Why we should vote against arguments based on Christian revelation for the sake of the common good

The current presidential campaign could be viewed as a culture war. One candidate self-consciously stands for Christianity and regularly justifies his policies based on the teachings of Jesus. The other candidate would be the first ever American president who is not a Christian and this candidate is manifestly reluctant to allow divine revelation to shape his political rhetoric. As Christians, it seems clear, we should stand for our faith. As one thoughtful Christian once said to me, we desperately need more politicians who have the courage to stand up and say, we should do _____ because it is what God commands, and Jesus is Lord!

But of course, despite the way American politics is often portrayed, appeals to Christian revelation as the basis for policy are common across the political spectrum, and judging by the history of the Christian tradition and its centuries of wisdom in political theology, neither the right nor the left can claim consistently to reflect the teachings of Christianity. Of course, what renders religious rhetoric so problematic in politics is that it is often not easy to tell how Christian teaching should be applied to politics at all. Should the government force us to hold all things in common, to sell our possessions and give to the poor? Should the government punish all sexual immorality? Should the government allow slavery? We could go on and on. Who is to arbitrate between Christians who take different positions on these issues? And are the disagreements really the result of one side seeking to take Scripture seriously while the other is not? Usually the use of Scripture is far more selective than that – on both sides.

Of course, I am not arguing that there is no Christian view of politics. If I thought that, it would be a little odd for me to pursue a dissertation and career in political theology. My point, rather, is that Christian political theology itself calls us to view politics as the arena for arguments and actions that appeal to and foster the common good. Grounded as it is in power and the threat of violent coercion, politics is not the place to try and work out the teachings of Jesus for the kingdom of God.

In that light, Michael Gerson describes the differing approaches to politics represented by President Obama and Mitt Romney:

the most interesting element of the Liberty address was its main argument. Romney claimed that culture is the key to civilizational success — and that American culture is shaped by Jewish and Christian values such as the priority of the individual, personal responsibility and the dignity of work. These values, in turn, are strengthened in religious institutions and traditional families. Agree or disagree, Romney set out a sophisticated case for cultural conservatism: that liberal public institutions depend on virtues and values shaped in conservative social institutions.

Contrast this to the way President Obama has often approached social issues. He justified his recent switch on gay marriage, in part, as the direct application of Christian teaching. “When we think about our faith,” he said, “the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.” In 2008, he justified his support for civil unions by saying: “If people find that controversial, then I would justrefer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.” During this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, Obama justified raising taxes on the rich by contending it “coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’ ”

Agree or disagree with the policies Obama recommends, his arguments can’t be called sophisticated. They are the liberal political application of a “What Would Jesus Do?” wristband. In a mirror reflection of the religious right, Obama has a tendency to engage in partisan proof texting — which is divisive in service to any ideology. Saying “I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount” is a claim of divine authority that short-circuits democratic debate. Even when Obama changes his political views, Jesus somehow comes around to agreeing with him.

Of course, many conservative Christians would immediately argue that Obama is not a real Christian and that he is misusing Christian revelation. But that is hardly a charitable interpretation of the president’s life and rhetoric. I strongly doubt the president is lying through his teeth, and there are plenty of people who hold his views and who are sincerely trying to follow Jesus’ teachings as they understand them. They may be wrong, but that does not mean they are not sincere.

The reality is that Christianity does contain far more radical teachings regarding property and relief for the poor than most conservative Christians are willing to admit, its teaching on sexual morality is far clearer than liberals are willing to acknowledge, and none of this should be the basis for the politics of the common good. I have already made this argument repeatedly during the past few days in relation to marriage. Now let me make it in relation to the government’s role in providing for the poor.

The Obama administration has recently packaged its appeal to women voters by illustrating the important role of government policy and provision in the life of an ordinary woman – Julia. It then contrasts this picture with Romney’s policies, showing how much women would lose under a President Romney. All policy details aside, note the implications of the illustration. As Ross Douthat writes for the New York Times:

All propaganda invites snark and parody, and the story of Julia is ripe for it. She’s an everywoman only by the standards of the liberal upper middle class: She works as a Web designer, has her first child in her early 30s (the average first-time American mother is in her mid-20s), and spends her golden years as a “volunteer at a community garden.” (It will not surprise you to learn that the cartoon Julia looks Caucasian.)

What’s more, she seems to have no meaningful relationships apart from her bond with the Obama White House: no friends or siblings or extended family, no husband (“Julia decides to have a child,” is all the slide show says), a son who disappears once school starts and parents who only matter because Obamacare grants her the privilege of staying on their health care plan until she’s 26. This lends the whole production a curiously patriarchal quality, with Obama as a beneficent Daddy Warbucks and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan co-starring as the wicked uncles threatening to steal Julia’s inheritance.

Douthat goes on to make a case against what he sees as the policy flaws of the Obama administration:

the slide show’s vision of the individual’s relationship to the state seems designed to vindicate every conservative critique of the Obama-era Democratic Party. The liberalism of “the Life of Julia” doesn’t envision government spending the way an older liberalism did — as a backstop for otherwise self-sufficient working families, providing insurance against job loss, decrepitude and catastrophic illness. It offers a more sweeping vision of government’s place in society, in which the individual depends on the state at every stage of life, and no decision — personal, educational, entrepreneurial, sexual — can be contemplated without the promise that it will be somehow subsidized by Washington.

At the her.meneutics blog Gina Dalfonzo offers a similar criticism about the Obama administration’s portrayal of women:

But the result is that Julia’s life is just a little too revealing about modern mores, especially when we see birth control but not a partner, and later a pregnancy (which she carefully “decides” upon, of course) but not a father. These foundational areas of Julia’s life are so completely in her own hands that, apparently, there is no one else qualified or permitted to make these decisions with her.

In fact, Julia demonstrates a certain erroneous view of women that has seeped into the culture: The strong, empowered woman is one who does everything by herself—even if that version of independence leads, paradoxically, to dependence on government. But how many of us really live like that? How many of us want to live like that?

Remember, Romney, Douthat, and Dalfonzo are arguing against policies grounded in appeals to Christian faith and the teachings of Jesus. In response, they are appealing to a conception of the common good that they believe has widespread currency. It’s not that they necessarily reject the teachings of Jesus. It’s that they think government’s role is to preserve peace and order in such a way as to free people to follow or reject those teachings of their own volition. There is great wisdom here. Quoting Scripture or appealing to the teachings of Jesus is not the same thing as doing politics as Christians should do it.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 15, 2012, in Two Kingdoms and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why we should vote against arguments based on Christian revelation for the sake of the common good.

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