Romney. Christian? Obama. Christian?
This year’s U.S. presidential race offers a great opportunity to ponder what rightly makes a person Christian. I’ve been following the recent political banter and thinking about the Christian identity of both major candidates.
I have a somewhat unique perspective on these issues and the ongoing discussion of politics and faith. I am a Christian theologian with friends who land on virtually every point on the political and theological spectrums. I have staunchly conservative and staunchly liberal friends. And a whole host of my friends identify as neither conservative nor liberal but care about politics and Christian faith.
What follows is not my attempt to show that either Obama or Romney is the “real” or “better” Christian. Instead, I want to explore what my friends are saying about both candidates and what it might mean to vote as a Christian in the coming U.S. presidential election.
I Say I’m Christian.
Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama self-identify as Christian.
Some say this bar is too low for judging whether either or both actually should be called Christian. As some of my friends say, talk is cheap; action counts. “You will know them by their fruit,” Jesus might say.
But the fact that both Obama and Romney self-identify as Christian is important. For Obama’s sake, it should put to rest false rumors he is Muslim. (Actually, it should have put these rumors to rest long, long ago!) For Romney, it shows his belief that Mormonism is part of the Christian tradition.
Perhaps I can make my point this way: It would matter to many people if Romney were to say, “I’m a Mormon, not a Christian.” And it would matter to many if Obama were to say, “I’m a Muslim.” Because both self-identify as Christian, we should at least take these claims with some degree of seriousness.
I Go to Church.
Both Obama and Romney are churchgoers.
Some of my friends think this is also too low a bar for determining who is Christian and who is not. They say going to church makes one a Christian as much as going to McDonalds makes one a hamburger.
But lots of theologians and sociologists argue churchgoing matters. Some scholars say churchgoing is vastly underrated, because identifying with the Christian community is vital to the Christian life. Christianity is a communal faith, they say, not an individualistic one.
Attending Church with other believers also develops particular habits of life and mind. We might hope that some people would develop such positive habits more fully. But the practices and liturgy of the church matter. Besides, if neither presidential candidate spent time in community with other believers, a good number of people would at least tacitly wonder in what sense they are Christian.
I Affirm the Christian Tradition?
In the conversation about who counts as Christian, a small number of my friends say continuity with Christian tradition is the key. To them, those who claim to be Christian but who are not part of a movement tied to the rich Christian tradition don’t finally count as Christian.
Admittedly, very few of my friends take this view. But this perspective pushes us to think about new religious movements and organizations that identify as Christian.
Of course, Romney’s Mormonism comes into scrutiny on this issue. In one sense, Mormons claim to be part of the Christian tradition, because they have an additional testament from Jesus. They follow Jesus, read the Bible, and call themselves Latter Day Saints.
But Mormons typically don’t identify their movement with the historic Church from the earliest centuries up to the time of Joseph Smith. And a few of my friends think this lack of historical continuity means Mormons should not call themselves Christian.
Obama attends churches with continuity with the Christian tradition. But his personal ties to a denomination don’t seem strong. In fact, few people know what denominationally-affiliated church he attends. (Just as few knew which denomination George Bush or Bill Clinton identified.)
Since the last election cycle’s interest in Obama’s connection with Jeremiah Wright and Liberation theology, however, the question of historical Christian continuity arises for some. In one sense, of course, all Christians are liberation theologians if they affirm that Jesus came to set the captives free.
But in a narrower sense, liberation theology is a more recent phenomenon that addresses contemporary political, social, and economic issues unique to particular circumstances in the world today. While liberation theology isn’t a new sect or denomination, it does represent something relatively new to many Western Christians.
For good or ill, few today seem concerned about a person’s or group’s ties to historic Christianity.
Accept Jesus into My Heart?
For a time, I was a committed member of Campus Crusade for Christ. The mission of Cru is evangelism, and I worked hard to persuade my listeners to accept Jesus into their hearts.
For some of my Christian friends, saying the “sinner’s prayer” or something similar is the truest indication that a person is Christian. This prayer washes away sin and guarantees bliss after death. True Christians have said a prayer of commitment to Jesus Christ, they say.
I don’t know whether Romney or Obama have ever said the sinner’s prayer. I doubt it, because the traditions from which each comes do not emphasize this way of understanding entrance into Christian life.
But I expect both to say he is committed to following Jesus, although each may have different understandings of what such commitment means.
I Have the Right Theology!
Some of my friends are committed Christians and staunch Republicans. They like the political agenda Romney offers. But they can’t call him a Christian, because his Mormon beliefs differ from what they consider Christian orthodoxy.
Some of these friends will vote for Romney despite his theology. But others choose not to vote in the coming election, because neither Romney nor Obama espouse the set of beliefs they consider essential to Christian faith.
I have one set of friends – well, I’m using the word “friend” loosely here – who have such a narrow view of what counts as orthodox belief that I am not a Christian in their view. But neither is anyone else I know. Their Christian beliefs gate is a very narrow one!
All of this should motivate us to ask, “What does Romney or Obama have to believe to be rightly called Christian?”
My friends would offer very different lists of beliefs they deem essential to Christianity. In fact, I’ll bet if you randomly picked ten of my friends, you’d get ten different lists. While I think working through the issue of essentials is important, I doubt Jesus would endorse the lists most Christians offer.
Jesus often said salvation had come to people with weird theology. And he often said those with orthodox beliefs were in the wrong. As someone who teaches theology, I often think about this. While I think theological beliefs matter, I try to ask myself, “What positive impact do my beliefs have?” It’s an ongoing theological exercise for me.
Abortion. Poverty. Homosexual Marriage. Environment. Etc.
For a host of my friends, what counts most in this election is one or more of what we often call “social issues.”
I have one pastor friend who boils everything down to abortion. If a candidate isn’t Pro-Life, that candidate can’t legitimately be called Christian. Of course, some of my other friends think terminating an early trimester fetus is not murder, because they believe a human fetus isn’t a human person. To them, Christians can affirm both the practice of abortion and Christian faith.
Some of my friends think big government is the best hope for fighting poverty, while others think fighting poverty is the job of individuals and the church. Some friends think allowing homosexuals to marry is the loving thing to do, while others think God forbids such marriage. Some friends think government needs a larger role in protecting the environment, while others aren’t too concerned about global warming, animal suffering, and environmental destruction.
Of course, I could add other concerns to this list. Immigration comes to mind. General economic concerns and jobs. Education. Military spending. Drug abuse. War. Obesity. Infrastructure. Etc.
On each of these “social issues,” I have Christian friends on both sides of the debate. I’m not reporting this diversity as a subtle way of saying these issues don’t matter. They do. But I simply acknowledge that Christians have differing views on how to address these important issues.
The Christian community, broadly speaking, does not agree on what the one, correct, Christian view should be on these important concerns of our day.
If you’ve been hoping I’d give firm answers to whether Obama or Romney can rightly called Christian, you’re out of luck. As I said earlier, this essay doesn’t provide such answers.
But I am saying exploring these questions can help us decide what it means to be Christian. And it may help us decide how to vote.
For me, the issues of love are paramount to the question of Christian identity. As I read the Bible, the issues of love seems paramount for Jesus. The greatest commands, he says, are to love God and love others as oneself. As I read the Bible, the main themes revolve around love.
Love isn’t the exclusive domain of Christians, however. Buddhists can love too. So can atheists. Saying “they will know we are Christians by our love,” isn’t precisely true. But I do think Jesus continually pointed his listeners to love as the core of salvation. And I think Christians rightly say love is the centerpiece of Christian faith.
Let me be quick to admit it’s not always clear what course of action is the most loving. Christians can have legitimate disagreements – as Romney and Obama do – about what is best for themselves, their neighbors, their country, and the world. And they can disagree in the name of love. So while emphasizing the centrality of love is important for identifying what it means to be Christians, disagreement remains.
A Vote for Love.
As election day draws near and my friends take differing sides on these issues and wonder how we should decide who is a Christian (and as I work out my own views), I’ve been keeping this advice from John Wesley in mind:
“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election and advised them, 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against; and 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” Journal, Oct. 6, 1774
I think Wesley points us toward important ideas in this brief paragraph. Perhaps what we need most in the midst of real disagreement is a spirit of charity, an attitude of love.
I pray that God helps me to have an attitude of love and to keep the ways of love central as I vote in this election.