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.
I’m disappointed that you didn’t tell me for whom I should vote! Many others have! Thanks for your thoughts that point us in the right direction as we decide where our votes should go. Wesley had it right. So do you.
Thank you Tom! As usual the aroma of love & charity swirls through your discussion. I’ve concluded that we (Orthodox ‘Christians’) we default our identity to political affiliation rather than a Spiritual Father.
Blessings on your Journey!
Thank you Tom for sharing this post!
I had recently seen John Wesley’s Oct 6 Journal quoted and thought it very appropriate. Your thoughts also add to the understanding of these issues and while my heart has been grieved by the apparent volatility coming from both sides of the isle, this post has helped ease my concern and center my mind/heart back on what I am personally responsible for. My personal responsibility will be the one that should matter to me when I am standing before the throne. All I can do is continue to love and allow Christ’s love to flow through me.
A rather wordy way of saying, thanks for the reminder!
Tom – Wesley was willing to take a stand on some difficult political issues…in his view love did not keep him from taking a stand and encouraging others to do so…I thought you may follow Wesley’s example and take a stand on one issue
Thank you once again for your words of love and grace. Sentiments which are too rarely spoken these days!
Great perspective Tom! As I think about the upcoming election, and really think in a broader perspective of the interface between my being a follower of Jesus and a citizen of the United States, I find myself frustrated by what I see as a lack of connectivity between how one votes and how one lives. In the same we that we have to show our Drivers License to prove identity, we should have to show proof of service/involvement in the very things we are voting for/against. If you are voting for/against school propositions of levies, show your involvement in local schools. If you are voting pro-life/pro-choice, show your involvement with Planned Parenthood or Lifeline Pregnancy Center. If you are voting for/against Gay Marriage, show your involvement with organizations involved with listening to, advocating for the LGTBQ community.
We cannot legislate morality and if we truly embody the message of Jesus, we do not count on our vote to change the world. If that was the case, Jesus would have snuggled up with Pilate instead of telling him “you would have no power over me except what was given to you from above…”. (John 19:11)
Should we vote? Yes. But, if going to MacDonald’s doesn’t make you a hamburger, than voting your “religious view” doesn’t make you a Christian. You can “vote Christian” as easy as you can call yourself Christian. And I do not find either of those as Biblical realities for one’s belonging in the Kingdom of God.
Nagging/troubling uneasiness … sounds like everything is OK and each decides for themselves.
Thank you, D. Oord.
I read your post as the third debate was taking place in America. In the third world country where I live, I cannot watch such events live and so at best I can read some of the “spin” after the fact. I watch sport events on ESPN tracker. Can you imagine what the media would be doing if this was the forum they had to use to report such events?
I appreciate, respect and learned from your clear and practical thoughts on voting “Christian” or voting based on “Religion.” In such things as politics there never is a really clear line drawn. In class, we are applying Newbigin’s perspective that we lean (gain knowledge) thorough personal and communal experience. In this context we understand that we are the recipients not the originators of what we are seeking to know. To a great extent, in the end, it is our community experience of mutual trust that will probably influence us the most in how we vote. We don’t believe what we don’t trust and we vote only what we come to “believe.” In this political atmosphere, building trust is very difficult. Thank you for your clear communal perspective and thoughts…very encouraging.
Of course, I voted three weeks ago…I had to or it would not have counted. —Ron
I congratulate you for commenting on a subject where there has been, among evangelicals, far more fire than light and love. The spirit in which you raised and dealt with contentious issues is a great example of the kind of “love by which they will know that we are Christian.”
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems you rather err on the side of the political right, which is not to say you are pandering to a Republican sentiment. Does this reveal that you expect most of your readers to be politically conservative? It probably does.
I don’t know a whole lot about Mormonism, but whereas Obama’s faith background points to a straight forward Protestant Christian identification, Romney’s is clearly an entirely different religion.
Evangelicals don’t own the monopoly on being Christian. Four years ago, eight years ago, many Christian leaders in the US unashamedly advised their congregations or followers to make their vote a ‘kingdom vote’, clearly suggesting one of the candidates above the other. This year, that cannot be said. So now, both ‘might’ be Christian candidates? It’s not a convincing view. We know that many conservatives cloak their rhetoric in Christian terminology, and many Evangelicals conflate Christianity with a certain politics per se. But now the Christian is on the ‘other’ side of the political divide.
I fully endorse the advice of Wesley about voting. It’s a pity that this advice is belated, since Obama is clearly the only Christian running for president in 2012.
I offer this as food for thought – I identify as an Evangelical.
For evangelical “Christians” who have issues with the validity of Mormanism as a vehicle of Christianity … rest easy. Billy Graham has taken Mormonism off The Cult List. I think that might mean it’s OK to vote for the heathen, or at least invite our Morman neighbors to Naz potlucks now. Or does it merely mean that Billy Graham has sunk to seeing faith as a matter of political expediency? Members of the Naz have apparently been ‘wrestling’ with this for some time. While some members of the Naz embrace Obama’s political and philosophical views, it seems that out here in Flyover Country most members of the Naz tend to be a bit more ‘conservative.’ I am not sure if they truly believe that God is a Republican, or if it just seems so, as they have struggled to arrive at some way of getting around Romney’s now former cultist status:
Here are some links to the primary article on Billy Graham’s revelationary (revolutionary?) decision, as well as some of the ensuing discussion:
Self-declarations of faith may also be somewhat suspect. Obama, despite the breathless emails circulated by many members of the Naz as well as by members of other Christian sects, has never struck me as being either un-American, anti-American, or a Muslim. We are simply, I think, two citizens of the Republic (ours, not the one in Africa) with widely differing political views. I do find it difficult to accept his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, as a shining example of Christian faith, but Wright is a black pastor, in a primarily black church, in a major urban setting, while I am a white relatively middle-aged male Hick from the Sticks. His world view is quite a bit different from mine, which may explain his pastoral vitriol, and which vitriol may be perfectly acceptable under his circumstances. Beats me, but if Jesus’ vitriol in the temple as he wielded that cat with considerable vigor is acceptable, why not Jeremiah Wright’s? But I’m wandering again …
I guess I can just sleep easier, knowing that I have Billy Graham’s tacit approval if I do vote for Mitt the Mormon.
There was something else, a thought only peripherally related to the instant discussion but still one that strikes me, as Janice Joplin sang so many years ago as being of ‘considerable social import”: “Un-American” and “anti-American” are not synonymous with “Muslim”.
So even if Obama were a Muslim, I would have to observe, “Well, so was Humayan Saqib Muazzam Khan. If there is a point to the endless emails lambasting Obama over his alleged Muslimism, what might that point be?”
A timely posting Tom.
I have found that the term Christian is thrown around too liberally. Is Christianity a social mantle placed upon people or is it an ontological reality? Anyone can claim to be Christian but are they claiming a title or a way of being?
The term Christian in itself is up to interpretation. Is it based upon creed, tradition, history,or membership in a community? In my work I find many expressions of faith that people identify as Christian, they may not fit my model but, who says my model is the only correct one (I describe it as putting a balloon in a shoe box, it never fits). For some it comes down to, “I am not Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, etc., therefore I must be Christian.” Then there are people living “Christian” values yet reject the organized church. What about them?
I believe that “Christian” should be attached to those who fall into the historical flow of the church and focuses on Jesus Christ as central. This casts a wide net. Also, this does not mean that others are not in relationship with God. They just do not follow the historical flow that would define their faith system as Christian.
The underlying issue is relationship with God. For me, I feel that it is best described through the Christian Faith. However, it does not rule out other faiths. In our limited, mortal existence there will be those who follow a different model then Christianity, but underneath these models is there a foundation of relationship with God? Only God can decide. Only God can know the heart of humans.
With that in view, the application of Christian to a political leader is mute. Anyone can claim to be Christian. We can never really know if they are identifying with a cultural set of people or if they are describing their being? Only God can determine that. Therefore we look for leaders who are first of all, Leaders. We want them to have virtues that align with the basic virtues we would expect from someone in relationship with God. Because of our diversity the, “way” will be different between different people. In our finite existence we must chose from our desire to maintain our values and make the best choice we can make with our limited knowledge.
Tom – The question I constantly struggle with is “what is love.” If we say “be loving” and “God is Love” and “Jesus is God incarnate, “then our actions must be God’s actions, And His wisdom and understanding. Does it therefore also hold true that LOVE is to be as Jesus. Jesus was always redemptive. This reveals there is a right and wrong way to live, but forgiveness is always available to anyone seeking it and thereby restoration to God and to the Body of Christ.
I can’t quite call Mormons Christian. Some of their early writings say that Jesus practiced polygamy and was fathered by the god of this world, not the one true God. Earth’s god began as a good man on another planet, so was placed in charge of Earth according to Mormon teaching. Mormons do teach that likewise, those who lead an exemplary life can become gods in the afterlife. Can’t quite fit beliefs that different into what I consider Christian.
I wouldn’t disqualify him for office for that. The state is secular. But Romney a Christian? I didn’t know much about Mormon beliefs before, but my studies have shown me.
Thanks for your insight and reminder that it is about love. This is a season in which many in faith communities seem to focus on the things that divide rather than that which unites us.
The fact the office of the Presidency is a secular office, makes me wonder, are we even discussing the right topic? Instead of examining which one is Christian, perhaps it better to discuss which one is loving?
Just what I needed to read at just the right time. Thank you.
As a thinking exercise, I sometimes ask whether it would be wrong to be a one-issue voter if the issue were slavery. In his debate with Lincoln, Douglas argued an essentially pro-choice position, let the southern states decide whether and when to end slavery. At the risk of sounding like an intolerant moral absolutist, I assert that pro-slavery Christians were wrong.
Perhaps I should defer more to the Supreme Court ruling (Dred Scott vs. Sanford) on who is a person and citizen. But God’s law transcends Supreme Court rulings. And yes, I know that some Christians find verses in the Bible that seem to justify the enslaving of Africans. But they wrong. How can one even look at a slave and deny he is a person?
Perhaps I am too narrow. I would vote for an atheist before a pro-slavery Christian. I would vote for an incompetent candidate who promised to end slavery before I would vote for an intelligent and skillful pro-slavery candidate.
Perhaps I should care more about foreign policy, the economy, western expansion, and the Indian problem. Perhaps I am guilty of shoving my anti-slavery morality down the throats of others instead of letting slave owners make private moral decision.
After all, I really don’t want to be associated with the John Brown types who wave a Bible in one hand and gun in the other.
I often wonder how history will judge me. An unbalanced and intolerant one-issue fantatic? A courageous and compassionate defender of the helpless?
We should vote, and do somewhat influence the culture. However, our greatest influence is not through politics.
Our greatest influence and contribution, is when we love and invest in our neighbors in the name of Christ.
I came upon this blog late so I doubt if anyone will read this comment. However I am very interested in this topic so I will comment.
Many people overlook the fact that President Obama is clearly within the African American Christian tradition. In terms most Euro Americans should understand he stands with Dr. Martin L. King. On the other hand I see Mitt Romney standing in the same tradition as Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan did not attend church and Nancy Reagan believed in Horoscopes, but evangelicals have embraced him as their own. What faith he had seems to be legalistic. I would place
Mormonism in the same category
which does not make all Mormons legalists, but Mitt seems to be one.
IMHO Black Christianity is the most viable Christian tradition in the world today in part because Pres. Barak Obama is the best Christian leader in the world today.
Mine is the last comment over a year ago and the only one after the election.
This is too bad because our nation is seriously split by Christians who claim to love it, but IMHO are puting non-Christian ideology before thir God and their country.
We need to discuss this and seek reconciliation as our faith requires.
The last time I checked, those who advocated for the inclusion of gentiles were not good followers of Christ (Acts 15), Those who advocated for the inclusion of women were also not good Christians. Voting for the civil rights law and allowing opportunities for minorities in the United States made one a non Christian. Today including those in the LGBT community at the policy table is said to be bad for the Christian identity. Some years ago when I served a church in the Northwest, on the Sunday before elections, a certain political party sent sermons to churches and asked pastors to preach a certain message. Those messages were not about love but about who to exclude. Your piece was good Tom, but I am reminded of the non-forgiving actions those in the church took against Washington Gladden in the 19th century for daring to suggest that we love the negro as Christ love. He was chased out of the church. As we consider voting using “divine law”; as we ponder on who is really a “good Christian” our prayer should be in the words of Washington Gladden “O master Let Me Walk with Thee.