I’ve never been a fan of politics. By its very nature, politics is inclined toward corruption, deception and the accumulation of power. So I am always leery of religious individuals, Christians in particular, who turn presidential elections into a test of one’s religiosity.
Until recently, it has generally been assumed that God-fearing Christians vote Republican (Christians counted for more than 20 percent of voters in 2004). Yet to the consternation of those on the Right, that assumption is now being challenged by the emergence of a so-called Christian Left, led by activists such as Jim Wallis, editor of the progressive evangelical journal Sojourners, and by Barack Obama’s increasing popularity among younger Christian voters.
As Newsweek recently reported, young evangelicals “say they don’t want to be Republican just because that’s what’s expected. Only 40 percent of evangelicals 18 to 29 identify as Republican, down from 55 percent in 2001, according to the Pew Research Center. This slide correlates to the recent broadening of the evangelical agenda to encompass social-justice and global-poverty issues, as well as to Bush’s low popularity ratings.”
Thus, determined to maintain their tenuous ties to power, a number of Christian Right leaders have done what they insisted they would never do: they have thrown in their lot with John McCain. Just recently, 90 of the movement’s leading activists met in Denver to confer their support on the Republican presidential candidate and urge him to choose former preacher and conservative Mike Huckabee as his running mate. The tenor of the meeting may be best expressed by Phil Burress, president of an Ohio organization affiliated with Focus on the Family: “The only evangelicals that will support Obama are the ones who haven’t read their Bible.”
Now both sides are heatedly vying for the Christian vote, with news reports of McCain cozying up to Christian leaders and Obama trotting out the Jesus-talk at every opportunity. Yet in their eagerness to sell voters on their Christianity, the politicians have forgotten one critical fact: you cannot truly practice what Jesus taught and be successful in politics.
After all, it was the politicians of his day who killed Jesus.
Jesus was a politician’s nightmare. He never ran for political office, but he had quite a platform, and these were his campaign slogans: Love your foes. Help those who hate you. Praise those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. If someone punches your cheek, offer the other cheek. If someone steals your coat, offer him your shirt as well. If someone asks you for something, give it to him. Treat others exactly as you would wish to be treated. Love your enemies and treat them well. If you lend money, do it without any expectation of profit. Show favor to ingrates and scoundrels. Do not sit in judgment of your fellow human being. Always forgive.
What politician today could be elected on such a platform? Not even Jesus.
Indeed, the Jesus of the New Testament was about as far from being a politician as one could get. He refused to play power politics. Instead, he challenged the political and religious belief systems of his day. He refused to compromise on his principles, and he preached a message of unity and love, as opposed to the divisiveness that politics relies on.
Jesus was anti-political. He stood against such things as empires, controlling people, state violence and power politics. He saw politics and human governments as inevitably corrupt and set the standard for confronting governmental powers. He taught a new way to govern—one that was spiritually healthy, creative, concerned about the oppressed and the poor and promoted a sense of community. His teachings undermined the establishment and the political status quo, not only of his own time but ours as well.
Jesus advocated love, peace, nonviolence and helping the poor. And he spoke truth to power, uncaring of who he offended, even when all the odds were against it. He constantly inveighed against the rich, the powerful and the exploiters. And his egalitarian treatment of women was so shocking in the patriarchal society of his time that his own male followers could not understand it.
In short, Jesus was a radical.
As author Garry Wills writes in What Jesus Meant, anyone claiming to practice a “Christian politics” other than the kind practiced by Jesus is a usurper. You can’t speak truth to power, as Jesus did, and be the power, because as Jesus showed us, how you change the world is not through government or politics but by raising up communities, bringing people to peace, eschewing power, speaking out against injustice, helping those in need, and loving those around you, even your enemies.
This isn’t to say that religious people should abstain from voting or vote a particular ticket. But if you’re a Christian, you should be doing more than voting for a candidate who promises to be a political savior. As history makes clear, there is no such thing.