A pastor friend of mine, Clay Smith, wrote the following in the pastor’s column of his church’s newsletter:
Typical family outing. I’m in the driver’s seat, Mom in the other front seat, children sprinkled through the van. We’re headed home. Sarah, (three-and-a-half) lover of ice cream, asks for us to stop and get some. We’ve been recently convicted that she does not need to always get her way, so in the name of love, discipline, her future well-being, our need to get home, and Dad’s waist line, we say No.
Sarah is a bright child. She shifts tactics. She says “please.” She begs. She asks for “just a little bit.” We are holding firm. She launches a frontal assault of tears. We remain resolute. I know what she is thinking: “I have the meanest parents ever.” Brother and Sister are following the unfolding events to see if any of the tactics work.
When the Tammy Faye Baker strategy (tears) fails, she shifts gears. The sobs subside and there is quiet. We are almost home. Then she drops the bombshell: “God doesn’t like it when you’re mean to me.”
Well, that changes everything! If God is on Sarah’s side, then we are compelled to turn around and buy gallons of ice cream…
Clay wrote that his daughter knew just enough theology to be dangerous. She knows God loves her and that she is special, but she took that to mean that she had a monopoly on God—that God was on her side.
Surely that happens only with three-year-olds who want ice cream. Adult, mature, level-headed Christians would never make such a claim. Would we? Do we?
Just as Dallas Cowboy fans declare that God is on their side (they claim that is why there is a hole in their stadium—so that God can watch His team play), Christians who are passionate about politics often claim, sincerely, that they believe God is on their side.
Cal Thomas wrote, “All politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, love God. Or more accurately, they love to use God to baptize their political agendas.”
Many politicians employ spiritual language when such is advantageous, claiming that their particular legislation is the “will of God,” quoting Scripture, or talking about their church experience. Of course many politicians are genuinely people of faith, and authentic expressions of spirituality are refreshing and encouraging. Some politicians, however, have been so embarrassingly clumsy in their attempts to appear religious that their sincerity is easily questioned.
Not only do some politicians like to “use God to baptize their political agendas,” some religious leaders are more than willing to play along…as long as they get access to the politicians. Power is intoxicating, and many religious leaders are anything but teetotalers on this point.
Religious leaders have long since been known to sacrifice the appropriate separation of church and state in order to be close to the center of power. (They tend to forget that some of the best preachers in the Bible got in big trouble with the political leaders. Daniel, for example, ended up in the lion’s den. Amos was run out of the country. And John the Baptist ended up with his head on a platter.)
We would do well to remember the commentary on religion and politics by the famous visitor to our young nation, Count Alexis de Tocqueville: “Any alliance with any political power whatsoever is bound to be burdensome for religion. It does not need their support in order to live, and in serving them it may die.”
And it’s not just the politicians and preachers who are guilty here. Many followers of Jesus sincerely wonder how any Christian could vote for a Republican…or a Democrat. For some, voting records have become tests of faith.
Thus I thought the question, Is God a Republican or Democrat?, would be an appropriate “Hot Topic.” I invited Reba Republican and Danny Democrat to come and debate the matter. Both call themselves Christians, and both attend their Baptist churches regularly. They feel deeply about their politics, but they also are quick to point out their religious convictions. In fact, both say their political positions grow out of their spiritual reflections.
Reba recently returned from speaking at a benefit for United States Citizens United Against the United Nations, and Danny just flew in from a Save the Whales rally. Reba and Danny asked that I make clear to you that they do not speak for their parties. They are offering their personal opinions, and nothing they say should be interpreted as the party line.
Now, let’s welcome Reba and Danny…
Host: Well, Reba Rebublican and Danny Democrat, it is an honor to have you here in my office. Let’s kick things off by talking about the environment. That’s a fairly benign topic.
Danny: Well, it’s benign if you think the Republican tactic of sacrificing our environment for the sake of economics is benign. I believe when God told Adam and Eve to take care of His creation, He was giving a mandate to all humans that we should protect the earth.
Reba: How can you say Republicans are sacrificing the environment? It seems to me that a lot of Democrats worship the creation instead of the Creator. And, after all, humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation. The earth was created for us; not us for the earth.
Danny: See? That’s the kind of language that Republicans use to justify things like drilling for oil in pristine settings that ought to be left alone.
Reba: First of all, present laws require companies to be extremely careful in their drilling. Furthermore, I, too, believe we should take care of our environment. I think it is our Christian duty to be true environmentalists. I simply believe in balance—in harvesting from the earth what we need for our existence and taking care of the earth in the meantime. You Democrats are always so far out—always hugging trees or panicking about global warming.
Danny: You can call me a “tree hugger” if you want, but I’m not ashamed that, to me, environmentalism is a Christian duty.
Host: Boy, we got off to a contentious start. Let’s try something that you two should agree on…values.
Reba: Republicans are the party of values. Of integrity. You can trust a Republican to say what he does and do what he says.
Danny: Oh yeah? I remember the first president Bush saying, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Then he turned around and raised taxes quicker than we could say “Internal Revenue Service.”
Reba: Well, sure, circumstances often dictate unforeseen, difficult decisions. And it was Richard Nixon, a Democrat, who got caught in the Watergate scandal!
Danny: Uh, Reba, Nixon was a Republican.
Reba: Oh, that’s right. Well, what about Jessee Jackson and his infidelity? And he is a minister, no less! And what about Bill Clinton? He looked into the camera and said, “I did not have…”
Danny: OK, OK. You guys love to bring up Clinton, don’t you?
Reba: By the way, how do you account for the 2002 Pew Research Center poll which says that 63% of the people who attend church more than once a week vote Republican? And what about the fact that 64% of the people who attend church more than once a week voted for George W. Bush in 2004? Doesn’t that say something for us Republicans?
Danny: I am well aware of those polls, and my only response is that my fellow believers who vote Republican have the right to be wrong.
Reba: And while I’m on the subject, every poll I see shows that Americans trust the Republican party on issues like which party can do more to improve moral values, and which party is committed to families.
Danny: I’ll admit we’ve got a PR problem on those issues.
Host: Now let’s turn our attention to the question of life itself.
Danny: I’m glad you brought that up. My Republican friends act as if the only issue about “life” on the table is abortion. But I’d like to talk about other “life” matters, such as war and the death penalty! I’m confused as to how Reba and others can say theirs is the pro-life party, when they are ready to execute people who might be rehabilitated or later proved innocent with DNA tests, and when they will go to war at the drop of a hat. And what about the one hundred thousand civilian casualties, and hundreds upon hundreds of American casualties, in Iraq?
Reba: Danny, Danny. Let’s not confuse the lives of those who die from execution or war with innocent lives, such as the lives of the unborn.
Host: Let’s talk specifically about the abortion issue.
Reba: Republicans believe that to allow people to take a life to cover for their previous poor choices is immoral. Human life is precious, for we are created in God’s image. God’s sixth commandment is that human life be protected and defended.
Danny: Democrats do not support abortion as a casual form of birth control by those engaging in promiscuous sex. We do, however, believe that a woman has a choice when it comes to her health. This is especially true since we are unable to discern the point at which life begins. This is a complicated matter.
Reba: It’s not complicated. Abortion is the taking of a life and should be illegal.
Danny: Well, then, who are you going to charge with the crime? The doctor? The mother? The father? And what is the crime going to be? Murder? It’s just not practical. Trying to outlaw abortion would be about as effective as prohibition in the 1920’s.
Reba: I know how hard anti-abortion laws would be to enforce, yet I contend that our government’s complicity in the taking of unborn human lives is nothing short of immoral. And the Democratic party’s hard line on this matter is shocking. Why, Robert Casey, a Roman Catholic and former governor of Pennsylvania, was denied the opportunity to speak at both the 1992 and 1996 Democratic convention simply because he is pro-life! And I understand the Democratic National Committee refuses to allow a link off your website to pro-life Democratic organizations! You guys aren’t just pro-choice; you are fanatically against the pro-life movement.
Host: Now let’s tackle the difficult matter of homosexuality.
Danny: I hear a lot of my fellow Christians say, “Hate the sin and love the sinner.” But, come on, it’s hard for most of us to believe that’s not a hypocritical statement. Furthermore, we believe that the President’s plan to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage is over the top.
Reba: I don’t know of a single Republican who hates homosexuals. But one of the central threads of our society is the family. And all cultures in history have regarded the foundation of the family to be a man and a woman. What two consenting adults do in their privacy is their business, but when they try to redefine the family by allowing same-sex marriage, the government has a responsibility to say, “Enough is enough.” President Bush is right in supporting a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriages.
Host: What about poverty? Is that a religious issue?
Reba: Certainly. We must do what we can to give a hand-up to the poor.
Danny: I certainly agree that poverty is a religious issue. And I only wish Reba and her fellow Republicans were as concerned about the poor as she just implied they are. The truth is that Republicans’ budgets and tax policies favor the rich. Instead of giving the poor a hand up, Republicans are continually passing bills that knock them back down.
Reba: Danny, Danny.
Danny: I believe the answer to poverty lies in social programs and fairer laws—like improved education, better housing, and increased minimum wage.
Reba: I believe the answer to poverty lies in individual behavior—like personal responsibility, sexual purity, saying “no” to substance abuse, and a commitment to the family. Changed hearts is the answer to dealing with poverty, not one more ineffective government program.
Danny: By the way, President Bush is hollering about a Social Security crisis. The real crisis in America is a crisis in health care! There are thousands and thousands of children who are not covered by health insurance. That is a genuine crisis.
Reba: There you go again, assuming that the government can take care of everybody’s needs.
Host: Let’s talk for a moment about how involved the church should be in politics.
Danny: Well, for all Baptists’ talk about religious liberty, and with all our bragging about Roger Williams’ and John Leland’s role in establishing freedom of religion in this country, some of us sure do get awfully close to crossing the line separating church and state.
Host: Can you give examples?
Danny: Sure can. Back during the election of 2004, Karl Rove and his cronies tried to get pastors to turn over their church directories so members could be sent partisan literature. I heard some of ‘em did! And at the Southern Baptist Convention the Bush campaign hosted a reception for pastors and used the opportunity to collect signatures and addresses from ministers pledging to help re-elect Bush. Everyone knows that, in the name of “voter registration drives,” they are actually trying to get out the Bush vote. How can churches claim tax-exempt status when they are essentially an arm of a political party? Even Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the Republicans’ attempts to enlist pastors “inappropriate,” and said he was “appalled” by their activity.
And what about “Justice Sunday” back in April? In Louisville, religious leaders got together at a Baptist church and called for the Democrats to stop filibustering to block President Bush’s judiciary nominees.
They even had Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Republican, appear via video to cheerlead! The event was simulcast to churches across the country. If that isn’t a courtship of Christians and a particular party, I don’t know what is. Even a number of Christians criticized “Justice Sunday” as an inappropriate blending of religion and partisan politics.
Reba: Christians shouldn’t be expected to keep silent about major political issues. We are citizens, too, and our faith affects every area of our lives. Why was it right for the left wing of the Church to protest Viet Nam and wrong for the right wing of the church to protest filibusters of judicial nominees?
Danny: I’m not here to defend actions in the ‘60’s. I’m here to talk about what is happening right now.
Reba: Are we expected to stand by while our nation’s moral fiber unravels? Are we not to offer a prophetic voice and attempt to stem the tide of depravity in our culture?
Danny: I’m not crazy about the way things are going either. But I disagree that the church ought to cozy up with politicians in order to solve the problem. That’s awfully dangerous in the long run.
Host: Let’s delve into a the hot topic in our nation 3 years ago, and the topic of —the Terri Schiavo case, and Euthanasia.
Reba: Wait, Travis. I have one final question for Danny on the separation of church and state. How can Democrats criticize such events as the “Justice Sunday” and then hold so many rallies in African American churches?
Danny: You don’t understand. In many traditional African American communities the church is the gathering place. It is the community center—a center for public gatherings, not just worship.
Host: Okay. On to Terri Schiavo.
Reba: Danny, how could so many Democrats think it right to starve Terri Schiavo to death?
Danny: Let me answer that with a question. How could so many Republicans think it right to artificially postpone the death of someone in a persistent vegetative state? And where did a Republican president and his Florida governor brother get the right to intervene in such private matters?
Reba: This was, in their opinion, a right-to-life issue, and Republicans are pro-life.
Danny: Well, you Republicans may be “right-to-lifers,” but we Democrats believe in a right to death with dignity. By the way, I find it interesting that Republicans are always acting like the federal government is too involved in everybody’s life, and there you had President Bush and Tom Delay trying their dangdest to override the decisions of local courts!
Reba: This was one issue worthy of veering from the norm. The timing of one’s death should be up to God.
Danny: If it had been up to God, not an artificial feeding tube, she would have died years ago!
Host: What about war—in particular the war in Iraq? Does your Christian faith have anything to do with your position on the war?
Reba: Some wars are just. I think this one is.
Danny: I agree with Reba that some wars are just. But I disagree that this one fits the “just war” criteria. In fact, the majority of Christians around the world denounced the war in Iraq even before it started.
Host: What are the “just war” criteria?
Danny: First of all, the cause must be just.
Reba: Making the world a safer, more lawful, place is a just cause. President Bush and others believed Saddam Hussein had possession of, and the willingness to use, weapons of mass destruction. Saddam is the perfect ally for terroristic groups such as Al Qaida. Furthermore, he has become infamous for the torture and abuse of his own people.
Danny: Reba, a lot of folks question whether the president did actually believe Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. And we certainly know now that Saddam did not. But let me go on with the “just war” criteria. The second criterion is that war must be the last resort. Quite frankly, I believe Republicans are too quick to strap on their holsters. And the third criterion is that war be issued by a lawful public authority. It would have been much more appropriate if we could have gone in with the cooperation of a broad range of countries instead of charging in like lone rangers.
Reba: But there were several countries who did side with us on this. Moreover, the United States, as I see it, was enforcing the terms of Saddam Hussein’s surrender after the first Gulf War, such as Iraq’s openness to UN inspections—terms that he had not met.
Danny: Another criterion for a “just war” is that there must be a due proportion between the good that may be accomplished and the probable harm that might be done. In other words, the cure (war) should not be worse than the disease. A lot of folks wonder if Saddam’s actions merited the horrors of this war.
Reba: Don’t forget the next criterion for a “just war,” that is that the war must be rightly conducted through the use of right means. Care must be taken to minimize civilian casualties. I think our government has been very humanitarian, to the point of helping them rebuild their country and to ensure the election of their new leaders. And let me tell you how I justify war as a Christian. Romans 13:4 reads that the governing authority, “does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Of course the sword can be abused, but it also can be used justly.
Danny: I think Reba and I would agree that some wars may be justified. I just think Republicans are a little too quick to claim God loves Americans more than anyone else and thus are all too willing to start a fight.
Reba: Now Danny, what Republican have you ever heard say God loves Americans more than anyone else?
Danny: Well, uh, there was…well, I’m sure I heard some Republican say that once.
Host: What about racial reconciliation and your politics?
Reba: With all their talk of inclusion, no Democrat can match President Bush’s policy of getting the best person for the job, no matter their race. Just look at his cabinet: It includes Condaleeza Rice, Carlos Gutierrez, Elaine Chao, Norman Mineta, Alphonso Jackson, and Alberto Gonzales. And there was Colin Powell in his first cabinet.
Danny: Racial issues run deeper than merely who is on the president’s cabinet. Everybody knows that we have a lot of ground to make up in our country, and affirmative action can help us do that.
Reba: How insulting can you be—to say to people of color that they can get into college or get a job merely by virtue of their race, and not by merit?
Danny: Democrats aren’t talking about special treatment. We’re talking merely about leveling the playing field.
Host: Well, Danny and Reba, we’re out of time. It certainly has been interesting to listen in on your discussion. May God bless you both as you live out your faith in the complex world of politics.
It’s hard to tell from the debate between Danny and Reba whether God is a Republican or a Democrat. But if I have learned anything from this conversation, it is that things are rarely as simple as we’d like to make them out to be.
By the way, remember Sarah, the three-year-old who was certain that God was on her side? I think Abe Lincoln’s theology was a little more sound than Sarah’s. Reportedly, during a meeting of leaders during the Civil War, someone asked Lincoln to pray that God would be on their side. Lincoln answered, "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side."
May we side with God on the issues…be we Republicans or Democrats.
i Cal Thomas, in Blinded By Might, p. 83.
ii The following are the words of Alexis de Toqueville that immediately precede the quotation included here: “So long as a religion derives its strength from sentiments, instincts, and passions, which are reborn in like fashion in all periods of history, it can brave the assaults of time, or at least it can only be destroyed by another religion. But when a religion chooses to rely on the interests of this world, it becomes almost as fragile as all earthly powers. Alone, it may hope for immortality; linked to ephemeral powers, it follows their fortunes and often falls together with the passions of a day but sustaining them.”
Travis Collins is a graduate of Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama and earned the Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.