Friday, September 7, 2012

“God-Talk” at the Conventions

Ok, I’m coming out of the closet.  I’m a Democrat.  That may surprise some.  I’m a Texan, a corporate tax lawyer, a Christian, a homeschooling mom and I’ve lived in Red States all of my adult life. 

I’ve been semi-closeted about my politics for much of my adult life.  When I was in practice, I was always in the political minority.  As a professor, I don’t like to advertise my political affiliation because it can be a distraction to students.  I strive to engage people of various backgrounds and perspectives.  Unfortunately, it may be human nature that we sometimes (consciously or unconsciously) close our minds to people who believe differently from us.

Regardless of one’s political preference, I think that all of us should pay close attention to what is going on in government and take elections seriously.  That is the right of a people living in a country with a democratic form of government.  That is a right for which our forbearers died and made many other sacrifices.  Even in 2012, many of our brothers and sisters around the globe still do not have that same right.  Some of them are making huge sacrifices to achieve representative government in their nations.  They lose their livelihoods, they are tortured, they are killed.

So, because I take the responsibilities of citizenship seriously, I’ve been watching bits of and reading a lot about the two major American political parties’ recent national conventions.  One thing that struck me about the Democrats’ convention was the mention of God.  After some controversy, the phrase “God-given talents” was included in their official party platform.   And several speakers referenced prayer or quoted Scripture. 

This sort of “God-Talk” is not the norm for Democrats.  The party is relatively diverse and not everyone is religious.  Political pundits have noted the Democrats’ hesitancy to reference religion and have concluded it has harmed them politically in recent years. 

By contrast, Republicans have been eager to invoke religion for decades.  President Nixon broke new ground in courting Billy Graham and his followers to win votes.  Ronald Reagan broke new ground in courting Evangelicals and cobbled together a new voting block: “Reagan Democrats.”  All major Republican candidates have had to follow suit—even Senator McCain, who seemed particularly loathed to do it, tried to court Christian voters when he ran for president.  Of course, George W. Bush’s courting of Evangelicals took the political practice to a new level altogether.  It is widely acknowledged that the younger President Bush would never have won a second term but for his campaign’s success in getting socially conservative Christians to the polls on election day in 2004.

Many Christ followers have been uncomfortable with this mixing of religion and politics.  Certainly, we Christians should strive to live lives of integrity—integrating our faith into every aspect of our time on this planet.  That includes politics.  But to many people of faith—myself included—there is something horrifying about the prospect of a politician exploiting his faith to win votes and accumulate political power. 

I believe firmly in a loving God.  I know he is the overjoyed father running to meet his Prodigal Son with open arms.  I believe God sacrificed to send his Son to live among us.  There is nothing God wouldn’t do for us.  He is not out to get us, he is out to help us in our struggles.

Even though I don’t believe in a vengeful, angry God, I do believe God is omnipotent and I don’t think we should test him.  I don’t believe it is in his nature to condemn or harm his children; his nature is constantly to seek reconciliation.  But exploiting God for earthly gain (e.g., in the political realm) is so fundamentally wrong.  It is blasphemy with a capital “B.”  It is sacrilegious.  It is playing with fire--perhaps literally. 

For this reason, I truly worried for the soul of George W. Bush when he was running for president.  Perhaps most egregiously when he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and in the Republican debates, the younger Mr. Bush repeatedly invoked the name of Jesus.  Because he often did so when his references didn’t even seem relevant to the questions posed to him, they appeared to me as forced and even insincere. 

Let me be clear in what I mean.  I'm not saying Mr. Bush is not a fellow Christian.  If he says he's a believer, I accept him at his word.  (I do the same with Mr. Obama's profession of faith.)  What I am saying is that, to me, Mr. Bush's references to Jesus in such secular, political settings seemed calculating and designed to exploit religion to gain earthly power.  In my mind, that is just a line you don’t dare cross. 

I’ve had similar concerns for the late President Reagan.  He was never a regular church-goer as an adult.  He was extremely close to his second wife, who was a serious adherent of astrology, which is a belief system at odds with Christianity.  Mr. Reagan was a divorced man, who was admittedly not close to his children.  Despite all this, during his political hey-day, he actively courted socially conservative Christians in a way that brought to my mind the term “pandering.”  Again, I’ve really feared for his soul.  I just cannot fathom exploiting God to get elected. 

As a result of all this, I’ve had mixed emotions about the Democrats’ unwillingness to indulge in the type of “God-talk” that Republicans have to get elected.  A friend of mine in Texas—who is also a Democrat and a Christian—has noted that this reluctance has led to the perception in some folks’ mind that Democrats are all atheists.  This friend and I roll our eyes and shake our heads at that notion.  Plenty of Democrats are Christian.  And frankly, there are plenty of Republicans who are atheist or agnostic.

Some Democrats have tried to take a different approach.  Back in the day, Bill and Hillary both suddenly became active in their respective churches after socially conservative Arkansas voters rejected Mr. Clinton for another term as governor.  Indeed, he famously even began singing in the local church choir.  (Around the same time, Hillary also changed her last name to her husband’s in an apparent effort to appear more in step with Arkansan culture.)  To me, that sort of thing also smacks of political opportunism.   I am encouraged when anyone returns to the church of their childhood.  But the thought of someone doing so just to get back into office is beyond offensive and disrespectful.

Like many, I found it ridiculous when Howard Dean tried to talk religion when he was a presidential candidate.  When asked to name his favorite book in the New Testament, he famously cited the Book of Job.  I’m not even sure where to start with that one.  Dr. Dean’s nonsensical response speaks for itself.

So with this background, I’ve been intrigued and frankly challenged by the “God Talk” at the recent Democratic National Convention. 

In their convention speeches, Ted Strickland and Elizabeth Warren both quoted Scripture in ways that did seem very apropos to me.  Those references to Scripture, to me, are important considerations when I personally discern what I believe the best policy choices to be. 

However, I recognize we live in a pluralistic nation and I would never want to force my own theology on anyone else.   I’m torn about whether a secular political convention is the right place for such references.  I worry about alienating Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or Hindu citizens (among others) who may not believe the New Testament has any relevance in their lives.  I would never want such Americans to feel that this country is any less theirs simply because they are not Christ followers.  (Moreover, as a Christian, I don't believe we make disciples by force or cohersion.  That would go against the teachings of and example set by Jesus.)

I may be biased because I’m a native San Antonian, but I appreciated Julían Castro’s references in his key note speech to parental blessings of their children as they leave for school.  That was really touching in my opinion.  Lifting our children up in prayer is a beautiful, sacred thing.  But I am not a complete Pollyanna.  I grew up inside the Beltway.  I support Mr. Castro politically, but recognize he is a politician and may have added in such lines to his high-profile national speech simply to appeal to people of faith.  If that was the case, I would worry for him, as I’ve worried about Mr. Bush and Mr. Reagan (and the Clintons).

The bottom line of all this is I’m torn.  On the one hand, a Christian’s faith is supposed to be central to his life and integrated in all aspects.  Though I don’t believe we should force our beliefs on others, Christ’s teachings should guide us in our own voting and other activities outside the church walls.  We are supposed to witness to others, so it seems like we should be open with others about our influences.

But there is a huge danger.  To the extent we are open about the influence of our faith on aspects of our lives (including our politics), we risk exploiting our faith for earthly gain.  To purposefully exploit our faith in that way is just incomprehensible and frankly terrifying to me.  But I think there is a risk of inadvertently exploiting our faith as well.  Perhaps the intent is not to achieve earthly gain by referencing religion, but such gain may accrue nonetheless because most Americans do consider themselves to be religious.  That inadvertent earthly gain should also be considered.

Matthew 6:16-21


`And when ye may fast, be ye not as the hypocrites, of sour countenances, for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear to men fasting; verily I say to you, that they have their reward.

`But thou, fasting, anoint thy head, and wash thy face,

that thou mayest not appear to men fasting, but to thy Father who [is] in secret, and thy Father, who is seeing in secret, shall reward thee manifestly.

`Treasure not up to yourselves treasures on the earth, where moth and rust disfigure, and where thieves break through and steal,

but treasure up to yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth disfigure, and where thieves do not break through nor steal,

for where your treasure is, there will be also your heart.

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