Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Bottom Line: Who Gets Elected Doesn't Really Matter

I just heard an item on NPR about a woman from West Virginia who gave birth prematurely while out of state. She's a big McCain supporter and wanted, in her phrase, "to do the right thing" by voting for the senator if she could. So, the social service people at the hospital where the woman delivered the child at 3:30 this morning contacted local election officials in her community, who sent two people--one Republican and one Democrat--to hand-deliver a paper ballot, which the woman then duly filled out and gave back to them for hand-delivery to West Virginia.

It reminded me of the blast email I received from a well-intentioned friend just last night. It contained a message alleged to have come from Atlanta-area pastor Charles Stanley. In it, Stanley supposedly called on Christians to pray for the election of McCain. As I told to the sender of that email and its other recipients, while I know Stanley to be theologically conservative, I couldn't imagine his sending out such a message. I explained that even when I made the mistake of being a candidate for state office here in Ohio four years ago, "...I never would have suggested that my party had a corner on God and I doubted that Rev. Stanley would do such a thing either." I found out that, in fact, the Stanley "message" was another hoax and he had nothing to do with it and informed the emailer and her correspondents of that fact.

One recipient of my response wrote to ask, "Surely you’re not saying God doesn’t care who leads our nation, or that he’s indifferent to who we personally vote for?"

I do believe God cares about who we vote for.

But I'm not convinced that God cares much who gets elected.

Most Christians I know are of the same opinion. As one pastor, a Texan, a veteran military officer, and one-time Army chaplain who served in Kosovo, told me earlier today, "It doesn't much matter to God who is elected president."

As as a Christian, I think that voting can be an expression of love of God and neighbor, fulfilling the twin components of Jesus' Great Commandment.

But I'm also concerned that many voters and especially, my fellow Christians put entirely too much stock in elections, especially presidential elections.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those anti-matter people. I don't see God as a deity removed from the life of the world. The Buddhist and Hindu religions teach a kind of passivity, the notion that matter--our skin, bones, brains, and lives--don't really matter that much. Hindus are taught not to seek to advance through castes, that to do so is a sin. Buddhists are taught that all desire causes suffering and that our ultimate goal is to reach a state of such stoicism and bliss that we become absorbed into a non-material and impersonal god. The Judeo-Christian faith, by contrast, reveals an earthy God who is engaged with the human race and the universe. The Bible teaches that the very breath or spirit of God gives us life to humanity. The New Testament says that God became human because God cares about what happens to us. Christians believe that when Jesus rose from the dead, He didn't do so as some removed, ethereal phantom, but bodily. And the Bible says that all who entrust their lives to Him will rise bodily too. As writer C.S. Lewis puts it, "God likes matter. He invented it." So, God cares about our world and our daily lives.

Christians also believe that Jesus calls us to care for the despised, the needy, the sick, the imprisoned, and the powerless. Confident that through God's grace, we have a new and everlasting life with God, we believe that God has freed from the self-interest that so often drives us in our living, consuming, and voting in order to live lives of love, brimming over with anticipation of an eternity with God. (Keep in mind, no Christian--or Jew, for that matter--would claim to live such a life with perfection, but Christians anyway, believe that in Christ, God makes that sort of life possible.) At various times, Christ's call to love neighbor may call us to support governments even when we disagree with them, or on rare occasions, to work to bring them down.*

But as a Christian I believe that governments are temporary measures, necessary expedients in an imperfect world in which not all voluntarily live by Jesus' ethic of love for neighbor and in which those who seek to live by this ethic are defended against those who don't. The coercive power of government, at its best, protects us so that I can live in peace with my neighbor even if he hates my guts.

But there's a lot that government can't do: It can't make people believe what they don't believe.

Often though, I think some of my Christian sisters and brothers, whether on the left or the right, put entirely too much confidence in the capacity of government to change people's lives and attitudes. Both James Dobson and his fellow travelers and Jim Wallis and the people into his philosophies, representing the Christian right and the Christian left, overestimate the impact of government decisions on people's daily lives. Yeah, government can increase or decrease our taxes, provide us with Social Security or health care, defend us from terrorists, ensure the health and safety of our food and drugs, and much more. All of those functions are terribly important.

But, from the Biblical perspective, they aren't of ultimate importance. Whether Barack Obama or John McCain become president tomorrow, I will be the same person on the inside as I am today. The same is true of anyone reading this. Human nature will not suddenly be transformed. We'll all still be inclined to look out for ourselves and often, we'll act on that impulse, inexorably undermining the reforms that well-intentioned people of all religions and persuasions might enact through government.

By contrast, if the majority of our nation were spiritually enlivened to the virtues and to the advantages to all in the ethic of love for God and love for neighbor, society would be transformed. Conflicts would ebb. People, working in concert with and apart from governments, would find ways to live for the common good.

Of course, the Judeo-Christian perspective holds that such a complete mass transformation won't happen or happen for extended periods of time in this world. So, we support governments, even praying for emperors with whom we disagree and work, as the political system allows, to bring about incremental changes for the better. But the most important thing Christians are called to do is not "get votes" nor "implement a particular political program." The call--and the command of Jesus--is to "make disciples," to persuade people (we believe by the power of God's Spirit) to voluntarily follow Jesus and enlist in the Jesus movement that will bring eternal hope and peace to people and give them the courage to live the ethic of neighborly, mutual concern which governments, at their best, are intended to foster.

The Christian left is wrong.

The Christian right is wrong.

Each invest too much faith in the power of government.

Each invest too much passionate belief in the fealty to God of political parties and political figures who, ninety-nine times out of one-hundred will, like the rest of the human race, act selfishly.

I say this with some hesitation. I'm a recovering political junkie whose addiction goes back fifty years, to when I was just four years old. My passion for politics was so fevered at the age of five that my parents took me to Washington, DC, to see the White House, the Capitol, Arlington National Cemetery, and so on. (Yes, I was a nerd!) In younger years, I was the sole employee of a shoestring-budgeted campaign for Congress. That my addiction continues to smolder all these years later is attested by the fact that since 2006, I've posted something like 115 items on the 2008 presidential election. Recovery isn't easy. (I feel toward politics the way George C. Scott's version of Patton, considering his attitude toward war, feels: "God help me; I love it!")

As a Christian, I believe that God cares that I try to use my vote as an expression of God's love. God cares that I ask for wisdom in deciding for whom to vote. God cares that I pray for those who seek and hold public office.

But whether McCain or Obama becomes our commander in chief for the next four years isn't nearly as important to God as the question of whether we use each day in honorable, loving ways and whether we're doing our part to lovingly persuade others of the goodness and grace of Christ. Nothing else is really that important.

*A movement of German Christians, most notably including the Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer became involved in a desperate conspiracy to bring down Adolf Hitler, for example. Hitler was a despot and committed Christians who failed to stand against him regretted their inaction. Fortunately, we've never had any full-blown despots run for or attain the presidency in the history of the United States.


Ontario Emperor said...

Your story reminded me of one that I heard about in November 1992, where an LCMS pastor supposedly said that a bad thing had happened in the election. We forget that God is not a Republican or a Democrat, or even (gasp!) an American.

Even if we consider what powers the U.S. President DOES have, we have no way of knowing what a President will encounter in office. We can make our plans, but as James 4 notes, we don't have control over what happens. 9/11 is a clear example of this - when people voted for President Bush, Mayor Giuliani, and other leaders, we had no idea that they would face THOSE types of challenges.

Mark Daniels said...

Great comments! I really appreciate what you've written here. A few months ago, I wrote a piece called, "It's Character, Stupid."

Also, I love what you say about God not being a Republican or an American.



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