Wednesday, January 3, 2007

On Christian Politicians

There was a time when I thought that I’d like to be involved in politics. I had a plan. First, I was going to run for the Board of Education in my hometown. I figured that I could do that while I was attending the junior college that was right around the corner from my parents’ house. It seemed to me that the voting public would see the wisdom of having someone on the Board who had just completed the education offered by the schools for which that group of leaders had responsibility. The second part of my plan was pretty general: I figured that I would build on the power base that I would inevitably develop through my position on the Board of Education and eventually get elected to the Georgia House or Senate and then go from there to—dare I admit the dream?—the office of Lieutenant Governor!

Well, none of that happened. I left my hometown before I was old enough to vote and never returned. And I never really got involved in politics—that is, unless you count the kind that is sometimes practiced in church and in denominations. I never, though, stopped being intrigued by the process and I never stopped believing that it was important to vote. I can still hear my father saying, “Son, you need to vote; if you don’t exercise the right, one day you’ll lose it.” I’ve failed to vote in very few elections in the thirty years since I turned eighteen, which happened in September 1976.

Six weeks later I excitedly stood in line to vote for the first time. I was especially excited because it was a presidential election year. I was furthermore excited because I had closely followed the Watergate scandal for the past few years and I viewed that election as my first opportunity to have a direct voice in the future direction of government in my nation. The candidates were the incumbent Republican Gerald Ford and the Democratic former governor of my home state, Jimmy Carter. I made my choice and cast my vote and stayed up half the night watching the results.

My judgment then and my judgment now is that our choice that year was between two good men. Today, President Ford will be buried at his Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, MI; I understand that President Carter, with whom President Ford became good friends and who flew to Grand Rapids from Washington with the Ford family, will speak at today’s service. What I didn’t know then and what I do know now is that the lives of both men were informed very much by their Christian faith. I guess that I knew more about the faith of Carter than that of Ford; I knew that Carter openly embraced the phrase “born again,” a phrase that I had heard all my life and a label that I gladly wore myself, to describe his brand of Christian faith, and I knew that he was a Baptist like I was. I think I remember hearing that Ford was an Episcopalian. It seemed that Carter was much more willing to wear his Christian faith publicly than was Ford. I don’t remember thinking that was a particularly good or bad thing.

In an article entitled “The Other Born-Again President?” that appeared at on January 2, 2007, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy point out that President Ford also possessed a very sincere and heart-felt faith. They also say that he was uncomfortable with Carter’s public proclamations of his faith during the campaign and that he refused to mount a counter Jesus attack. Now, it seems to me that Carter’s comfort in talking about his faith was natural to him and that Ford’s discomfort in talking about his was just as natural to him. As far as I’m concerned, candidates or elected officials should feel free to talk about what their faith means to them and we should gladly hear it; we should also not be put off by someone who prefers to keep public faith pronouncements to a minimum because they just don’t feel that such pronouncements are proper. Also as far as I’m concerned, we have to be discerning about the willingness of some politicians to use God talk to further their careers or to attempt to use hot-button moral issues as carrots to try to entice certain blocks of “religious” voters to support them.

Here’s the big question for me: once a Christian gets into a position of political leadership, how should her or his Christian faith inform and influence the way in which she or he governs? I have no doubt that it should. I do think that caution should be exercised, though. The United States is not a “Christian nation” in the sense of being a theocracy or anything approaching a theocracy. Our leaders swear to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” not the Bible or some other religious text. Perhaps here is the minimum that I want to see from Christian politicians: I want their devotion to Christ to lead them to want to promote policies and programs that will lead to the greatest possible health and welfare for as many people as possible. In other words, I want them to be faithful to the “greatest commandment.” I realize that some folks would see certain policies as meeting that test while others would see much different policies as meeting it, but I still think that’s a good minimum standard. Christian politicians could be excellent leaders in terms of doing good if they try hard to think about people—all people—in the ways that, so far as we can judge from the example of Christ, God thinks about them.

While I am not a historian, I suspect that when the presidencies of both President Ford and President Carter are evaluated, the influence of a principle something like what I’m espousing can be seen. What I’m still trying to figure out is how I would have applied it to my role as a member of the Lamar County Board of Education, had I ever actually run and been elected! After all, prophets are not without honor except in their hometowns.


RevErin said...

I like your "minimum standard" -- faith should guide practice/policy. And, I agree that the same faith will lead different politicians in different directions. I recently tackled the question of how do Christians choose what social issues to support or protest in an article for Smyth & Helwys, and I landed on the greatest commandment as a guide for individuals and churches. Even when methods differ it seems that loving God and loving neighbor as you love yourself is a good starting point. Your blog also brought to my mind Keith Ellison, Representative-Elect from Minnesota, who is the first Muslim in the US Congress. He will use the Koran as part of his swearing in ceremony. That's been an interesting faith in politics story.

Mike Ruffin said...

Yes, I've been thinking about Ellison's use of the Koran as well. I may write about that in the next day or two. I need to read your article. The specific applications of the minimum standard--that's the hard part. That's what I need/want to think about more.