Values of a Public Faith (Part 1) | Sojourners

Values of a Public Faith (Part 1)

Editor's Note: This is part one of a three-part series from Dr. Miroslav Volf an a voice instructing us how to involve our values into our present politcal debates. 

In this year of presidential elections, I have decided to summarize key values that guide me as I decide for whom to cast my vote. There are three basic elements of choosing a candidate for public office responsibly:

  1. Values we hope the candidate will stand for and the order of priority among them (which requires of us knowledge of faith as a whole, rather than just a few favorite topics, and knowledge of how faith applies to contemporary life)
  2. Ways in which and means by which these values are best implemented in any given situation (which requires of us a great deal of knowledge about how the world actually functions and what policies lead to what outcomes — for instance, whether it would be an economically wise decision to try to reintroduce the gold standard)
  3. Capacity — ability and determination — to contribute to the implementation of these values (which requires of us knowledge of the track record of the candidate)

Most important are the values. As I identify each value, I will (1) name the basic content of the value, (2) give a basic rationale for holding it, (3) suggest some parameters of legitimate debate about it, and (4) identify a key question for the candidate. 

I write as a Christian theologian, from the perspective of my own understanding of the Christian faith. Whole books have been written on each of these values, explicating and adjudicating complex debates. In providing a rationale for a given value, I only take one or two verses from the Bible to back up my position, more to flag the direction in which a rationale would need to go than, in fact, to strictly offer such a rationale. 

0. Christ as the Measure of All Values

Value: The ultimate allegiance of a Christian is to Jesus Christ, the creative Word (become flesh), who enlightens everyone, and the redeeming Lamb of God, who bears the sin of the whole world. A Christian ought not embrace any practice, no matter how prudent it may seem from the standpoint of national security or national competitive advantage, which conflicts with her or his allegiance to Christ. 

Rationale: “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11)

Debate: For Christians, the debate should not be whether one’s allegiance to Christ trumps one’s allegiance to the nation. The debate should be what key values for national life follow from allegiance to Jesus Christ and what the proper relation is between the universal claims of Christ and the particular claims of the nation.

Question to Ask: To what extent is the candidate merely seeking to serve the “goddess nation” and to what extent is what he stands for compatible with the Christian conviction that Christ is the key to human flourishing?

1. Freedom of Religion (and Irreligion)

Value: All people are responsible for their own life, and they have the right to embrace a faith or way of life they deem meaningful and abandon the one with which they no longer identify without suffering discrimination.

Rationale: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). "When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ . . . Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’” (John 6:60, 66–67).

Debate: The debatable issue should not be whether people should be free to choose and exercise their religion (or irreligion) without discrimination; that’s a given. Public debate should be about which way of life, including its public dimensions or implications, is more salutary, and whether there are ways of life so inimical to human flourishing and common life that their exclusion doesn’t represent an act of discrimination but is a condition of humane social life. We should also debate the moral foundation of a state that is “neutral” with regard to distinct faiths and secular interpretations of life as well as the precise nature of political arrangements required to keep the state “neutral.”  

Questions to Ask: Does the candidate respect the right of all — Christians and Muslims, fundamentalists and secularists, conservatives, and progressives, to name a few groups often at odds with one another — to take personal responsibility for their lives and to lead them as they see fit? Does the candidate think of America as a Christian nation (so that, in one way or another, all others have to fit into a Christian mold) or as a pluralistic nation (in which a way of life is not imposed on anyone without his or her endorsement)?

2. Education

Value: It is important for all citizens to understand the world in which they live, to learn to reflect critically on what makes life worth living, and to acquire qualifications for jobs which increasingly require complex skills. We should strive for excellent and affordable education for all citizens.

Rationale: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (Gen. 1:26). "To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it. . . . Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her" (Prov. 8:4–5, 10–11).

Debate: The debate should be about what families and government must do to improve the educational system, what exactly improvements in education look like, and what proportion of the budget should be allotted for educational purposes (as compared to, for instance, defense). The debate should not be about whether we should have an educational system that is both excellent and affordable for all.

Question to Ask: What will the candidate do to ensure that all citizens—the poor no less than the wealthy—are taught to make intelligent judgments about what makes life worth living, acquire skills necessary for functioning in modern societies, and have an adequate understanding of the world?

3. Economic Growth

Value: Economic growth is not a value in its own right because increasing wealth and money are not values in their own right. They are means — indispensable means, but only means — to human flourishing, which consists more in righteousness than in possessions. 

Rationale: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:24, 33).

Debate: We can abandon the old debate about whether efficient wealth creation or just wealth distribution is more important; both are important, for we cannot distribute what we don’t have, and we should not possess what is given to us to pass on to others. Instead, we should debate (1) what are morally irresponsible (Wall Street gambling), inhumane (child labor), and unsustainable (deforestation) ways of creating wealth and how to create wealth in humanly and ecologically sustainable ways; (2) what kind of wealth contributes to human flourishing; and (3) how to make wealth serve us instead of us serving wealth.

Question to Ask: Which candidate is reminding us that we diminish ourselves when we turn into money-making and consumption-obsessed creatures and that we flourish when we pursue truth, goodness, and beauty, that we are truly ourselves when we reach to others in solidarity and enjoy one another in love?

4. Work and Employment

Value: Every person should have meaningful and, if employed for pay, adequately remunerated work. All able citizens should work to take care of their needs and to contribute to the wellbeing of others and the planet.

Rationale: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). The prophet Isaiah envisions a time when all God’s people “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21). Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Debate: The debate should be about what the required economic, cultural, and political conditions are for people to have meaningful work, and who is mainly responsible to create and maintain these conditions. How can we best fight unemployment and underemployment? Given the present state of economy and future economic developments, how can we stimulate the creation of jobs that pay adequate wages?

Questions to Ask: What policies does the candidate propose to help encourage meaningful employment and adequate pay for all people? What will the candidate do to encourage people to work not just for personal gain but for the common good?

5. Debt

Value: As individuals and as a nation, we should live within our means and not borrow beyond what we can reasonably expect to return; we shouldn’t offload onto others, whether our contemporaries or future generations, the price of our overreaching or risk-taking; instead, we should save so as to be able to give to others who are less fortunate then we.

Rationale: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy” (Eph. 4:28). 

Debate: We should debate what responsible levels of debt are for households, businesses, or a nation; what constitutes predatory lending practices and how to prevent them; to what degree, if at all, spending on consumer goods should be promoted as cure for a faltering economy; and what the public significance of contentment might be. 

Questions to Ask: What will a candidate do to bring and keep national debt under control? What will the candidate do to encourage individual saving and living within one’s means?


As the Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, Dr. Miroslav Volf, a native of war-ravaged Croatia, works to promote a theology of forgiveness, non-violence and unity. A member of the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Church in Croatia where his father was pastor, Dr. Volf spent more than a decade involved in international ecumenical dialogues, including the Archbishop of Canterbury's Building Bridges Seminar on Muslim Christian Relations and the Vatican Council for Promotion of Christian Unity.

Check back tomorrow for Part two of the series in which Dr. Volf discusses the poor, elderly, and the unborn.