Today's Washington Post Online reports on a Southern Baptist prayer campaign and get-out-the-vote effort designed to get more Christians to the polls and more "godly Christians" elected to office. Read the full article here. From the article:
the election of more "godly Christians," for God to "help churches find
ways to help Christians get to the polls" and for public officials to
be protected "from the attacks of Satan." . . .
"Our vision statement is an American society that affirms and practices
Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority," [The Rev. Richard Land, Director of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission] said.
"America will be better off if people who are voting are seeking God's
A few brief critiques. As my three loyal readers know, I'm an avid advocate for the separation of church and state. The problem I see with this campaign is not that it involves Christians praying for government leaders – that's something we Lutherans do every week in our Prayers of the Church – but that it seeks to help Christians vote and to elect "godly Christians" to office. Their whole campaign is predicated upon the wrong belief that if the government is chosen and run by Christians, our nation will be better off. Its a move toward theocracy, and its (unintentional?) consequence is to devalue the role of non-Christians in society and in government. In a pluralist society, in a theological anthropology that acknowledges the sinfulness of humans (even the sinfulness of "godly Christians"), and in a faith perspective that teaches Christians to honor and love our neighbor, a narrow Christian-focused prayer and voting campaign is very dangerous.
We Lutherans are inheritors of a Two Kingdoms theology that teaches that God works both in the Kingdom of the World and in the Kingdom of God. Luther (ineloquently, to our modern ears) stated that he would rather be governed by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian. That is, the faith of the leader is much less relevant than the leader's ability to govern with integrity and wisdom.
Of course, the idea that Christians would promote a "Christian" government is alien to the New Testament. Since its earliest days and for more than three hundred years, Christianity was a minority religion that suffered alienation (at best) and persecution (at worst). It is a religion whose central defining moment is the brutal state-sponsored execution of a rejected religious leader. Martyrdom was a common experience for the early Christians.
Yet in the midst of such pressure, the early Christians taught respect for the (non-Christian) governing authorities. "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God" (Romans 13:1). Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:17 to "honor the emperor." And of course Jesus taught that we should give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's (Matthew 21:22). These passages promote a respectful approach toward a government in which Christians neither have nor seek a privileged place. This stands in contrast to the faith-based, power-grab kind of divisive religious politics that too many on the Right practice today.
Another critique of this prayer/voting campaign: do Jews ever speak of "Judeo-Christian" values? I've only ever heard Christians (conservative Christians, at that) use this term, and I wonder if it represents an attempt by majority Christians to claim a broader mandate for their narrow social agenda. By using the term "Judeo-Christian" conservative Christians imply that their social agenda is in keeping with the Jewish people today and with the Jewish tradition spanning several thousand years. This seems terribly arrogant, if not worse.
9 thoughts on “Getting Out the God Vote (Lord have mercy upon us!)”
At the risk of sounding like a heretic, should we even still take Luther’s Two Kingdoms seriously? I ask for three reasons:
1. Luther really uses the Sermon on the Mount as the basis for how a sovereign should govern, giving us a very clear mixing of church and state, sort of an early version of our government having Judeo-Christian values, a concept you clearly do not like.
2. Luther basically affirms the notion of the divine rights, though it is not designated to a monarch alone, but to whatever form of government happens to take. This is clearly against the founding fathers of the US, who taught (at least in my somewhat Libertarian world view) that government depends upon the consent of the governed, and that anything else is tyranny.
3. The biblical texts you cite tell only part of the story of how early Christians related to the empire. If we accept the prevailing theory that the Revelation to St. John is encoded to speak about hope in the midst of an oppressive government that is killing believers (and that – in the end – the government will get what’s coming to them tenfold), then how does this factor into the way we understand the interaction of church and state?
Not trying to pick a fight…just curious.
Godly Christians? Will they be ranking Christians? Does that mean it isn’t good enough to be a Christian saved by God’s grace, but rather, that the Christians who aspire to office should be acting godly? Or god-like? How about unbelievers who have values that are about identical to what Christians believe but these people just don’t believe in Jesus?
I fail to see how this significantly differs from any other group trying to get their block of voters to the polls. When MTV Rocks the Vote they are not trying to create a rockracy (thus denying rights to the other two forms of music, Country & Western). Just because Christians are trying to organize their votes doesn’t mean they are trying to create a theocracy.
Thanks for the comments!
I recognize that I use over-the-top language, but . . . What I find troublesome is that they are making an effort to get Christians to vote for Christians (as if that will guarantee anything!). It is a very sectarian approach to politics, and I think that if Christians are involved in politics they should pray for the whole political system, not just the Christians. They should organize Get-Out-The-Vote efforts for the whole community, not just for their narrow faith-based segment. That is, I think that we Christians are different than other groups that participate in the political process. We are called to love and serve our neighbors, and I think we should avoid using the system in a narrow, sectarian, self-serving way. We should seek not our own power, but the good of the community. Again, I know I’m using strong language, but I think that Christians should act as servants in the civic realm – particularly servants of those who are not always represented – rather than as another partisan group seeking its own power or self-serving influence.
Punk – Great comments. I’ll respond later. Children are crying right now . . .
In November I reflected on Luther’s writings on Psalm 82, where Luther says that the Prince is to mold society into a type of hospital where all are cared for and nurtured (<a href="http://www.lutheranzephyr.com/main/2007/11/luther-on-gover.html"
Luther on Government in Psalm 82). This represents a very socially-active perspective on the (God-given) role of government in society. I wondered in that post if Luther was not too optimistic – if he had forgotten about humanity’s sinful propensities – but overall I do not find it objectionable.
Faith informs our values, and values will always inform our political views. I do not want to divorce our faith from our political involvement. But as I responded to Sam, above, I do not believe that Christians should get involved in government to further their own (narrow, sectarian) agenda, nor to seek their own power (Christians voting for Christians in an “identity politics” move). Rather than seek to strengthen the political muscle of our own voice, I think we should be seeking to give voice to the voiceless.
I also reject any attempt by Christians to import explicit faith practice or teaching into the civic realm. Teacher-led or student-led prayer in school? Hell no. Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn? No way. We Christians should avoid all temptations to use the power mechanisms of government to further the gospel or – more likely – to increase our own power. Christianity has its origins as a persecuted and suffering religion (as you rightly note), and though I do not believe we should glorify such suffering and persecution, we should be skeptical of attempts to grab hold of the reigns of power.
Government has a God-given role to play in society. I think that Christians should wholeheartedly support that role on its own terms, for the common good. We should be very cautious about seeking power through identity politics, but should rather seek to empower and lift the weak and lowly.
Chris – I must have missed or overlooked that post from back in November. You certainly flesh it out a little more there. Certainly there is no disagreement that the government exists to restrain evil. I think the major parties – as well as third parties – are on board with that. Of course, we can’t really agree on what is evil and what is not anymore. For instance, I think the so-called drug war is evil, and yet this is funded by the feds.
I think the other question becomes: what is the best way to make sure the poor are fed, the widow cared for etc? This is where most of us part ways. Those on the right (be they Republican or Libertarian or whatever) shift to self-reliance a little too quickly for it to be socially viable. If we pulled all welfare programs tomorrow it would be a national catastrophe with unknowable suffering. At the same time, the left has very often infantalized (rather than empowered) the poor. For some in power, it is in their best interest to keep the poor, well, poor, in order to stay in power. What we have to move away from is long-term, generational dependence on social welfare, as this makes people slaves of the state, and ultimately does nothing to help them.
It seems to me that Wendell Berry is somehow right in all of this. We think far too much at a macro-level. Local communities need to band together (with or without the governments blessing) and create local market economies. If you have a vested interest in a place and a people, then it moves from economic and political theory to taking care of my neighbor, who in turn will take care of me.
Sorry to blather, I may need to blog through some of this myself…
Just another thought. Lest you think that I only pick on the conservative Christians, check out my criticism of faith-based Christian activists for Obama (Matthew 25’s Obamessiah Complex). Thanks!
Not to worry Chris, I read almost all of your posts. 😉 My point is I don’t think I should check my Christianity at the door of the polling place. A candidate’s faith is but one facet under consideration. Views, actions, experience, and temperament are others. Some voters only look at a candidate’s party, how narrow minded is that?
Punk – u R0k! I tend to equate the left as being fish-givers and the right being fishing-teachers. On one side you have folks completely dependent on being given fish and on the other folks that could get their own fish if they could get hooks, nets, access to the ocean, etc.
Good thoughts here. The two-kingdoms model does indeed (counter-intuitively) protect Christians from themselves!
And the prayer critiqued above is a great example of the typical conflation of church & state by the evangelicals (whether on the right or left).
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