Obama, Perkins, Palin, and a Plea for Christian Civility

By Jim Wallis 9-01-2008

Whew. Take a breath, Christians! I just read all the comments to my post Friday on Barack Obama's historic acceptance speech of a major party's nomination to the highest office in the country -- the first African American to have achieved that American milestone. The post was about the historical significance of that event and speech, especially on the very day of the 45 anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most remembered "I Have A Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

I didn't even comment on the content of the speech, except to say it allowed Obama to clearly and eloquently present himself and his policy ideas, so Americans could agree or disagree. But the heat of the comments to the post was amazing and alarming to me. So I think it is time to plead for some Christian civility in this election year.

Let me give an example of Christian civility from Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, which is a leading institution of the "Religious Right" and whom nobody would confuse with a Democratic or Obama supporter. On Friday, Perkins released a statement on "Obama's Historic Speech," which said:

Sen. Barack Obama's speech last night, accepting the Democratic nomination for President, was a historic moment. Coming on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the selection of the first African American to be the presidential nominee of a major party illustrates the progress America has made in fulfilling Dr. King's dream of racial equality. The "promise" of equal opportunity was in our nation's founding documents, but it has not always been fulfilled. Every American should fondly hope and fervently pray, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, for the time when this milestone, remarkable as it is, is a memory, and the mere fact of a person's skin color is not reason for political discussion or notice. That truly was the Founding Fathers' vision for our country, and they bequeathed us governing articles and a ruling philosophy - a firm belief that our rights are the gift of our Creator - capable of carrying us through many a "stormy present." By any measure - eloquence, organization, stagecraft, and motivation - the Democratic convention this week and the primary that preceded it were impressive. Yes, the smoke-filled rooms have given way to skies glowing with the haze of fireworks, but our nation is seeing once more that we have a vibrant republic and real choices before us.

I really respected that and agreed that Obama's speech had "eloquence" and offered the American people "real choices." Tony Perkins invited me to debate Richard Land at his own FRC Convention last fall, and to speak at his own book signing some weeks later, just as I had invited Richard Land to speak at the launch of God's Politics in 2005. Tomorrow morning Richard Land and I will be together again in a public forum on "the faith factor" in this election, at the Republican Convention in the Twin Cities. I will be there all week, just as I was at the Democratic Convention in Denver.

Here is a fact that might clearly upset the vitriolic partisans on both sides of the political divide: Richard Land and I call each other friends, and Tony Perkins and I are also enjoying our dialogue and frequent conversations. None of us endorse candidates, but I honestly suspect we will likely be voting differently in the fall election.

Since Friday, I have been asked by many journalists what I think of Sarah Palin as the choice for the Republican vice-presidential nomination. I've confessed to knowing little about the new Alaskan governor but have said that she seems to be an interesting, decent, and compelling person, and that her nomination is another milestone as the first woman on a Republican presidential ticket, as Geraldine Ferraro was on the Democratic ticket in 1984. Like the milestone candidacy of Barack Obama, she, too, will be evaluated by Christians on a whole range of moral values issues, including poverty, the environment, the sanctity of life, strong and healthy families, human rights, health care, the war in Iraq, and more. Christians, including evangelical Christians, are not monolithic and most Christians will not be single-issue voters in this election. Rather, we will evaluate both presidential tickets according to our moral compass and broad agenda. The Republican Convention, like the Democratic Convention, should offer the voters clear choices, and I suspect it will.

So maybe we should have some rules of civility for this election. Let me suggest "Five Rules of Christian Civility."

  1. We Christians should be in the pocket of no political party, but should evaluate both candidates and parties by our biblically-based moral compass.
  2. We don't vote on only one issue, but see biblical foundations for our concerns over many issues.
  3. We advocate for a consistent ethic of life from womb to tomb, and one that challenges the selective moralities of both the left and the right.
  4. We will respect the integrity of our Christian brothers and sisters in their sincere efforts to apply Christian commitments to the important decisions of this election, knowing that people of faith and conscience will be voting both ways in this election year.
  5. We will not attack our fellow Christians as Democratic or Republican partisans, but rather will expect and respect the practice of putting our faith first in this election year, even if we reach different conclusions.

On Nov. 4, Christians will not be able to vote for the kingdom of God. It is not on the ballot. Yet there are very important choices to make that will significantly impact the common good and the health of this nation -- and of the world. So we urge our Christian brothers and sisters to exercise their crucial right to vote and to apply their Christian conscience to those decisions. And in the finite and imperfect political decisions of this and any election, we promise to respect the Christian political conscience of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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