Here we go! On the heels of Rick Santorum’s razor close, second-place, finish in Iowa it’s time to talk about the “Jesus factor”. I say that with no disrespect towards Jesus himself, but rather as tongue-in-cheek shorthand for what CNN calls the “Born Again and Evangelical Core Values Voter”.
I have no doubt that conservative values voters turned out for Santorum and helped him dramatically in Iowa. From the numbers I’ve seen roughly 40% of folks who identified themselves as “Born Again Christians” or “Evangelicals” voted for Santorum. The remainder were spread out among the other candidates. I have no doubt that this voting block has some political power to sway elections, both primaries and general elections.
As this discussion kicks up again, what I want is definitions. I want to get behind the labels to find out who the “Born Again and Evangelical Core Values Voters” actually are and what they actually believe.
Push come to shove, I would identify myself as a Born-Again Christian. Yet, I would define that along the lines of Jesus discussion with Nicodemas in the gospel of John, 3rd chapter. I wouldn’t identify myself as an evangelical because I’m anabaptist. The core values I use to shape my political engagements, including voting, I would say come out of the teaching of Jesus and the overall vision of the Bible.
I do believe that Jesus was overtly political. I do believe that what he taught and modeled has political consequences. I do believe that doing what he taught will land people in hot water with most governments. And I believe that most American Christians don’t want to have anything to do with Jesus’ actual politics. Better that we have a spiritual Jesus. A Jesus that is concerned with my sins, offers me forgiveness and saves me from the flames of hell. Let’s not get all confused with a homeless Jesus that acts on behalf of the poor and marginalized.
Here’s the problem
Part of what it means to be a good American is to be engaged, in some fashion, with the political process. For most people that is simply voting, for others it involves serving in public office and other things. And for many, part of what it means to be a good Christian is to be a good American. So we have many people who are Christians who want to follow Jesus. They are also Americans who want to engage the political process. But they don’t know anything about how to put the two together because they have been taught that Jesus wasn’t political.
Enter the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the family, the Tea Party and so on…
There are groups that are willing to take their politics and apply the “Jesus supports us” label in order to advance their agenda. There are also candidates who, knowing the importance of the “Born Again and Evangelical Core Values Voter”, will attach religious, Jesus-language, to their campaign to garner votes. Without any foundation for evaluating the claims on the basis of the actual politics of Jesus, most people simply accept the label as accurate and associate their politics with Jesus. Instead of letting the politics of Jesu shape their engagement of the political process, they drag Jesus into endorsing their politics without much regard for wether or not Jesus actually would. They put their politics onto Jesus instead of letting Jesus direct their politics.
Jesus is not a democrat or a republican.
The antidote to this is deconstruction. Try, for a moment, to pretend that you don’t have any political commitments and no idea of how you think Jesus relates to politics. Then try these two things;
One, read The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. Yoder’s work in this book is second to none. This will help you understand the way Jesus engaged the powers and how what he taught and did can be relevant for our engagement today.
Two, read the gospels with an eye towards politics. That doesn’t not mean to read the gospels and try to figure out if Jesus would support the positions of one party platform over the other(i.e. Does Jesus support a constitutional ban on abortion, or gay marriage, etc., etc.). Be more curious about the kind of world Jesus would create. If you want a hint, take a look at the description of the early church in Acts 2 or the description of God’s Kingdom in Revelation 21.
A new vision
Once you get a Jesus-like vision for the world, then you can start to ask the more difficult questions. How do we get from here to there? What forms of societal organization and economic systems help to move us more towards that vision? What kind of foreign policy would help create the kind of world God intended from the beginning? How does Jesus, as presented in the gospels, challenge the foundational myths of American ideology?
There are many great questions to be asked and answered. I think what all people of faith want is to know that when they go into that ballot box, or run for office, or support a piece of legislation that they are, indeed, helping to move the world, even the slightest bit, towards the “peace with justice for all” (Shalom) world that God intended from the beginning and that we, in America, claim as our founding vision (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; liberty and justice for all).