The Ambiguities of a Christian President

Although I’ve been planning to write up a fairly critical review of Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith, that would perhaps not be the most politic thing to do when he is busy trying to critique me (on my review of VanDrunen) over at his blog right now.  So, in a spirit of camaraderie, let me voice an odd point of sympathy with Hart’s book.  

In it, he is chiefly concerned to argue (among other things) that we should not be voting for our political candidates on the basis of their Christian faith or values, and in fact should be very leery of them trying to bring those convictions into office with them.  Their Christianity simply does not have anything relevant to contribute to rightly governing our country, and we should vote simply based upon political considerations.  While I dramatically disagree with him on the larger issues, being convinced of the relevance of Christianity to public life, the importance of governing a country in submission to Christ, etc., I find myself oddly in sympathy with him when it comes down to practical questions like, “Who do you want to win in 2012?”


Last week, I finally decided to try and educate myself a bit on the 2012 contenders, and I was reading an essay about how Republican contender Michele Bachmann is apparently a zealous conservative Christian.  And not just a generic evangelical, but someone influenced by Reformed writers in the remote little neck of the ecclesiastical woods in which I was brought up–people like Francis Schaeffer and even R.J. Rushdoony and Steve Wilkins, if this article was telling the truth.  Now, even if I may have some significant differences with these Christian thinkers, they’re minor in the grand scheme of things.  So here is a legitimate presidential candidate who is about as closely-aligned with me theologically as anyone I could ever expect to run (at least, given what I gleaned from this one article…I am still largely ignorant of Bachmann’s background).  Shouldn’t I be cheering her on?  

On the contrary, I’ve found myself instinctively repulsed by her, despite (perhaps even because of?) her explicit invocation of Christianity.  This may well be quite unfair, but if I were to vote strictly on feelings (and don’t worry, all you conservative readers out there–I wouldn’t vote strictly on feelings, and my reason might well end up somewhere rather different), I’d be more comfortable voting for Obama than for Bachmann.  Weird, huh?  


Is Darryl Hart right then?  Does theology have nothing to do with politics?  Well, not quite.  Certainly, with Hooker we could acknowledge that theology may not map onto politics in any clear and straightforward way, and such are the complexities of political life, the silences of Scripture, and the limitations of our ability to apply it, that Christian commitment might be able to manifest itself in any number of varying political commitments.  Perhaps this is part of what’s going on. 

I’d like to think, though, that my objection actually arises more from my fear that Bachmann, like most other Christian conservatives I’ve encountered, actually is not nearly Christian enough in the way she approaches politics.  If you read her statements on “Issues” on her campaign website, it’s hard to find anything beyond a tired old regurgitation of the same old neo-conservative slogans about the importance of protecting the free market and helping business grow, and the importance of looking out for America’s interests in the world and standing up to its enemies.  I’d rather vote for a candidate who doesn’t know Christ (though Obama sincerely claims to and I will take that at face value) but who nonetheless applies some of his warnings against the danger of wealth and his admonitions to love our enemies (not that Obama necessarily has done that very well), than a candidate who claims to make Christ central to their politics, but shows no sign of having ever really listened to some of these central teachings.  

This is, of course, over-hasty as an indictment of the religious Right–I recognise that issues of economics and national security are quite complicated, and you can’t just wave the Sermon on the Mount at them (many of my bloggings here over the past year have been focused on trying to think how some of these Christian teachings ought to intersect with the practical issues of modern politics).  But this is an attempt to explain in a nutshell my gut aversion to candidates like Bachmann.

 Of course, there is another, more pragmatic dimension, and on this point I probably am closer to Hart–there’s something to be said for voting for someone you disagree with, but consider competent, than someone you agree with, but who’s likely to run the ship of state into an iceberg.  When electing someone to government, one must first and foremost have faith in their ability to govern, not merely in their good intentions.  And most of the current Republican front-runners seem committed to radical ideologies that seemed doomed to disaster.  So, ironically, the conservative in me might rather vote for someone more liberal.


In any case, if you’re reading this, and know more about the current candidates than I do (which probably describes pretty much everyone who might be reading this), by all means jump in and clear up my false impressions and conclusions.  Even if I don’t vote (which I have trouble imagining I will), it would be helpful to know what’s the landscape’s really like back there in my troubled homeland.   


PS: I just realized that having singled out Palin for criticism a couple months ago and Bachmann now, and no other Republican candidates, I may be coming across as somehow misogynist.  I certainly hope that’s not the reason; rather, the main reason, i think, is that I seem to encounter their names much more frequently in the media than any other Republican contenders (and because Christian conservatives seem particularly enthused about them).

24 thoughts on “The Ambiguities of a Christian President

  1. I recently came across this profile of Bachmann, which disturbed me a little.Rick Perry, if anything, is even more worrying.But Obama is, of course, the anti-Christ.Actually, seriously, I've started to wonder whether Obama might in some ways be even more dangerous than the Republican nutters.* More dangerous, because while he appears so much more intelligent, sane, reasonable, irenic, and rhetorically committed to various causes with which I feel strong affinities, in practice he has turned out to be absent on climate, a hypocrit on lobbyists, one more plutocratic friend of the bankers, committed to endless growth, overly willing to compromise and surprisingly harsh on whistleblowers. Promising so much, he has delivered but a fraction of it (yes, some of this has been thwarted by a Congress that is increasingly dysfunctional) and on certain key issues has failed dismally or continued the failed policies of yesteryear.*(Hey, I'm not American, this is my honest opinion of some of the Republican candidates; maybe it's a cultural thing, but you guys get some weird choices. You're not alone in that, of course. Australia has it own share of them.)Were I American, at the moment, I would be seriously considering "throwing away" my vote on a 3rd party candidate.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Byron. Obviously a highly one-sided piece on Bachmann, but certainly disturbing. Some great lines, though–my favourite being: "Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty looked like a bunch of rumpled businessmen in a subway car watching an old lady get mugged, each waiting for the other to do something about it."Regarding Obama, well, I've more or less given up on finding a president who's not "a hypocrite on lobbyists" and "one more plutocratic friend of the bankers"–these webs of evil so thoroughly pervade the system that it seems impossible for anyone to escape them. You're probably right, though…maybe I should start scoping out the third-party candidates. Or, of course, I could do what I've always done and half-conscientiously, half-lazily abstain from voting.


  3. wyclif

    Brad, you write:"I've more or less given up on finding a president who's not "a hypocrite on lobbyists" and "one more plutocratic friend of the bankers"–these webs of evil so thoroughly pervade the system that it seems impossible for anyone to escape them."What an extremely odd thing to say, given that Ron Paul is the sole candidate who has expressly said "no" to The Fed, soft money, and the expansion of Governmental debt. Dr. Paul stands apart from the rest of the usual suspects in such bold relief that I wonder how you've failed to miss it.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Wyclif,Well, not quite so odd. Ron Paul is a candidate, not the president, and forgive me for being quite confident that in our day and age of American politics, he cannot win. Nor am I sure that I would want him to, though certainly on a whole host of issues, I prefer him immensely to the alternatives. I was a big Ron Paul supporter in 2008, but then soon realised that all he wanted to do was to replace the idol of the State with the idol of the Market, which from a Christian perspective should be no more acceptable. So while agreeing with him in many practical points of opposition to the bloated mess that is our government, I don't think that the minimalist government ideology behind it is either safe or coherent.Libertarianism as a philosophy seems to me almost impossible to square with Christianity. You can try, like Paul and many others, to throw Christian morality into it as a set of sorta arbitrary restraints on the legitimate scope of personal liberty, but Christianity's commitment to public morality, a common good, a defined telos of human nature, etc., simply doesn't fit with the a-telic individualism of libertarianism.


  5. Albert

    I agree libertarianism (as well as the liberalism of Democrats and Republicans), as a philosophy, is incompatible with Christianity. But Ron Paul is just crazy enough not to be captive to banking interests that oppress the unemployed, retired, working class, etc. and he'll end the unjust wars we're in. He's also pro-life, not that that matters at the federal level except in so far as he'll appoint judges.The rest he'd be willing to leave to the states, which really is best for politics. I wouldn't vote for him as governor, but for President, his policy stances seem quite promising.


  6. Brad, if you're not going to vote, then unless this is based on a principled withdrawal from the electoral system (talk to Rich Davis), I'd suggest a third party candidate would be the best way of "wasting" your vote as it would at least be a symbolic rejection of a two-party system.


  7. Brad Littlejohn

    Eh, Albert, maybe. But Ron Paul was one of the nuts who voted not to raise the debt ceiling at all, which is just plain irresponsible governing, whatever you think about the big picture.Thanks for the links, Byron–those are brilliant! Now I know how to decide who to vote for–I'll just vote for whoever tells the truth the most often.Oh, and by the way, my non-voting in the past has been the result of a principled withdrawal from the electoral system–I was selling myself short in the original post when I said it was partly laziness, because I didn't want to sound goody-two-shoes. But now I don't want to sound lazy…


  8. AJ

    Ron Paul's candidacy seems more based on theory than on anything specific. He hasn't addressed how he'd eliminate the Fed (which he couldn't accomplish even if he were president, imo), and he hasn't addressed what he'd do about every budget that is submitted which doesn't meet his standard – would he just reject every budget? The problem is he has a bunch of theories, some of which are great, but it's waaaay easier to be a dissenting legislator than it is to be in the executive branch.


  9. AJ

    While ideologically I can see the problems with Rick Perry, I will say that Texas is a good place to be these days (Krugman's erronoeus counter-claims notwithstanding). I'm not crediting Perry with that, but it's worth considering. Personally, having lived in Texas the last 10 years, I have rarely had reason to contemplate any of Perry's nuttier tendencies. Not that I'm a fan of his, but it isn't like he's wrecked the place around here.


  10. Not that I'm a fan of his, but it isn't like he's wrecked the place around here.How's your water supply? Of course Perry is not personally responsible for the drought, but he is vociferously in denial of climate change in one of the US states most vulnerable to hydrological disruptions.PS I'm no expert on US politics. Thirty party candidates may well be even nuttier than the mainstream candidates. That is quite a high bar to pass, but I guess it's possible.


  11. Albert

    Well, that's not exactly the whole story; Paul voted against a terrible debt ceiling deal because he supported a different one. As for being willing to let the US default on its debt, Obama almost guaranteed this by mandating the deal must raise the debt ceiling enough to get him through the 2012 elections and rejecting all other plans. You might say that was a good political play, but the fact is that he was perfectly willing to let the US default if the deal didn't meet his particular criteria, which was itself more political than principled; at least Ron Paul's was principled. So either both are nuts, or just Ron Paul because the "winners" of history are by definition never nuts and we have a double standard. I actually think neither were nuts, as there was enough monthly tax revenue coming in pay off Treasury debt and other federal expenditures could have been routed to pay off Social Security payments, etc. Federal expenditures get interrupted during government shutdowns like the one in the 90's. It happens and doesn't annihilate the world, contrary to those in media who has ahistorical views.


  12. AJ

    Brad is in the position of being a political critic; but I'm curious what a politician you support would look like. It's hard for me to know what you're arguing FOR.


  13. Thanks, Byron, for mentioning the water supply problem. This is a heck of a bigger deal than a lot of other issues out there (we can fight about philosophy all day, but not for long without drinking water). I was actually just talking to a pastor in town not a few hours ago on my difficulty in supporting explicitly Christian candidates, and my comment was that I am concerned about them because they're immature. We are all immature, and I have great confidence that someone like Bachmann or Ron Paul would drive this country straight into the ground, or an iceberg (whichever is closer). They're ideologically driven. So far as I can tell, whether their ideology is a form of Christianity or free market economics, they will just try to slap the pat answer on the issues rather than thinking about it. We Christians just don't have enough experience at developing wisdom to be trusted with government yet.I may not vote this year. I too, Brad, supported Ron Paul in 2008, btw. But I don't think a third party is the way to go either, because they are also ideologically driven, and there's no party I can get behind. Not voting is actually a vote; it's picking "D" on the multiple-choice quiz – none of the above. It's still a vote. It is perhaps significant that the majority of the American population votes "none of the above" every cycle.


  14. Brad Littlejohn

    Albert, I'm not sure I agree with your analysis of the debt ceiling debate; for one thing, I think Obama's demand that the extension last till after the 2012 election was not simply a self-serving political move, but for the good of the country; the issue simply could not be constructively addressed in such a politically-charged environment as an election year. But, I'm not of a mind to argue about this all over again, having gone through it with several people three weeks ago.And Byron, I'm afraid I agree with AJ and Adam that the third parties are in general even worse than the mainstream candidates. It's an ugly system, all round.


  15. Andrea Francine

    I understand ambivalence toward Republican presidential candidates, but be wary of unequal weights and measures. Radical and/or disconcerting ideologies are no less welcome in Democratic circles, except that magazines like Rolling Stone and The New Yorker and most of the U.S. national media are disinclined to mention it. By now we know all about Michele Bachmann’s appreciation for Francis Schaeffer and his weird water supply thing because that gets covered in the MSM, but strangely (or not really) there was fairly nothing about President Obama’s regulatory chief, Cass Sunstein, having proposed in a 2008 academic paper that the government 1) deploy federal agents to "cognitively infiltrate" groups and websites and 2) make payments to outside interest groups to act as “independent” credible voices to counter conspiracy theories and/or opposition to government policy. (See Glenn Greenwald for more One would think that Cass Sunstein is in a better position than Francis Schaeffer to affect public policy. And yet, and yet. And it does not take much imagination to guess what would be the reaction if Mr. Sunstein worked in a Republican Administration. The media hacks that have so far been silent would have no trouble using their outdoor voices to cry out in concern about thought police and Pravda-like propaganda. And then there is John P. Holdren, the President’s science advisor who in the 1970s co-authored a book called “Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment” in which approaches to limiting population growth were discussed, including mass sterilization (via the water supply, say maybe that is where Francis Schaeffer got the idea?), as well as compulsory abortions. When the conservative blogosphere got hold of book excerpts, the inevitable happened. And while Mr. Holdren might not have expressly advocated for any of those dystopian proposals, it is not unreasonable that he should be asked to clarify or give an account, even if the book was written almost three decades ago and by three authors. His defenders kept citing those two facts almost as if they were reason enough to dismiss any concerns about the book; although they were right to insist that excerpts had been taken out of context. even deigned to cover the controversy. (Pants on fire, sorry, Glenn Beck.) All the same, if a conservative WH advisor co-authored a book 30 years ago in which, for example, approaches to decreasing the demand for abortions were discussed, unlike Mr. Holdren, that person would have to do more than issue a statement from his office to denounce those who had misconstrued his views. Nothing less than a full-tilt MSM gauntlet would suffice. And I suspect that’s “truth-o-meter” would have a more nuanced take on context and authorial intent.


  16. Andrea Francine

    To the question about theology and politics, it is enough to make one despair to hear influential Christian scholars deny that one has anything to do with the other, and moreover to hear of them make worried noises that a Christian might (eeep!) actually bring his convictions to bear in his work, work that includes the making of sound and just public policy. Would if only! I have to wonder then whose convictions, whose mores, whose ethics are Christians in elected office supposed to use then. Pagans, human secularists, those who think that man is just another animal, rather than an image-bearer with unique dignity and worth? Certainly a political candidate’s profession of faith in Christ is no reason to elect that person to public office (especially if he advocates for policies that are not only contrary to biblical teaching but unabashedly undermine and attack it) but I am at a loss to understand why anyone would insist that theology has nothing to do with politics. But then maybe that is why we have the surreal spectacles of Christians defending the use of torture, or describing the loss of innocent life in war-torn areas as “collateral damage,” (if they acknowledge it at all) or defending a woman’s “right to choose” to have her unborn child put to death in her womb.That is not to advocate for a theocracy, but the U.S. is a representative democracy, which means every time someone casts a vote, whether in Congress or in a voting booth at the Elks Lodge, he is declaring his convictions (which are based somewhere and/or in Someone) about how to order our city, state, country, which Christians understand to reside in a fallen world that Christ is reconciling to Himself. And since there is almost always a choice on a ballot and since majority rules, there is simply no escaping the awkward fact that in declaring our convictions when we vote, we are also seeking to impose them on others. That makes it so hard to hear the day after an election about how the “American people” rejected this or that, especially in contests decided by a couple of percentage points. As for a Bachmann presidency, yes that is a disconcerting if unlikely prospect, but I cannot see where it would be that much different from an Obama presidency. (Maybe around the edges is all. Remember the man who campaigned against pretty much all of the Bush policies that he has come to embrace, extend or enhance?) About one of the only differences between the current Democratic president and his Republican predecessor – both professing Christians – is the overturning of the Mexico City policy, which provides U.S. tax dollars for reproduction services overseas, i.e. abortion. We have even more unconstitutional and endless wars (excuse me, "kinetic actions") and occupations, even more State-sponsored corporatism and even more deterioration of our constitutionally-protected rights and liberties. And we are no closer to a comprehensive immigration reform, even with Democrats controlling the White House, the House and the Senate for almost two years. To say nothing of our unsustainable entitlement system and the coming pension crisis that will sink many state governments. Guess that’s why it’s called a welfare-warfare state. So what I expect from Perry or Bachmann presidency is the same we have under an Obama presidency as under a Bush presidency. More of the same. Only the Mexico City policy will change. And maybe more states will embrace a legal distortion of marriage (in no small part encouraged by rich Republican donors). The massive centralized pagan State will continue to grow, and the Church in America will be off in the corner somewhere, hoping that no one notices her except to give safe, multi-faith invocations.


  17. Brad Littlejohn

    Andrea,Thanks for your remarks. I certainly agree with you about the importance of theology for politics, something I have been futilely attempting to persuade Dr. Hart of, over on the post "A Two Kingdoms Hart Attack." But, I do sympathise a bit with him when Christians seem so often to let their faith have so little impact on their politics. While I do not disagree terribly much with either of your comments, I don't really accept the narrative about the "liberal MSM" anymore. In my mind, the MSM is incorrigibly in favour of the status quo, of a narrow range of debate that excludes anything dramatically left or dramatically right or, heaven forbid, defiant of the right-left spectrum altogether. To me, it just seems like a conservative pity-party to keep claiming the the "mainstream media" is leftist–they wholeheartedly supported the invasion of Iraq, for Pete's sake! And why does Fox not count as part of the "MSM"? They're a larger network than any of the others, and are easily right-wing enough to balance out the leftism of an MSNBC. Likewise, your latter comment is, sadly, true enough. However, I refuse to be quite so cynical anymore–I would've said exactly that a couple years ago. The reason is that Richard Hooker has persuaded me that it is always easier to identify problems with the current state of government than it is to find meaningful solutions, and it's important to realise that quite often, those in government really are trying to find the solutions and policies that will work, and which may be the least of various evils. So I'm willing to give an Obama, and even a Bush, the benefit of the doubt where possible. That said, I really do think that we're at the point where the inertia in our government is so great that its evils are pretty much irreformable, no matter who's president.


  18. Andrea Francine

    Hello, yes, the exchange with Dr. Hart is actually how I came to learn of your blog. (Nelson Kloosterman provided a link to it in his blog.) Of course Christians will/do inevitably disagree on what constitutes a proper outworking of our faith in public policy, especially given conflicting ideas on the role of government, but I would not wonder if one reason that American Christians do not so often let our faith impact our politics is that we have been exhorted if not conditioned to keep those things, like two kingdoms, separate. (But not in a sphere sovereignty kind a way, as would be proper, I think.) We are taught to think like a Christian about spiritual matters, but like a pragmatic atheist about everything else. A few mentions of natural law or common grace does not undo the damage done.As for the MSM, if what I was referring to was only about a couple of cable network news channels then it would hardly be worth a mention. But if it is a pity party to acknowledge the obvious, then I guess somebody should pass me a balloon or something. Deflated, natch.Otherwise I agree with your assessment about the MSM, from Fox News through MSNBC and all the alphabetic configurations in between, being chiefly about keeping the status quo. (Sometimes, thanks to Hilaire Belloc, I like to imagine what a free press would look like.) As to the U.S media’s support for wars and occupations, I do not think that being a leftist and being pro-war-any-war are always mutually exclusive. I see leftism as an expression of statism, and since, as Randolph Bourne said, war is the health of the State, I am not surprised when leftists, whether those on editorial boards or those like Samantha Power and Susan Rice who counsel the President, give full-throated support to this invasion, the last one or the next.Two other things that are not always mutually exclusive: identifying problems with the state of government, and supporting feasible, humane solutions and real reform, all the while understanding the inherent difficulties of making them a reality. Which brings us back full-circle to the necessity of Christians thinking with a Christian mind (to borrow the title from Harry Blamires) about the complexities involved in how a society orders itself. Pax.


  19. Andrea Francine

    (Oops correction: The link I came across in Dr. Kloosterman's blog was to the article interacting with David VanDrunen's book. However it was, glad that I did!)


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