This year a good number of serious Christians, some of them evangelicals like myself, will vote to reelect the incumbent President. On the other hand, many evangelical Christians are supporting the Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who happens to be a Mormon, and the recent endorsement of Romney by Billy Graham suggests that this support runs pretty deep.
On the level of endorsements and probable voting patterns the answer to this provocative question is less than clear. This year a good number of serious Christians, some of them evangelicals like myself, will vote to reelect the incumbent President. For example, I have a good friend in academia, whose faith I do not question in the least, who will cast his vote for Obama on November 6. In fact, we have a good-natured wager riding on the outcome of the race. Having decided to bracket the abortion question from consideration because he considers it a political and cultural stalemate in which neither side will gain an advantage (wrongly, I think—I cannot imagine the current status quo as defined by Webster v. Reproductive Health Services surviving another Obama appointment to the high court), he believes that on balance the Democrats are likely to accomplish more good for the nation than the Republicans.
On the other hand, many evangelical Christians are supporting the Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who happens to be a Mormon, and the recent endorsement of Romney by Billy Graham suggests that this support runs pretty deep. In light of such differences, the title question of this article is at least worth asking.
Here some definition is in order. By “Christian” I mean those of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox affiliation who take Scripture and the Christian tradition seriously, not the trendy champions of pan-sexualism intent on the wholesale revisioning of Christian doctrine and morality in the precipitously declining mainline Protestant churches (such as many in Obama’s own United Church of Christ). From this rich tradition come certain sentiments that historically have informed Christians as they make political decisions and choices.
The first is a realism about the human condition. According to the Christian story human beings are both created in the image of God and flawed because of sin. This accounts for both the grandeur and the tragedy of the human experience. According to the often-misunderstood Calvinist version of the doctrine of original sin, the resulting depravity is “total.” That is, it affects all aspects of human existence—intellectual, emotional, physical, volitional, aesthetic, and so forth (a totality of extent rather than depth). An implication of this realism is that Christian expectations for government have often been rather low, and it is little surprise that modern federal democracy, with its concern for the careful balancing of powers so that one person or group does not gain undue dominance, evolved under significant Christian influence. Christians don’t need a Lord Acton to tell them that power corrupts.
The second is a skepticism of comprehensive, this-worldly solutions and secularized messianic hopes, of undefined and unrealistic utopian exercises in “hope and change.” Of course, this skepticism is rooted to some degree in the anthropological realism just noted, but it also flows from the eschatological horizon of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If human redemption ultimately depends on divine activity at the end of history, then one should not try, as some have put it, to “immanentize the eschaton” in the here and now. Both Jews and Christians learned that lesson long ago as the biblical holy-war tradition was eschatologically conditioned and spiritualized. Jews wisely decided to eschew the apocalyptic impulse of the Jewish Wars in the first and second centuries, and to wait for the messiah to come and set things right. Christians did much the same thing as holy warfare motifs were understood in terms of spiritual conflict in the present and the second advent of Jesus in the future (and yes, I’m quite aware of the post-millennial scenario that achieved some popularity in more culturally optimistic times or recently as an incentive to action among Christian Reconstructionists).
The third is a vibrant concern for human life and welfare. From a Christian perspective, human life is precious because it is a gift of God and because human beings share in the divine image. For these reasons innocent human life is to be protected at all stages of development to the greatest extent possible. The early Christians took a strong and principled stand against abortion and infanticide, and while serious Christians may disagree as to the permissibility of abortion in cases of rape, incest, and threat to the life of the mother, they agree that abortion is always a tragedy, that it is not to be celebrated, and that at very least it should be limited.
These second and third sentiments help to account for the curious double focus of Christians on social and governmental issues. On the one hand, Jesus called his followers to a clearheaded realism, and he assured them that the “poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11 NIV). On the other hand he told the rich young ruler, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Luke 18:22). Reflecting this, Christians have often combined well-founded skepticism of the messianic pretensions of government to eradicate poverty in our time with intense involvement in well-organized efforts to help the poor. In fact, no single group has historically done more to help the poor than Christians!
Finally, there is a concern for religious liberty. The fact that Christians have so often borne the brunt of religious persecution in the past—for centuries at the hands of the Roman Empire until the Edict of Milan, from expansionist Islam, and from Marxist-Leninist-Maoist movements in the 20th century—and that they currently face severe persecution in parts of the world means that they are especially sensitive on this topic. To be sure, some Christians have failed miserably in this area, but my sense is that the arguments by Timothy Shah of Georgetown University and the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center For Religion, Peace, and World Affairs—that the Western concerns for freedom in general and for religious freedom in particular owe much to the influence of Christianity—are correct. In any event, the broader pattern is pretty clear: religious liberty matters to many Christians.
These, then, are some of the sentiments that inform a Christian approach to politics. To be sure, many non-Christians can and do share them; in fact, one could argue that much of this is just good common sense informed by the larger pattern of human experience. In other words, there is nothing invidiously sectarian about this perspective.
How does the Obama administration measure up? Does the current President demonstrate an appropriate realism about the human condition? Here we are reminded of his comments while campaigning in 2007 that upon his inauguration as President foreign hostility to America would diminish because Muslims would realize that he understood their concerns. Indeed, the President’s lack of realism is becoming a standing joke—NPR radio personality Peter Sagal recently quipped that if Obama found himself on a sinking ship “he would enter into good-faith negotiations with the ocean.”
But what about a healthy skepticism of this-worldly solutions? As we will recall, the President’s 2008 campaign was positively messianic. Obama, we were told, would lead America into a new era of “hope and change,” a veritable utopia in which racial and cultural divisions were transcended and economic prosperity restored. Even worse, Obama himself really seemed to believe this. The governmental spending policies of Obama, an academic lawyer turned politician with virtually no private-sector experience, evince both an exaggerated faith in the power of government and a failure to learn from obvious mistakes.
When he took office on January 20, 2009 the federal deficit stood at $10.626 trillion. Less than four years later the deficit is now at well over $16 trillion. While much of this massive spending increase was intended to stimulate job growth, the opposite has taken place. Inheriting a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 7.8% in January of 2009, the rate in September of 2012 stood at 8.1%, with intervening reductions due largely to the fact that so many disillusioned workers have stopped looking for jobs. According to informed estimates, the real unemployment rate now stands above 11%. Not only have these policies proven ineffective, but they have also saddled future generations of Americans with crushing national debt.
With regard to concern for human life and welfare, no sentient American could miss the prominence of abortion rhetoric at the recent Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Earlier Clinton-era platform language of keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare” was changed to “safe and legal,” and speaker after speaker hammered home the point that any restrictions on abortion are unacceptable to the Democratic Party. So prominent was this theme at the convention that, as Eleanor Clift (of all people) noted, a number of pro-Democrat female media figures found this celebration of death off-putting and even disturbing. Pro-life Democrats are now an endangered species, and it is unrealistic to think that any progress on this divisive issue is going to come from that side of the aisle.
Equally disturbing is the trend toward more dependence on government during the Obama years, as chronicled by the 2012 Index of Dependence upon Government. According to an author of the report, the index rose by 8.1% in 2011 as more than 67 million Americans now receive support from the government and around 70 percent of the federal budget goes to entitlement programs. Food Stamp usage is at an all-time high. Even more striking is the fact that now around half of the Americans not claimed as dependents pay no federal income tax—a stunning figure that speaks volumes about the direction of federal policy.
This, in fact, is the real story behind Mitt Romney’s recent clumsy reference to the 47 percent who pay no federal taxes and who are likely to vote for Obama (according to the Index of Dependence upon Government, that figure was 14.8% in the middle of the Reagan administration!). The fact of the matter is that the Democratic Party has long sought to increase entitlement spending in the knowledge that more dependency on government generally means more votes for Democrats. But does making more and more Americans wards of the state advance their welfare?
Finally, what about religious liberty? Despite the President’s recent “unwavering pledge to protect religious liberty,” his policies speak otherwise. Best known, of course, are the Obamacare provisions requiring companies and organizations to provide their employees with health coverage for contraceptives, abortifacient drugs, and sterilization procedures that have prompted lawsuits by Roman Catholic and evangelical educational institutions and even Hobby Lobby.
But the problems go well beyond Obamacare. Witness, for example, the Obama administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit against a Lutheran church (Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) in which it argued, according to the opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the astonishing proposition that the First Amendment has “nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.” Thankfully, the Supreme Court decisively rejected the administration’s arguments. Much more could be cited here, but the larger pattern is clear—religious liberty is under attack by the Obama administration.
And so the question is posed. Of course Christians can cast a vote for either candidate, but can they do so with equal coherence? Here I’m reminded of a televised debate in which the late William F. Buckley was asked if an atheist could be a good citizen. His response was that an atheist could be a good citizen, but not a coherent one. Here’s to coherent Christians!
William B. Evans is the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina, where he teaches courses in theology, American religion, and religion and culture. He holds degrees from Taylor University, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and Vanderbilt University.