Monday, February 05, 2007

How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 4

George Smathers, the dapper US Senator from Florida and friend and ally of President John Kennedy, died last month. One obituary remembered this of Smathers' first run for the Senate in 1950, when his primary opponent was the incumbent Claude Pepper:
The congressman badgered incumbent Sen. Claude Pepper on his support of civil rights and labeled him a communist sympathizer. But his most celebrated remarks -- innocuous declarations intended to appear scandalous to less educated audiences -- might have never been uttered.

"Do you know that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert?" Sen. Smathers was quoted as saying. "Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Sen. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy."
Sen. Smathers denied ever making those remarks. He offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove he did, but no one could.
If Smathers ever did say these things, it would represent one of the cleverest campaign strategems ever: A candidate using innocuous, if not widely known terms, to make innocent activities seem questionable.

That would almost be refreshing to hear in the already-whirring 2008 Presidential race. Instead, many of the candidates are ripping into each other, even through their use of dismissive, backhanded compliments. But disturbing as the rhetoric of candidates and campaigns is, their assaults on one another's characters isn't what concerns me most in the 2008 marathon.

It's likely that 2008 will see bloggers play a bigger part in the campaign than ever before. With unprecedented access to a huge audience, we members of the pajama brigade can pass along ideas and information with breathtaking speed. We also can give rumors, unfair characterizations, and disinformation credence they may not deserve. Today, ordinary voters who blog or know those who do, should, to a degree never known before, ask themselves the same question that responsible candidates and handlers should ask: Is what I'm about to say about the candidate who opposes my viewpoint accurate or fair?

This question is especially important for we Christians to ask, I think. The fourth way in which I believe we Christians need to look at the 2008 election is through the fairness window.

The Eighth Commandment says:
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
According to Martin Luther, writing in The Small Catechism, this command prohibits a lot more than telling lies about others. Luther says of the commandment's meaning:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.
There's no point in trying to extricate ourselves from the implications of this command by saying that people like Joe Biden, Barack Obama, John McCain, or Mitt Romney aren't our neighbors. From God's perspective, everybody else on this planet is our neighbor.

Luther seems to be saying that toward these neighbors, as well as those who live in the house next door or worship from the next pew, we Christians are to be dedicated spin doctors. But instead of putting unflattering spins--interpretations--on the words and perspectives of candidates we don't support, we're to "defend him [or her], speak well of him [or her], and explain his [or her] actions in the kindest way."

People who do this aren't gullible softies, but realists. They know that there are only two kinds of people in the world: unforgiven sinners and forgiven ones. Christians believe that we receive forgiveness through the grace of God offered to all with faith in Jesus Christ and that we will need to come to God through Jesus Christ in "daily repentance and renewal" every day of our lives. Realistically, we understand that only those without sin should dare to cast the first stones. (Meaning, of course, that none of us dare throw stones!)

We also know, as Paul says in Romans, that all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God. But few people are the monsters that political rhetoric, buttressed by very un-Christian self-righteousness, often portrays candidates for the presidency and other elective offices to be. (I'll never forget the conservative Christian who, in 1996, told listeners of a nationally syndicated Christian radio program, that if Bill Clinton were re-elected, it would be the last vote any American ever cast. It seems we've voted several times since then.)

It strikes me as sadly ironic when Christians lament the disintegration of civility in our society and attempt to impart truth-telling to their children, yet feel that they have God-given license to shoot from the hip, often through their computer keyboards, about candidates they oppose.

Very few candidates for political office are the monsters their detractors cast them as being in the heat of political battles. We Christians can't control the rhetoric of others. But we can ask God to help us keep the Eighth Commandment even when it comes to politics.

Campaigns tend to produce more heat than light. As people of the light, maybe we Christians can decrease the savagery and elevate the civility of our political debates.

More tomorrow, I hope.

[For more on the Eighth Commandment, see here.]

[THANKS TO: The Search for Purpose for linking to this series.]

[THANKS ALSO TO: John Schroeder of Article6Blog for linking to this series.]

[UPDATE: See here.]

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