Wednesday, June 6, 2007

When Politicians Talk About Religion

When politicians talk about religion, I get real skeptical real fast.

And I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. But I’m hardly the only one who has that reaction.

On Monday, June 4, leading Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, and John Edwards appeared on a nationally televised program that originated from George Washington University. The forum was sponsored by Sojourners/Call to Renewal and in line with that movement’s particular interests, it was called a Presidential Forum on Faith, Values, and Poverty. The transcript offers some interesting quotes.

John Edwards was asked about the role that prayer plays in his life. He replied,
I can tell you that I pray daily. I've been through a faith journey in my life, you know? I'll be the first to admit that. I grew up in the Baptist church. I was baptized in the Baptist church, personal strong faith when I was young. I strayed away from the Lord for a period of time, and then came back, in my adulthood, and my faith came roaring back during some crises that my own family was faced with.
And I can tell you, it is prayer that played a huge role in my survival through that. You know, when Elizabeth and I lost our son, we were nonfunctional for some period of time. And it was the Lord that got me through that. And the same thing is true when Elizabeth was diagnosed with cancer and then re-diagnosed more recently.

Barak Obama was asked if God takes sides in a war. He answered,
Well, you know, I always remember Abraham Lincoln, when, during the Civil War, he said, "We shouldn't be asking whose side God is on, but whether we're on his side." And I think that's the question that all of us have to ask ourselves during any battle that's taking place, whether it's political or military, is, are we following his dictates? Are we advancing the causes of justice and freedom? Are we our brother's keeper, our sister's keeper? And that's how I measure whether what we're doing is right.

Hillary Clinton was asked about how her faith helped her deal with the infidelity in her marriage. She said,
Well, I'm not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith….
For some people, being tested leads them to faith. For some people, being tested in cruel and tragic ways leads them away from faith. For me, because I have been tested in ways that are both publicly known and those that are not so well known or not known at all, my faith and the support of my extended faith family, people whom I knew who were literally praying for me in prayer chains, who were prayer warriors for me, and people whom I didn't know, who I would meet or get a letter from, sustained me through a very difficult time.
But I -- I am very grateful that I had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought. And that's all one can expect or hope for.

It’s interesting to hear anybody, candidates for political office included, talk about their faith. Again, though, many and maybe most of us tend to be skeptical when we hear such talk. “They’re only saying that because they want to get more votes from religious people,” we think. Indeed, a lot of the pundits are talking about how the Democratic candidates need to find some common ground with religious voters, by which I think they usually mean Evangelical Christian voters. The perception seems to be that there may be some gains possible for Democrats since those voters don’t seem to have a Republican candidate who quite sings their tune. Given the strong anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and pro-war stance of many Evangelicals, I personally find it hard to believe that those voters will migrate to any Democratic candidate in great numbers. Still, that doesn’t stop people from assuming that Democrats only talk about religion when they want to score political points.

Folks will say the same thing about Republicans, too. In a debate in Iowa in December 1999, George W. Bush said that his favorite philosopher was Jesus Christ. Lots of Christians were thrilled that a presidential contender would make what they took to be a blatant statement of faith in Jesus; other people figured that it was just another politician trying to use the Savior to score political points.

There is reason to be discerning in how we take God-talk that comes from the mouths of politicians. They do want to get elected, after all, and they will say what they think people want to hear if that will get them a few more votes. And they and their advisors are smart enough to know that God-talk matters in American culture.

I’m going to try hard to take the personal faith statements of presidential candidates at face value. What choice do I have, really? When politicians describe what their faith means to them personally, how can I possibly say that they are not telling the truth? “Well,” you might say, “I can judge what they say by how they live. I can judge the truthfulness of their faith statements by how they live out their faith.” It’s the old “fruit inspector” argument. It has limited value. We would all do well to remember that the best of us fall far short to living up to the ideals of our faith.

A heavier and harder issue is the role that a candidate’s faith would play in the development and execution of his or her policies were he or she to be elected president. A president has to be the president of all the people of the United States, not just the Christian ones and certainly not just those of this or that segment of American Christianity. A president swears to defend the Constitution of the United States, not the Bible of the Christian faith. A president does well to foster the ideals that grow from our Constitution. Still, a president is a human being and if that human being is a person of faith, I see no way for that faith to be kept separate from the president’s decision making processes. And, I would be pleased to have a president who incorporates the great biblical values of peace, liberty, and justice in his or her policies.

A few years ago a church member asked me if, given a choice between a Christian and a non-Christian candidate, a Christian voter should always vote for the Christian candidate. I thought hard about that one and then I answered, “I can envision a circumstance in which I would conclude that the policies of a particular non-Christian presidential candidate might strike me as more Christian in their orientation than those of a candidate that openly professes faith in Christ.”

You see, the faith statements of the candidates do matter. But they may not matter as much as what their record reflects they will actually do if elected. So if they tell me they have faith in God, I’ll take their word for it and be grateful for it. But if they think that such words will earn my vote, they’ve got another think coming. What I want to know is, what will they do to work for peace, freedom, and justice for all?

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