Catholic vice-president) by a wider margin than the public at large, apparently choosing the sensible stance that abortion was one issue among many. It’s difficult to find Scriptural support for abortion as the “most important issue”, trumping opposition to war or unjust economic policies. The bishops may find what they regard as the murder of the unborn in the womb to be the only topic that matters, but their flocks — exercising the splendid Catholic notion that an informed conscience trumps even the teaching of a bishop — decided otherwise. The prayerful, the faithful, and the saved can disagree with integrity and with faith about which issues matter most, and which candidate represents the most “Christian” perspective.
And as my Mennonite friends remind me, Christians who vote need to remember that they’re electing the princes of this world. Jesus did not tell his followers to lobby Caesar against violent games; the prince of peace did not preach to Pilate about pacifism. Barack Obama is, in my estimation, a particularly fine choice for the decidedly secular office of president. But in the end, as exemplary a Caesar as he is, that is indeed what he is — a prince elected to run a powerful principality. Christians who become violently exercised about who should or shouldn’t hold that office forget that Christ offered neither support nor condemnation for the policies of Tiberius, the emperor who ruled while He walked the earth.
Of all the questions that will be asked of us when we come to the far side, I am reasonably confident that “Why did you vote for the secular leaders you did?” will not be one of them.