Values of a Public Faith (Part 2) | Sojourners

Values of a Public Faith (Part 2)

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

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. ... 

6. The Poor

Value: The poor — above all those without adequate food or shelter — deserve our special concern. (“The moral test of government is how it treats people in the dawn of life, the children, in the twilight of life, the aged, and in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped” [Hubert Humphrey].)

Rationale: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 23:22). “There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession to occupy” (Deut. 15:4).

Debate: There should be no debate whether fighting extreme poverty is a top priority of the government. That’s a given. We should debate the following: How should we generate a sense of solidarity with the poor among all citizens? In poverty alleviation, what is the proper role of governments and of individuals, religious communities, and civic organizations? What macroeconomic conditions most favor lifting people out of poverty? What should the minimum wage be? 

Questions to Ask: Is overcoming extreme poverty (rather than fostering the wellbeing of the middle class) a priority for the candidate? For what poverty-reducing policies is the candidate prepared to fight?

7. The Elderly

Value: Those who are frail on account of their advanced age deserve our special help. They need adequate medical assistance, social interaction, and meaningful activities. (The humanity of a society is measured perhaps especially by how it treats those no longer capable of doing “useful” work.)

Rationale: “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Ps. 68:5). (In today’s world, the “elderly,” arguably, belong to the categories of the “poor” and “widows”.)

Debate: The debate here is about the extent of the responsibility for the wellbeing of the elderly. What resources should a society set aside for the care of elderly, and what are the best ways to manage those resources?

Question to Ask: What will the candidate do to help honor the elderly and attend to their specific needs?

8. Unborn

Value: Unborn human life, just like fully developed human life, deserves our respect, protection, and nurture. 

Rationale: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13). “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). 

Debate: There is a legitimate debate about the point at which life that can plausibly be deemed human begins and whether the best way to reduce abortions is to criminalize abortion or to improve the living conditions of the poor (for instance, through fighting poverty in inner cities, providing education for women, making available affordable childcare).

Question to Ask: Is the candidate firmly committed to reducing the number of abortions performed, to make it not just safe when it is legal, but also rare?

9. Healthcare

Value: All people — poor or rich — should have access to affordable basic healthcare, just as all are responsible for living in a way conducive to physical and mental health. 

Rationale: “Jesus went through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness” (Matt. 9:35).  

Debate: There is a legitimate debate as to how best to ensure that all people have access to affordable healthcare — but not as to whether the destitute should or should not be left to fend for themselves when faced with serious or chronic illness. We roughly know what it takes to lead a healthy lifestyle (exercise, minimal intake of sugar, no substance abuse, etc.), but we can and ought to debate most effective ways to help people lead such a lifestyle (for instance, how heavily the food industry should be regulated).

Questions to Ask: Which candidate is more likely to give the destitute effective access to healthcare? Which candidate is more likely to reduce the number of people who need to seek medical help?

10. Care for Creation

Value: We are part of God’s creation, and we must seek to preserve the integrity of God’s creation as an interdependent ecosystem and, if possible, to pass it on to the future generations improved. Above all, we should not damage creation by leading  lifestyles marked by acquisitiveness and wastefulness.

Rationale: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

Debate: The debate here should be about the extent of present ecological damage (for instance, whether or not we are barreling toward a climate apocalypse) and about the appropriate means and sacrifices necessary to preserve God’s creation.

Question to Ask: Which candidate shows a better understanding of the ecological health of the planet and has a better track record in preventing the devastation of what God has created and pronounced good?

11. Death Penalty

Value: Death should never be punishment for a crime. Since out of love Christ died for every human being (“the world”), no one should rob a human being of a chance to be transformed by God’s love, and no one should put to death a human being who has been transformed by God’s love.

Rationale: “Jesus straightened up and said to her [the woman caught in adultery, an act for which the Old Testament prescribes the death penalty], ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again’” (John 8:10–11). “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). 

Debate: Notwithstanding the Old Testament endorsement of death penalty, for Christians, there is no debate on this one. 

Question to Ask: Will the candidate push to abolish capital punishment, and if so, how hard?

12. Criminal Offenders

Value: Mere retributive punishment is an inadequate and mistaken way of dealing with offenders. We need to find creative ways to reconcile offenders to their victims and reintegrate them into the society. 

Rationale: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:14).

Debate: We should debate viable alternatives to incarceration and how best to achieve the reintegration of offenders into the society. We should also debate the extent to which ethnic and racial prejudices are influencing our practices — more specifically why it is that Hispanics and African Americans make up the largest proportion of the prison population — as well as the effect of the privatization of prisons on the increase of the prison population (the U.S. has the highest per capita prison population of any country in the world!).

Question to Ask: What does the candidate propose to do to reduce the number of incarcerated people in the U.S.?

13. World Hunger

Value: Given the world’s resources, no human being should go hungry; as individuals and a nation we should be committed to complete eradication of hunger.

Rationale: “[The Lord] executes justice for the oppressed [and] gives food to the hungry” (Ps. 146:7). “Then he [the Son of Man] will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink” (Matt. 25:41–42).

Debate: The debate should not be whether the eradication of world hunger ought to be one of our top priorities but rather what the most effective ways are to achieve that goal, including how best to fight corruption in countries in which hunger is widespread.

Questions to Ask: Is the candidate committed to the eradication of world hunger, and if so, what means will he use toward that goal? Is the candidate prepared to set aside a percentage of the Gross National Product for the eradication of hunger?


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 Three of the series in which Dr. Volf discusses war, torture, and the role of public religion.

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