Rev. Spriensma is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Whether one likes it or not, we here in the United States are in another election year. That means that our news on television, radio, and newspaper is going to be dominated with coverage of state primaries, political rallies and debates, and of course political ads, as the political contenders have money to spend. Should we as Christians really care what goes on in that messy business of politics, or keep our noses clear of the stink? What does separation of church and state mean? In an election season suffused with religious references, a recent nation-wide poll found that while most respondents say “moral values” are important to their vote, many have grown tired of politicians’ “talk of faith and prayer.” A newspaper cartoon displayed political contenders wearing “Christianity” on their sleeves. What does it mean?
Over the past twenty years, religion has elbowed its way decisively to the front of presidential campaigns. In 1960, John Kennedy pleaded with Americans to treat his Roman Catholicism as irrelevant (as it undoubtedly was in his life and politics!). Jimmy Carter opened the door wide, with his public profession of being ”born again.” Ronald Reagan successfully courted evangelical Christians in the campaign, though he advanced little of their agenda as president. Bill Clinton and Al Gore, both Southern Baptists at odds with their denomination’s conservatism, frequently flaunted the importance of their faith. And George W. Bush sold himself in part on the strength of his personal journey from sinner to supplicant. As a ‘born-again Christian’ now sits in the White House, one of the more likely democratic replacements wants voters to know that she prays.
Laurie Goodstein, in an article in the New York Times entitled “Politicians Talk More about Religion, and People Expect Them To,” points out that in a past New York Times poll (July 2004), 42 percent of those surveyed said they welcomed candidates discussing the role of religion in their lives. But 53 percent said religion should ”not be part of a presidential campaign.” By comparison, the pollsters noted, in 1984 only 22 percent of Americans agreed that presidential candidates should discuss the role of religion in their lives, while 75 percent said it should not be a part of a presidential campaign.
In a poll taken by the Pew Center and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 31 percent completely agree that a president should have strong religious values. The Pew Research Center, in an article entitled “Religion and Politics: the Ambivalent Majority” (Sept. 20, 2000), came to the conclusion that while 70 percent of voters want the president to be a person of faith, there is widespread discomfort with politicians or presidential contenders who talk too much about their religious beliefs.
In the Republican presidential debate, there was an exchange between former governors Mitt Romney (Mass.) and Mike Huckabee (Ark.) about the role of religion in the public square. Romney said, “We have a separation of church and state. It served us well in this country. This is a nation, after all, that wants a leader that is a person of faith, but we don’t choose our leaders on which church they go to.” Huckabee replied, “I said in general—and I would not say this tonight to any of us—when a person says, my faith doesn’t affect my decision-making, I would say that the person is saying their faith is not significant to impact their decision process. I tell people up front, ‘My faith does affect my decision process.’ It explains me. No apology for that.” Illinois senator Barack Obama wrote in an article in USA TODAY entitled “Politicians need not abandon religion” (July 10, 2006), “My faith shapes my values, but applying those values to policy making must be done with principles that are accessible to all people, religious or not. Even so, those who enter the public square are not required to leave their beliefs at the door.”
While there is separation of church and state, there cannot be a separation of one’s faith system from the moral guidelines that he follows. Our moral values are not neutral but arise out of a faith system, whether it be true faith or a false faith belief. But are all faithtalk and religious references in political speeches what they appear? David Kuo, a conservative evangelical and former Bush administration official, wrote a new book: Tempting Faith. In this book he claims that officials in the Bush White House would humor Christian leaders to their faces, but smirk and roll their eyes behind their backs. Kuo called for conservative Christians to show their frustration by going on a “fast from politics.”
In the past, more Americans regarded the Republican Party as the protector of religious values. It was called the religious right. But the religious right might have to make room for the religious left. Vicki Haddock, in the San Francisco Chronicle (Nov. 5, 2006), quotes an advertisement poster in North Carolina of a popular former college basketball coach, Dean Smith, “I am a life-long Baptist and vote for Democrats. Why? Democrats are serious about alleviating poverty.” In the same article, Vicki points out how House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco established a 42-member Democratic Faith Working Group headed by South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, son of a fundamentalist minister. And again, the Michigan Democratic Party met with religious leaders and then revised its platform to address the role of faith. What does all this mean?
Does this mean that the politicians are becoming more religious? Or does it mean that their policymaking is going to be influenced by their faith? Or are politicians more astute about voting blocks and are simply catering to their votes? As writer Vicki Haddock puts it, “The Democrats have not reversed their political direction. Instead they are changing the conversation; talking about core Democratic issues in religious terms. For example, environmental protection is ‘creation care.’ Progressive tax policies and raising the minimum wage are examples of ‘loving your neighbor.’ Withdrawing from Iraq is described as following Jesus’ beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.'”
Christians who have the privilege and freedom to be involved in the political future of their country would be wise to listen carefully to the speech of the political contenders, and look beyond their speech and promises to their voting record and actions in the past. “Ye shall know them by their fruits…. Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit…. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:16ff.).
If politicians and political contenders should be motivated in their policy decisions by their faith and moral values, should not voters also be led in their choice of leaders by their faith? Do we cast aside our value systems, and simply vote Republican or Democrat? Do we vote for the most sincere Christian political contender? Does a sincere Christian make a good political leader? Few would doubt Jimmy Carter’s religious convictions. But was he a good president? Would we desire a dispensational Southern Baptist to take his dispensational views into his policy decisions in the Middle East? Jason Ehrenkrook, in an article “Tracking the Religion of Politicians” (Dec. 15, 2007), writes that Huckabee was happy to have the endorsement of Tim LaHaye, author of the popular Left Behindseries of novels. While some view these stories as science fiction, political contender Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, considers them a “compelling story written for nontheologians.”
Can we know whom to vote for? Should we bother voting? There are those who would take an anabaptistic position of world flight, and take no interest in the messy realm of politics. These men and women do not care to cast their votes.
Shame on them. While it is true that it is God in His providence who sets up rulers in high places, and these leaders are His servants (Rom. 13), we are not passive. God has in His providence placed us in a nation where we have the freedom to elect our officials to their offices. Shall we leave that business to the ungodly alone? Does not God place our leaders in their positions through the election process? Exercise, then, your right and duty!
In a Gallop Poll in January 2007, 84 percent of Americans consistently say religion is very or fairly important in their lives. Yet most, 67 percent, say that their religious beliefs play only an occasional role in helping them decide what to do in their lives. And only 38 percent say religion has the same influence in their voting decisions. Just 22 percent say they frequently rely on their religious beliefs to help them decide how to vote.
As those who are by God’s grace citizens of heaven, and by His providence citizens of a nation in which we enjoy the freedom to vote for our political leaders, may we seize the opportunity. Not simply voting a party, not shirking our responsibility, let us listen to the rhetoric, look at the voting record and activity of the contenders, vote according to our religious convictions, led by the Word of God, and pray for those who are placed in office, that as God’s servants they will pursue justice, reward those who do good, and execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Rom. 13). They will have to give an account to God for what they have done.
And as voters, we will give an account of what we have done with our freedom to be involved in the selection of our next president and leaders. Let us not merely wear our Christianity on our sleeves but, acting on our Christian faith and values, seek leaders who will not hinder the church from going about her activity of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and carrying her witness to all nations. We seek leaders who, used by God, will enable us to worship, raise our children in the fear of the Lord, and enable her citizens to live quiet and peaceable lives in godliness. Not sitting by the sidelines, but acting on our faith, we as citizens of heaven are the best citizens in the particular nation that God has placed us in.