What Happens When a Wheaton Grad Runs for Congress as a Democrat
Last weekend, as a group of religiously-committed pro-life Democrats in the House of Representatives found themselves at odds with the majority of their party over an abortion-related amendment in the health-care reform bill, campaign veteran Kevin Spidel posted a thoughtful question on a few well-read progressive blogs: does the evangelical movement belong in the Democratic Party? Within a few hours, there were scores of responses: while there was of course a diversity of opinions, the median opinion was decidedly unenthusiastic. Within the progressive online community, many folks presumed that an evangelical would necessarily be "anti-choice," as well as pro-war, anti-immigrant, pro-hate crimes, and committed to abolishing the teaching of evolution from public schools.
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Spidel's post was written in response to a local melodrama around the recently announced candidacy of Ben Lowe, who is the sole Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in Illinois' 6th District, running against Republican incumbent Peter Roskam. Ben, who studied with me at Wheaton College several years ago and who is a good friend of mine, has spent the past several years helping to organize students on Christian college campuses around issues of environmental stewardship. A member of the Wheaton Chinese Alliance Church, Ben's concern for environmental conservation and justice are rooted in his Christian faith. That faith has also led him to advocate for health care for all Americans, for comprehensive immigration reform, for peaceful ends to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a more judicious approach toward foreign policy, and for fiscal policies that ensure that a few greedy individuals cannot derail our entire economy.
Despite that progressive agenda, the local Democratic Party has been split on their views on Ben's candidacy. While many are excited about Ben's campaign (and the energy it has stirred in this conservative district, especially among younger voters), some have expressed their preference that the Republican incumbent run unopposed, rather than having an evangelical candidate whom they consider anti-choice. Ben is unabashedly pro-life, but by that he means not only that we should be concerned with unborn life, but also with the quality of that child's life after birth, with the life and livelihood of the child's mother, with a penal system that takes life in the name of criminal justice, and with unjust wars that claim the lives of tens of thousands of civilians. While the vast majority of his views place him well within the Democratic National Party platform, which pledges to be "the party of inclusion" that respects differences of belief, not all progressive Democrats seem to think that inclusion should include people of particular faith traditions.
I'm certainly biased here, because Ben is a good friend and I trust his genuine commitment to seeking justice in the political realm. But I cannot help but think that the Democratic Party needs to learn a few lessons from President Obama and recognize the important role that faith plays in guiding so many Americans. I expect I am not the only person of faith -- especially among evangelicals and Catholics -- who has occasionally felt like a political orphan, not entirely comfortable in either party. Ben's candidacy does a lot to draw me toward the Democratic Party, but the livid comments online make me wonder if I'm invited.
Non-religious progressives have some reason to resent and be wary of evangelical believers: some espousing the name of Christ have supported public policies that have ravished the environment, dehumanized immigrants, spurned justice for the poor, and resulted in large-scale loss of human life. And while we may view these policymakers as poor representatives -- even hijackers -- of biblical faith, we cannot expect outsiders to understand the nuances. That said, there needs to be space in both parties for people of faith seeking justice to be welcomed. And whether Democrats, Republicans, independents or non-partisans, we who seek to follow Christ need to represent him as salt and light both in the policy ends and the political means that are involved in representative government.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009). He lives in suburban Chicago in an intentional community called Parkside.