Which came first, your political views or your faith? In the election process to date, notwithstanding the separation of Church and State under our nation’s Constitution, the subject of faith has already been raised repeatedly by multiple political candidates. They like to use the language of faith to court votes, pulling out isolated biblical phrases which support their agenda with varying degrees of skill, or reducing the Gospel to a bumper sticker for a particular social issue, often simultaneously demonizing people who have a different view points or who live according to other faith traditions. Personally, I find this practice profoundly depressing and irritating. It’s depressing to me to see people use the cloak of religion as a means to achieve a self-glorifying political end. It’s irritating to me to see people wave the banner of Christianity when they have so clearly demonstrated with their lives that their values and Christ’s values are quite different.
If I thought it would do a bit of good I would send copies of a “red letter” collection of Jesus’ teachings to all the candidates who claim that they are deeply motivated by their Christian faith, so they could see just how challenging Jesus’ teachings really were. At the very least, I wish that there was a campaign rule which requires candidates who claim that any parts of their platform are informed by their Christian faith to provide footnotes to indicate which of Jesus’ teachings, or other biblical teachings inspired them. If they were required to do this, then it would quickly become even more obvious that for most candidates, their politics shape their faith, not the other way around.
The Constitution prohibits our holding presidential candidates to this standard, but we can hold ourselves to it if we are believers. I think we must, moreover, because the separation of Church and State notwithstanding, the Gospel has profound political implications. Jesus’ message was non-partisan, but it was political, as everyone who bristled when he chose an economic justice text from Isaiah as his mission statement instantly recognized. (See Luke 4:18-19). So if we are going to allow our faith to inform our politics because the two go together, then we must know what Jesus actually said, not what politicians or partisan organizations claim he said.
Jesus did not say, “God helps those who help themselves,” for example, as many people think, (that was Ben Franklin, not Christ). He did not say a word about gay marriage or abortion or other controversial “religious” topics mentioned by politicians either. But Jesus had a lot to say about the dangers of wealth and power, and about how we must care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner. He made God’s commands that we love our enemies as well as our friends, practice humble servant leadership, and be peacemakers and reconcilers very clear.
To pay attention to his words is not to buy into either a liberal or conservative political agenda. Jesus spoke plenty of words which can make both liberals and conservatives squirm. To pay attention to his words is not to insist that our next President be a Christian either. We have separation of Church and State for many good reasons, not the least of which is that we do not live in a Christian nation, but a pluralistic and multicultural one. But to read through Jesus’ teachings before we vote is to recognize that if we claim to be disciples of Christ ourselves, then Jesus’ values should define our priorities, not politicians’, not the media’s, not our personal preferences or fears (and not even our pastors’). As Jim Wallis observed, “The words of Jesus are either authoritative for Christians, or they are not.” (God’s Politics, p. 17). Which gospel really informs your politics, his challenging Gospel of love, or the gospel of fear politicians are fond of preaching in his name?
Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matt. 7:15-17). Lent begins in just a couple of weeks. Why not make (re)reading the teachings of Christ your Lenten discipline this year? I plan to myself.