The Common Good

Religious Consistency and Hypocrisy: Election 2012

Sojomail - November 1, 2012

Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Religious Consistency and Hypocrisy: Election 2012

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Most people in America, whether they are religious or not, prefer consistency in the faith community to hypocrisy. One of the reasons the fastest growing demographic in religious affiliation surveys is now “none of the above” is that too many people see more religious hypocrisy than consistency.

Religion is not, at its core, politically partisan. But too often religion becomes a political tool; we see that on both sides of the aisle. That does not mean people of faith shouldn’t have strong convictions or feelings about political issues or shouldn’t vote one way or another; or that there is a moral equivalency between the political parties and it doesn’t matter which way we vote. Elections are important, and people of faith should be voting as citizens and by their most basic values.

But let’s be clear: On Nov. 6, neither a Republican nor Democratic victory will bring in the kingdom of God. 

Elections can sometimes, however, set a framework for what can or can’t be done for the things we believe in. And there are important differences between the candidates at every level up and down the ballots we will cast next week. But people of faith — and their leaders — should be more prophetic than partisan during election seasons. And the moral issues we care about should be more important to us than the candidates or the parties they represent.

In this election, I’ve heard a lot of talk about “biblical principles” or the importance of voting according to a “Christian worldview.” Unfortunately, those words are normally followed by talking points that sound a lot more like a party platform than words you could imagine Jesus speaking. The Sermon on the Mount, when read next to campaign speeches, reads as almost a direct refutation of everything politics values in our world today. Matthew 25 sounds like an example of what NOT to say if you want to run for elected office.

With more than 2,000 verses in the Bible about poverty — and with freeing the poor and oppressed as central components of the gospel's “good news" — shouldn’t we consider how the election will affect the poor and oppressed? Or ask how we should treat the millions of undocumented immigrants among us, who clearly fit the biblical category of “the stranger?” In both cases, how we treat “the least of these,” Jesus says in the 25th chapter of Matthew, is how we treat him. Doesn’t our voting have something to do with that? Many of us Christians are “pro-life,” but aren’t the nearly 20,000 children around the world who die every day of utterly preventable hunger and disease just as much a “sanctity-of-life” issue as the approximately 3,000 abortions that occurred in our country today? 

A very prominent conservative Catholic lamented to me last week how his side mostly cares about children before they are born and the liberals care more about kids afterward. Where is the consistency here? And does the Bible only talk about sex and marriage, or also about social justice? 

Then there is the care of God’s creation, or the resolution of the world’s inevitable conflicts without the horrible failures and human costs of our endless wars. Aren’t Christians supposed to be peacemakers? We were reminded this week of the stark reality that while God created the physical world to be good, it is also dangerous. And our failure to be good stewards of that which God made is resulting in the increasing severity of storms and devastating changes in other weather patterns.

Don’t all those issues involve biblical values too?

It has been sad to see some prominent conservative evangelical leaders say that the biblical principles  in this election really only concern abortion and gay marriage, and all other issues are negotiable. Such election-year pronouncements sound more like an attempt to baptize a political party than to think critically from a moral tradition. 

Our votes in elections are always about making imperfect choices, and no one’s eternal salvation is on the line by the decisions they make in the voting booth.

I have been clear from the start of the Republican primary campaign that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism should not be a factor in this election. A candidate’s theology and religious doctrines should not be an issue. But his or her moral compass should be, and so should how their religious and moral convictions affect their policy decisions. The Mormonism of Republican Mitt Romney and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid should not disqualify them for public office. To many, their faithful adherence to their religious tradition is a positive.

But neither the National Council of Churches nor the National Association of Evangelicals, the World Council of Churches nor the World Evangelical Alliance have ever been willing to accept the Mormon Church into the traditional body of Christian churches. So why did some conservative religious leaders suddenly seem to change their own position on Mormonism once Romney won the Republican nomination, and scrubbed articles from their websites that described Mormonism as an unbiblical “cult?” Would they have made those theological shifts about another person's religion if that person was a Democrat? Are our concerns really about religion and biblical values, or do they just reflect our ideological political preferences?

Christians can and will be voting in different ways in this election in response to different prudential judgments about how to best express their biblical values. But please, let us stop suggesting that "biblical values" only involve certain issues or can only be interpreted in one partisan way or another.

This is not a one-way street. Those who are politically progressive need to ask themselves: have I been consistent with the values that I profess? On war — specifically the use of drones? Poverty? The environment? Do I make excuses for my candidate on the issues I care about just because I voted for him or her?

It’s important to have a dose of humility and recognize that we all have the capacity to be inconsistent. But let’s not use that as an excuse to remain that way. Let people see our religious consistency on the issues, not our political hypocrisy at election time, by assigning ultimate biblical values to our different political choices.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in early 2013. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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