Recently, a theologian friend penned a Facebook post that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. The crux of it was this:
“It would be good for all people of faith to remember that any politician who invokes the name of God in order to bolster his or her poll numbers, or court an interest group, has taken God’s name in vain. It uses God for empty things, one of the gravest evils possible . . . Only the politician who dares to be silent about God could possibly be a person of genuine faith.”
This long-time friend had me at “it would be good.” But I suspect that for many Christians on both
the right and the left (and likely for some Jews and Muslims) this is exasperating if not infuriating
speech. Most Americans, it seems, take it as a given—as a good—that, in one way or another,
presidential candidates have to say something about God. Generally, Republicans embrace this expectation enthusiastically; Democrats variously so. The image of America as a “city on a hill” was conjured by the Puritan John Winthrop and invoked by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, enshrining the myth of American exceptionalism and the belief in God’s special favor on America as hallmarks of presidential politics.
When Jesus says the phrase “city on a hill” in St. Matthew’s gospel, he seems to be enjoining among his followers a witness against the Pax Romana, not endorsing its strength or greatness. He was not a patriot or a champion of Empire or a would-be reformer of it but its willing victim. Arrested, tortured, tried, and executed on a charge of sedition, his aim was not to be the commander-in-chief but to embody a radically alternative politics—of non-violence and revolutionary love—to the sham political system and its death-dealing ways.
In 2016, a number of presidential candidates want us to know that their Christian faith will be central to their governance should they be elected, especially, it seems, as they plot violence against our enemies. They give no hint that there might be conflict between being a president and being a Christian. They routinely, as my friend put it, “use God for their political aspirations.” And they rouse people of faith from across a range of traditions, treating them as just another interest group—the evangelical vote or the Catholic vote (neither of which is a monolith)—and thus take God’s name in vain.
Much of the candidates’ Christian rhetoric either rings hollow (Donald Trump) or is unrecognizable as Christian speech (Ted Cruz). (Trump is also admired by many Christians for being blunt, unfiltered, and combative in saying what he thinks. Drunk people and three-year-olds also often speak this way. We don’t usually salute them for it).
Hillary Clinton has spoken of the importance of her Methodist faith, though one might wonder how her lucrative alliances with Wall Street investment firms, many of whose practices are unconscionable from the perspective of almost every religious tradition, would square with, say, John Wesley’s concern for the working poor. Or how her “boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine” is consistent with Wesley’s and Methodism’s call for judicial and prison reforms.
And then there’s Bernie Sanders. I have no idea if he would be a good president. That he has so expertly diagnosed many of our social and political ills does not necessarily mean he can apply the cure. Probably no president can. For all his (welcome) silence on the campaign trail about his religious heritage, there’s something appealing about a passionate Jew who angrily condemns corrupt bankers—echoes of rabbi Jesus and the money changers.
But Sanders, like Clinton, like President Obama, talks in tired tropes when it comes to abortion. The shallow slogans on both sides of this issue are evidence that 40-plus years of a poorly-conducted public debate has only entrenched the divisions and the false notion that this is and only can be a two-sided “battle,” and that to identify with one side is to feel no affinity for the other.
Fredericka Mathewes-Green’s recent essay on abortion unsettles all the tired tropes, even as the current presidential candidates routinely, if sometimes subtly, claim God for their side. And the fact that Mathewes-Green’s article appears in National Review means that left-leaning Christians will write it off before reading it, or likely won’t read it at all; that sacrosanct binary, that entrenched divide again.
But I think it’s possible to be a Christian who doesn’t lobby for the overturning of Roe v. Wade but who has deep, deep concerns about abortion and its practice in the United States. It’s hardly ever acknowledged, for example, that abortion and capitalism are intimately linked but, as Mathewes-Green notes, “we’ve agreed to surgically alter women so that they can get along in a man’s world. And then expect them to be grateful for it.”
Would-be American presidents may always feel this pressure—either from within or without—to cloak themselves in religious garb, sometimes heavily, sometimes lightly; to see themselves as saviors of a sort, as those called to run “the greatest country in the world” and thus have a powerful hand in running the world. This seems laughable when it comes to the kind of servant leadership, the kind of counter politics that a crucified messiah asks of his followers. But it’s not funny. Especially when the religious rhetoric we’re hearing is so charged with murderous hate.
But, then again, there’s Bernie Sanders. I don’t think he has aspirations to run the world. He is—unlike almost every other contender in the race, Democrat or Republican—without affect or grandiosity. I don’t know that I’ll vote for him. I don’t know that I’ll vote. It’s not a settled question that Christians have an obligation to or even ought to. (Another idea that may seem exasperating if not infuriating to many.)
But I like Sanders’ rumpled, scruffy, scrappy ways. I like how he is both erudite and populist. I like that he doesn’t talk in soundbites and that he refuses to simplify hard, complex problems. I like his passion and compassion. I don’t know that he has ever adequately described the democratic socialism he espouses to the satisfaction of his critics. And maybe he can’t, given most Americans’ knee-jerk alarmism when the phrase is uttered.
But I think he articulates a vision of political community and human flourishing that is compelling and worthy of consideration in an era of astonishing injustices toward those on the edges. And yet it is one of the deep ironies of this political season that among many Christians, for whom Sanders’ vision of the good ought to have at least some resonance, he is at best dismissed and at worst reviled.
But he carries on, a flawed human being for sure, a predictable politician in many ways. But also, consistently, rightly, leaving religious pandering out of all of it.