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).


My Bleeding Country

As most everyone now knows, last Saturday a deranged youth in Arizona gunned down a Democrat congresswoman, together with a crowd of staffers and citizens.  6 were killed, another 18 wounded; congressman Gifford miraculously survived a point-blank shot to the head.  But the spray of literal bullets unleashed was scarcely sadder than the rhetorical firefight that soon filled the country’s political media–which in this day and age, seems to be all its media.  Some wondered aloud whether a shooting like this wasn’t the logical result of years of violent political rhetoric and demonizing of the opposition, and names like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh surfaced, as indeed they were sure to do in any discussion about polarizing politics.  Some went further, singling out Sarah Palin’s gun crosshairs map of politicians to take down.  Rather than having the restraint to leave the more pointed and overstated accusations unanswered, and looking beyond them to the very important discussion about political rhetoric, both Palin and Limbaugh took the opportunity to step back into the limelight, climb on their soapboxes, and fire a heated counterblast to legions of imagined opponents.  The irony is as sad as it is unsurprising–in the midst of expressing concern about polarized politics on the one hand, and denying its existence on the other hand, the two “sides” have managed to give us Exhibit A in a showcase of polarized, slanderous politics.  

Let’s try to step back, sort through this mess, and make space for confession.

Did Sarah Palin incite Jared Loughner to violence?  No, that would clearly be an absurd accusation; and indeed, so far as I know, no one has made it in its baldest form.  Did violent political rhetoric (which right now is mostly the weapon of conservatives) incite him?  Again, no, this would be an overstatement.  But is it a relevant part of the discussion?  Those seeking to deny that it is have laid stress on the fact that Loughner was mentally disturbed, confused, and irrational; ergo, they say, he could not have been politically motivated.  But this, I think, is to miss the point of the concerns that have been raised.  The point is that, whatever the psychiatric pathology that set Loughner awry, he decided to take out his angst on an elected official, a congresswoman.  These aren’t exactly lurking on every street corner–there were thousands of other people he might have decided to shoot, but he decided on her as his target.  Why?  Because he’d convinced himself than an undesirable politician was the cause of all his problems, and the problems in the world, and was a suitable object for his violence.  It’s not unreasonable to ask the question, “Why?”  Why single out a congresswoman in this way?  Indeed, the fact that many think it a needless question to ask simply underlines how dangerously accustomed we have become to pinning all our problems on politicians, and singling them out as enemies.  This has become part of the air we breathe, not least the toxic air of talk radio.

Richard Hooker put his finger on the problem more than 400 years ago:

“First in the hearing of the multitude, the faults especially of higher callings are ripped up with marvelous exceeding severity and sharpnes of reproofe; which being oftentimes done begetteth a good opinion of integritie, zeale and holines, to such constant reproovers of sinne, as by likelihood would never be so much offended at that which is evill, unlesse themselves were singularly good.  The next thinge hereunto is to impute all faults and corruptions wherewith the worlde aboundeth, unto the kind of Ecclesiastical governement established.  Wherein, as before by reproving faults, they purchased unto themselves with the multitude a name to be vertuous; so by finding out this kinde of cause they obtaine to be judged wise above others….” 

The only difference now is that we are not so pious as to blame the faults of the world on the ecclesiastical government, but the civil.  

And this is the highly relevant and highly important question raised by the Arizona shootings–did a country of demagogues who try to persuade their citizens that the political opposition is the cause of “all faults and corruptions wherewith the worlde aboundeth” have some effect on persuading a deranged man that his local congressman was a suitable target on which to vent his wrath?  In one article I read, a leading psychologist made this balanced statement: “Political rhetoric provided some of the context for his thinking, the pretext for his actions, but the core reasons for his actions were his psychosis.”  That sounds fair enough.  And as a context and pretext, it certainly bears some discussing.  If an intoxicated sports fan decided to bust in to the visiting team’s locker and smash the shins of the players, and if this happened on a campus already criticized for fostering very bad sportsmanship, wouldn’t it be legitimate to raise questions about the ethos of that campus?  Even if it turned out that there was no causal connection whatsoever between Loughner’s actions and the political ethos of the country (which seems unlikely, given how even the most maniacal of us are deeply shaped by our environment), this tragedy nevertheless serves as a reasonable occasion to raise concerns about that ethos, concerns that desperately need raising.  

This, it seems to me, is the legitimate role of pointing out, for instance, Sarah Palin’s gun crosshairs map.  The point is not–or should not be–that Loughner saw this map and said, “Oh, I guess I’d better go shoot Congressman Gifford–that’ll make Sarah Palin happy.”  The point is that we should say, “Dang.  That sure doesn’t look too good in retrospect.  I wonder if it’s really a good idea to mark out your political opposition with gun crosshairs.  A metaphor only, perhaps, but surely the wrong metaphor.”  The blame, of course, should not fall only on conservatives, even if it is true that they have recently been the chief offenders.  The behavior of the right over the past couple years has been truly puerile and reprehensible, but we shouldn’t be too quick to forget the shrill (literally–remember Howard Dean) rhetoric of the left during the final years of the Bush administration.  

The fact that many in our nation have been unable to grasp this, to grasp the difference between a direct cause and a relevant context, and unwilling to take this opportunity for serious self-examination, using it instead for more political grandstanding and demonizing of the ambiguous “left” and “right,” seems to prove more than anything how right some were to raise the questions, how desperately our country needs to grow up.  I mean, seriously.  The kid on the playground at recess feels like every perceived insult has to be matched with a heavier counterinsult, or even a well-placed punch, to preserve his honor.  But hopefully once you grow up, you learn the wisdom of the proverb “a gentle answer turns away wrath.”  Or, to quote Hooker again, “Wee are still perswaded that a bare deniall is answer sufficient to thinges which meere phancie objecteth; and that the best apologie to wordes of scorne and petulancie is Isackes apologie to his brother Ismael, thapologie which patience and silence maketh.  Our answer therefore to their reasons [arguments] is No; to their scoffes nothing.”  Would that Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh could have been so persuaded.  Few enough in the media were seeking to directly implicate them as causes of the shooting, and those who were could be safely ignored as hypocrites and fools.  To the broader concerns that had been voiced, a response might be in order, and hopefully a balanced, patient, and self-critical response.  But no, what do we get? 

Sarah Palin accuses the media of engaging in “blood libel” and Rush Limbaugh says “They are accusing a majority of Americans of being accomplices to murder,” boasting that he now represents “a majority of Americans.”  This latter claim is patently absurd–the hard, vitriolic right represented by such as Palin and Limbaugh cannot represent more than a quarter of the electorate at most.  Of course, it may be true that a majority of Americans now engage in vitriolic political rhetoric and demonizing the opposition.  If so, then a majority of Americans should be confessing their sins in the wake of these shootings, recognizing the responsibility we all bear.  But, of course, Sarah Palin will have none of that.  Quoting Ronald Reagan’s “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions,” she went on to say, “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle.”  Each individual, and each individual only, bears guilt for the crime he commits.  Understood in one sense, this is a truism.  But understood in a fuller sense, this is simply not in accord with Christian teaching, or with reason.  Corporate guilt is a basic reality in Scripture–all Israel bears responsibility for the evils of some Israelites, and even righteous men like Daniel beg forgiveness for the sins of the wicked.  Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima says this powerfully in the Brothers Karamazov–we must learn to ask forgiveness of every creature in the world for the wrong that is done to it, a wrong that we share in due to our sin.  Even aside from theologizing, it is not hard to recognize that the actions of a society influence the actions of its members, and when one of those members commits a monstrous deed, all of society should examine its conscience.  Nuanced moral judgment, of course, will make a distinction between those who are direct causal agents of a crime, and those who are part of the context that facilitated it, and will apportion a legal guilt on the former that does not rest on the latter; but the latter cannot therefore absolve itself of any need for penitence.  

Such inability to engage in nuanced moral judgment–evidenced by Limbaugh’s wildly off-the-mark claim that most of America was being accused of being “accomplices to murder” has become a distinctive of American politics, it seems, right and left.  As has, of course, hypocrisy.  Palin and Limbaugh both deplored the fact that some would use this tragedy as a pretext to score political points against the opposition, and simultaneously, they both sought to do so: “‘They will use anyone,’ Limbaugh said of the left. ‘They will use any event. They will take what is a genuine tragedy and without any evidence whatsoever attempt to massage it for their own political benefit. And they can’t do it by touting their ideas. They can’t do it by explaining the virtue of their beliefs. So what do they have to do? They have to impugn, destroy get rid of, regulate out of business, their political opponent in media if they have a chance.’”  Can you tell me, Limbaugh, in good conscience, that you aren’t massaging these accusations for your political benefit, using it as another opportunity to demonize the left?

Sarah Palin is right to say at least that we shouldn’t be using this tragedy to point fingers at one another; no, we should be using it to point fingers at ourselves, at all of us who encourage crimes like this by publicly hating, rather than loving our brothers.  It’s no surprise, I suppose, that a nation that so habitually demonizes and kills its enemies, real and imaginary, outside its borders, should soon find this hate spilling over into how we treat those within.  Those who don’t learn to love their enemies will soon find it difficult to love even their friends.  When we see these public actions being mimicked by private citizens, the only adequate response is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

 

Some articles:

Limbaugh’s reaction

Reaction to Palin’s reaction

Another reaction to Palin 

Contrasting Obama and Palin

Full text of Palin’s message 


The Problem in a Nutshell

The contents of this post are probably nothing new if you’ve this blog for awhile, but as people back home sometimes get baffled and think I’m a left-wing loony, I’ve been thinking of a way to encapsulate where I’m coming from politico-economically in a nice, neat (though none too eloquent) nutshell.  So here’s a try:

I’m for a free market, or more importantly, a free society, which includes a free market.  Freedom requires the removal of oppressive constraints.  But oppressive constraints are precisely what are put in place by large and powerful entities determined to retain and advance their power.  We live in a world full of massive, extremely wealthy and powerful entities.  Our government is one, to be sure.  But when there’s ten bullies on the block jockeying for position, you don’t get freedom just by taking out the current top bully–rather, by doing this you invite the nine others to come in and take his place, and woe to you if they turn out to be less benign than the first.  If we’re going to live in an age of massive, centralized multinational corporations, then unfortunately we’re going to need massive, centralized governments to keep them in line (though unfortunately, these will often collude with the corporations, rather than restraining them).  You focus just on removing the governments and you don’t get freedom, you just get regime change–indeed, from a constitutional regime to an unrestricted one.  Conservatives talk as if freedom will be attained simply by removing one bully from the equation–the government–and leaving all the others untouched.  But if they get their wish, they may find that the government was, for all its foibles, the only thing maintaining some semblance of freedom from all the other bullies on the block.  So if we’re going to talk about freedom, let’s start talking about how to shrink all the bullies down to size, something that will require laws and constraints–things which, believe it or not, can be aids to freedom, rather than chains.

Now, I realize now that that’s really only half of what needs to be said, so I suppose I’ll try to work up a Pt. 2: The Solution in a Nutshell.  Heh, that should be fun…