With Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's selection of Joseph
Liebermann, an American Jew as his running mate, the issue of religion
in politics seems very much alive. Senator Liebermann, it is hoped by
the Gore campaign, will draw Jewish dollars and voters to their ticket.
But it also raises questions.
Many Christians like to cast their vote for political candidates who
identify themselves as "Christian." Both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush have
voluntarily adopted that label. Does this mean that for Christians there
is really no difference between them -- and we should therefore consider
other factors? What is it that makes a candidate Christian, anyway?
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There are many different views. Christians who place a premium on
social action frequently support candidates who promise to increase
governmental spending on welfare and social issues. They seem to feel
that their faith requires the poor be looked after, and that government
is the best tool to accomplish that work. Other Christians seem more
concerned with a candidate's dedication to cutting government services
and influence in daily life -- even at the risk of hurting the poor,
whom they believe should be helped by private efforts. Yet others seem
primarily concerned with moral and ethical issues: what is the
candidate's stand -- and how will he or she vote -- on abortion and
euthanasia? Frequently Christians end up voting for candidates who give
no indication of their faith at all. Sadly, many Christians never vote.
How is it that Christians can end up voting for opposing candidates,
yet with each believing that he or she has voted for the "Christian"
candidate? And how can candidates with views 180 degrees apart on
important social issues both claim to be Christian? Is there really such
a thing as a "Christian" candidate? And, if there is, should we vote for
that person because they are Christian -- or Jewish?
In the secular world, Christians and Jews are frequently lumped
together. There is even a word for this: Judeo-Christian, which refers
to our combined heritage. Perhaps this is because we worship the same
God -- or share so many of the same values (the first implies the
second). The most famous example is that we both acknowledge the
absolute validity of the Ten Commandments, as delivered to the Jews by
God through Moses. But there are also differences: Jesus' three year
ministry in cosmopolitan Jerusalem and the surrounding villages was
fraught with controversy between his followers and the Jewish religious
rulers. Jesus felt that the Jewish leaders had become too enmeshed in
the rules they had built up around God's commandments -- at the expense
of people, whom God loved. Much of this controversy continues today.
Many people would argue that questions of faith have no place in
politics. They seem to believe that religious teachings should not
affect our lives, once we step outside the four walls of a church or
synagogue. Oddly enough, many of these same people have no problem with
celebrities' opinions affecting our lives outside the theater, evolution
affecting our thinking outside the scientific laboratory, or government
affecting our family lives in the privacy of our homes. Jesus, on the
other hand, seemed to feel that our relationship with God was pretty
much a permanent affair, affecting every area of our lives, all the
time. He didn't heal people only on religious days -- although, oddly
enough, those are the days he got in trouble for doing so.
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If faith is to affect our lives outside the four walls of the church
-- and that is the Church's teaching down throughout history -- then it
would seem that identifying oneself as Christian or Jewish (in a
religious sense) should include certain beliefs and actions -- and
exclude others. In other words, we expect more than a pretty package,
tied up with colorful ribbon and a bow. Thus when The Economist
newspaper describes Al Gore as a "committed Christian," as it did in its
Aug. 12 edition, we don't expect them to in the next paragraph paint him
as "solicitor in chief" of finance scandal, Medicare demagogue, and a
ruthless campaigner employing hired guns to assassinate opponents'
character -- while he himself has a "willingness to twist the truth."
Thus for the editors at The Economist -- and much of the secular
world -- one can be a "committed Christian" and still engage in
fund-raising fraud, character assassination, and lying! And in the
American media one can be hailed as an orthodox Jew -- as Mr. Liebermann
is -- while voting to permit those who crush the skull of an infant on its
way out of the birth canal for the convenience of the mother, to
continue operating with the state's blessings.
Just prior to Jesus' crucifixion, he met with his disciples for their
last supper. There they asked Jesus to settle a dispute about who was
greatest among them. His response was to assume the position of a
servant by wrapping a towel around his waist, grabbing a basin of water,
and washing the day's grime from their feet -- over Peter's objections.
"Do you know what I have done for you?" Jesus then asked. "You call me
teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord
and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's
feet. For I have given you an example..." (John 13:12-14).
The Christian candidate is not hard to identify. His faith is not a
label added to the package to make him attractive to a certain segment
of the voting public. Rather, his or her faith produces certain values
that govern that person's actions. Jesus, as recorded by his biographer,
Luke, put it this way: "For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does
a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For
figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble
bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good,
and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the
abundance of the heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:43-45).
The great thing about America -- and God, for that matter -- is that
both let us choose the standards we will ultimately be judged by. In the
case of Mr. Gore and Mr. Liebermann, both have played the religion card
in the expectation of deriving electoral gain. In so doing, they have
plainly told us that the words, "Thou shalt not kill (innocent life),"
one of God's direct commandments, are an integral part of their value
system. Both, however, have during their careers voted as elected
officials to sanction the killing of innocent life. The Apostle John,
another of Jesus' biographers, suggests why: "For they loved the praise
(votes?) of men more than the praise of God" (John 12:43).