Fast forward to 2004, the year of the presidential election. Coming home from somewhere in the car, I turned on a local religious talk show. Yeah, I should know better. The DJ was asking the audience if a vote for Kerry constituted proof that someone's Christianity was a fraud. The general consensus was "yes." Those who disagreed were summarily dealt with by the DJ - a perfect example of why arguing with someone who can hang up on you and get the last word is a bad idea. The conclusion was that Christianity meant believing in George W. Bush and everything he did. Funny, I thought following Jesus, the Savior who died for us and rose from the dead so that we won't suffer eternal death, was what Christianity was about.Those words just about broke my heart. It's been a long time since I was part of a fundamentalist church; about 35 years actually. I find myself guilty of being a bit naive, I suppose, assuming that everyone understood that claims that either Bush or Kerry are "more Christian" is just a bunch of political hype.
Silly me. I must be pretty bad at theology to make that mistake.
So I'm an isolated Christian. I have to hide and hope that no one notices that I'm different.
For Rob, and others who might think that Bush is the only option for Christians, let me point out a couple of interesting articles. The President's faith has come under close scrutiny lately:
The Washington Post ran this story on October 16; Openly Religious, to a Point; Bush Leaves the Specifics of His Faith to Speculation. We don't know much about this President's personal spiritual life, except for the claims he makes in political speeches. This article seems to have been an opening others were waiting for, as the rush to define Bush's religious beliefs was on.
Ron Suskind, in The New York Times Magazine, followed with this piece on October 17; Without A Doubt, which suggests that Bush's form of Christian faith carries a dangerous form of self-righteousness within it;
Bush grew into one of history's most forceful leaders, his admirers will attest, by replacing hesitation and reasonable doubt with faith and clarity. Many more will surely tap this high-voltage connection of fervent faith and bold action. In politics, the saying goes, anything that works must be repeated until it is replaced by something better. The horizon seems clear of competitors.On October 19, Ayelish McGarvey, in The American Prospect, wrote an article entitled As God Is His Witness; Bush is no devout evangelical. In fact, he may not be a Christian at all. There's some interesting stuff in this piece, but then I came across this line;
Can the unfinished American experiment in self-governance -- sputtering on the watery fuel of illusion and assertion -- deal with something as nuanced as the subtleties of one man's faith? What, after all, is the nature of the particular conversation the president feels he has with God -- a colloquy upon which the world now precariously turns?
That very issue is what Jim Wallis wishes he could sit and talk about with George W. Bush. That's impossible now, he says. He is no longer invited to the White House.
''Faith can cut in so many ways,'' he said. ''If you're penitent and not triumphal, it can move us to repentance and accountability and help us reach for something higher than ourselves. That can be a powerful thing, a thing that moves us beyond politics as usual, like Martin Luther King did. But when it's designed to certify our righteousness -- that can be a dangerous thing. Then it pushes self-criticism aside. There's no reflection.
''Where people often get lost is on this very point,'' he said after a moment of thought. ''Real faith, you see, leads us to deeper reflection and not -- not ever -- to the thing we as humans so very much want.''
And what is that?
Judging him on his record, George W. Bush's spiritual transformation seems to have consisted of little more than staying on the wagon, with Jesus as a sort of talismanic Alcoholics Anonymous counselor.Ouch. Having been accused of not being a "real Christian" myself more times than I care to remember, I don't like it when it's said about others, even if it is someone I personally dislike. Cheap shots like this, and others found in the article, seem uncalled for as far as I'm concerned.
Next, On October 20, Amy Sullivan picks up the thread as guest columnist for Kevin Drum in an article entitled More Than Words. Although Sullivan also feels that McGarvey went too far, she comes to a very similar conclusion;
Every young Sunday School student knows it's not what you say, it's what you do. And on that score, George W. Bush has failed to act according to Christian principles and values. That shouldn't necessarily matter--that shouldn't be a requirement for our country's leader. But it's simply a fact that many voters cast their lot with the guy they believe is led by a moral power greater than himself. I've heard countless voters say they disagree with Bush on the war, the economy, his environmental record, his education agenda, you name it--but they're voting for him "because he's a good Christian man." The press has accepted uncritically that this is so. Maybe that was a mistake.As you can see, there is not a clear consensus regarding George Bush as THE Christian candidate. I think we can expect more of this kind of press in the next few days.
There is one other direction that the conversation on faith and the presidency is taking that troubles me. Last month, a piece by Mark Noll of The Christian Century appeared; None of the above: Why I won't be voting for President;
As has been the case for the past few presidential elections, on Election Day I will almost certainly cast my vote once again for none of the above. Here is why:Although I agree with his seven convictions, I also strongly believe that not voting is simply wrong thinking. I'm sorry, Mr. Noll, but I cannot respect such a decision. It is this kind of attitude that leads to the apathy we've seen in past elections. One of the greatest gifts this nation has offered to humanity is the democratic process. To refuse the gift because a "perfect" candidate has not risen on the horizon is to be too much of an idealist. There is no such animal as the "perfect" candidate.
Seven issues seem to me to be paramount at the national level: race, the value of life, taxes, trade, medicine, religious freedom and the international rule of law. In my mind, each of these issues has a strong moral dimension. My position on each is related to how I understand the traditional Christian faith that grounds my existence. Yet neither of the major parties is making a serious effort to consider this particular combination of concerns or even anything remotely resembling it...
...I have arrived at these seven political convictions as a result of my Christian faith. Yet each can be advanced in terms of the public good without reliance on a particular faith. Of course, I may be mistaken either in what traditional Christianity should mean politically for an American citizen in the early 21st century or in how best to argue for these positions with reasoning not demanding a commitment to traditional Christianity. But as long as I hold these positions, I am a citizen without a political home.
The Ivy Bush offers an excellent reflection on Noll's position, including a discussion of some of Stanley Hauerwas' ideas and a link to another discussion on The Morning Retort. The theme is picked up by Except for These Chains, who explores his problem with the "no lesser of two evils" approach to voting.
I haven't presented the discussion of Kerry being a Christian or not, but let me assure you that it's out there too. The only thing I will point out is that John Kerry has not been excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. Let's kill that smear campaign right now.
In my opinion, there is no question that George Bush and John Kerry are both Christians, if that is the label they choose to claim. I cannot look into their hearts and know the nature of their relationship with God, and I question the integrity of anyone who claims that they can.
So, Rob, and others, vote for who you think will be the best leader for this nation. And maybe do some church shopping. I assure you that there are faith communities out there that do not employ thought police.
P.S. Just for the record, I will be voting for Kerry, but not necessarily because I think it's my "Christian duty." I'll be voting for Kerry because of the kind of crazy (dare I say fascist? I guess I just did) ideology coming out of the Bush administration, such as this classic example from Suskind's piece;
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''May God have mercy on us all if these egomaniacs are allowed four more years in the White House.