By the title of this post I am not asking whether a Christian can campaign for office on some kind of Christian platform. The nature of my inquiry instead is given the rough and tumble and even nasty nature of the world of politics, can a politician who embraces Christian faith run a campaign that looks Christian in character?
Many years ago, a parishioner of a church I was serving at the time asked me if I ever considered running for political office. I responded in somewhat glib fashion, "I deal with enough politics in the church as it is. Why would I want to intentionally set foot directly into the fray?"
I have never and would never consider running for political office even locally, not only because I would be terrible at it, and even my supporters would want to throw me out long before serving one term, but as I have said in previous posts, the real political action isn't taking place in Washington DC nor in local municipalities; the real political action is taking place in the church, God's kingdom come on earth.
But since I am a political animal and follow politics closely (which suggests that I probably need to get a life), I have given some thought over the years as to what a campaign for election would really look like if the one running made a conscious effort not to do anything of which Jesus would not approve?
Let me first set a couple of things in context:
First, while I very much believe in civility and that as a Christian civility is important, I do not think that the summation of Christian ethics and character is simply to be kind. Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again from the dead, so that I might be nice. Jesus himself became angry at injustice and hypocrisy. St. Paul was none too pleased with the Galatians. So, in this post I am not suggesting that anger and tough words are never acceptable for Christians. Of course, the Bible warns us to measure our words carefully. The problem is not anger per se or tough words per se; the problem is that often the anger and harsh verbiage come at the wrong time or is expressed in the wrong way.
Second, neither do I want to suggest that Christians cannot be part of the rough and tumble of political life precisely because it is rough and tumble by nature. Life by its very nature is rough and tumble. It's not the rough and tumble that concerns me when it comes to political campaigns. What is of direct interest to me in this post is two-fold: the willful distortion and manipulation of facts that seem to go hand in hand with political campaigns and the unjustified and often unproven attacks on an opponent's character, both of which are questionable from a Christian perspective.
First, everyone who follows politics closely knows that political critique of an opponent is almost always selective when it comes to the facts. One politician can accuse another of voting for a tax increase, when the whole truth of the matter is that the legislation voted for was part of a broader package of programs supported by the accuser herself. Or, one can insist that the nemesis being opposed voted for tax cuts for the rich, when the tax cuts also included cuts for the middle class with the latter fact conveniently being left out. This kind of willful distortion happens all the time, and I find it quite difficult to believe that Jesus would approve of such manipulation and distortion of the truth for the sake of political expediency.
Second, is the inevitable attack on a person's character during a campaign. It's not enough to say that an opponent voted for health care reform and here are the reasons it was a bad idea, or that the challenger would have voted against it and here are the reasons that would have been a bad idea. Instead, both sides feel the need to assign nefarious motivations to their reasoning. My opponent supports death panels that will decide whether patients live or die, or my challenger doesn't care about all the little children who have no health care. If they get sick, his remedy is for them to die quickly.
Now this is not to say that politicians always do things from pure motives; all of us, at times, can support or oppose something based on questionable and selfish concerns. But such an accusation should have clear and definitive proof before it is made. But that is not what happens in politics. Indeed, what I find is that both sides of the political aisle, and Christians included, are all too willing to trash the character of those whose politics differ from theirs. The political philosophy seems to be, "If you don't embrace my politics, you are bad!" Brothers and sisters in Christ, these things ought not to be for the followers of Jesus.
And in connection to all of this is the negative campaigning that everyone says they will not do when the election season starts. But sooner or later almost everyone resorts to it because study after study shows two things: the American voters hate negative campaigning, and the American voters find such campaigning to be convincing. So whether such negative ads start because one politician is down in the polls or whether the politician in the lead has to respond with some negativity of her or his own, it is prevalent nonetheless. And I highly doubt that Jesus would approve of the character assassination of another.
And related to this-- what possible justification could any Christian give for making public embarrassing information about a political opponent's past? Why would any Christian seek to humiliate someone else in such a way? And to respond, "Well that's politics," is not a Christian response. Is there anyone who is not sure what Jesus would do in this situation?
So, even if I ever had a desire to run for political office, I would never do so because I do not think that I could successfully run a campaign in keeping with the character of Jesus Christ, and just maybe that is the real problem. It is entirely possible for a Christian to run a political campaign that would, in the final analysis, be very Christian in character, but it is quite doubtful that such a campaign would elect anyone.
The number one concern when it comes to the politics of the nations is not truth or virtue-- it is power-- and the end justifies the means.
That is why my central political concern is the church and its mission in the world; for only the church is God's true politic in the world... and when all is said and done the Democrats and Republicans will be left "waiting for the bus" as God's kingdom passes them by on the way to new creation.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)