What’s a serious American Christian to do in an election that has already become so silly?
The Iowa Caucuses were last week, marking the official beginning of a presidential election that actually began about 12 seconds after the last one ended. With neither a sitting president nor vice president in the race for the first time since 1968, there is a wider field of candidates to choose from than there has been in decades. And yet, there still seems to be very little difference between the candidates. As usual, both the Democrats and Republicans are harping on the hot-button issues that they believe will enliven their base supporters, while ignoring the seemingly obvious moral contradictions between some of those positions. And this is making it awfully hard for me to decide which candidate to support.
Take, for instance, protecting life. Because I believe in the value of human life in all its forms, I would prefer to support a candidate who opposes abortion. At the same time, I want a candidate who opposes the illegal and ill-intentioned war we have been waging in Iraq, a war which has cost many thousands of lives on both sides and could cost many thousands more if the conflict continues. It seems to me that these two ideas are intrinsically linked, to the point that divorcing one from the other is ludicrous, like fighting the measles while supporting the mumps. Yet almost every single candidate running for president does just that. The Democrats want to end the killing in Iraq but are unwilling to protect the lives of the unborn. Republicans want to save unborn babies but are fully prepared to continue bringing home body bags from the Persian Gulf.
There is only one exception: Congressman Ron Paul.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Ron who?” Well, maybe not. Perhaps you’re as big a political junkie as I am and you’ve seen some of the debates. Or maybe you’ve watched Congressman Paul’s meteoric rise in Web support. If you are aware of him, you’re probably also aware that most commentators dismiss him as a wingnut. He represents the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, which has long been overshadowed by the so-called religious right. No one believes he has a prayer of becoming the Republican nominee. And yet, in a race which is supposedly so diverse and so wide-open, he is the only candidate who is actually saying anything unique. Despite the fact that he’s one of the only candidates not running as a “Christian candidate,” this libertarian seems to be the only one in the race who actually believes “thou shalt not kill.”
I don’t mean to sound glib about this. I understand that there are people of goodwill — including some of the candidates — who disagree about abortion and about the war. I respect Sen. Barack Obama, despite his support of abortion. I respect Sen. John McCain, despite his support for the war. And at the same time, I’m also not saying anyone should or should not vote for Ron Paul. Some of his other positions frighten me, particularly his stances on health care and trade, plus his desire to do away with the FDA. But it boggles my mind that out of all these contenders, there’s only one guy who opposes both abortion and the war, and that this one guy is completely marginalized.
This moral inconsistency is part of a much deeper problem with American politics. Instead of being an overall source of values that informs political debate, religion — particularly Christianity — has been transformed by political advocacy into a clique, a trendy club, an image that can be recast to fit almost any scenario. In the last few election cycles, Christians have been instructed by many pundits and many pulpits that following Christ means following a rightwing Republican agenda that includes any number of things that it’s hard to imagine Christ approving. This year, the Democrats are trying to finally stem that tide, not by rejecting this corrosive abuse of religion by Republicans but by trying to change the narrative and convince us that being a Christian actually means swallowing their agenda instead. It’s infuriating that they both think I’m that dumb.
I’m not saying that there is no place for religion in civic life. In fact, I believe just the opposite is true. Despite the steamroller of secularist fundamentalism that has tried to eradicate all vestiges of religion from the public square in the past decade, religion has always mattered in America. The founders wisely elected not to establish a church in America so that both religion and the state could thrive in their own spheres, not so that religion could be forced from public view. Whether you are a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, Pagan, or atheist affects your values and the way that you ask questions.
For people who take their religion seriously, it’s going to shape their political views. It should not work the other way around. What motivates me as a Christian voter is not a desire to see a Christian president. What motivates me is a desire to see Christian values as I understand them lived out in the policies and the conduct of the highest office in the land.
So it doesn’t bother me that candidates make claims to be Christians, or even that they claim that their Christianity motivates their politics. What frustrates the heck out of me is when they dare to suggest that their politics should shape my values as a Christian. When I’ve watched the Republicans debate this election season, all I’ve heard is that being a Christian means hating immigrants and gay people. If this is true, Republicans really ought to be forced to make the case that Jesus was a gay-bashing xenophobe. Just as Democrats who claim the mantle of faith should be forced to make the case for how their religious convictions square with their politics. These folks toss around Jesus’ name as if he was just another celebrity who endorses them. Jesus is neither Oprah nor Chuck Norris. He is the Son of the Living God. If they’re going to invoke his name for their own benefit, they’d better have a damn good reason for it.
In our culture, questioning anyone else’s moral or religious values is unthinkable. Shrewd politicians have used that to their advantage, playing on the sentimentality of religious people while voraciously pursuing their own unrelated goals. We’ve been treated to a smoke and mirrors routine over and over again by politicians who construct for us a picture of their own great piety while simultaneously embracing policies that are completely incompatible with the values they espouse.
It has to stop. Republican or Democrat, religious or secular, what we need more than anything in this year’s election is an injection of honesty. As both a Christian and an American, my highest concern in this year’s election is for the truth.