Unconventional Thinking: Theological Touchstones for the Election Season
So, the Republican and Democratic conventions are over, all the partisan rhetoric has been exercised, and all the opposition's candidates have been demonstrated to be at best mistaken and at worst enemies of the American people. Occasionally our shared humanity has been acknowledged—I think of Vice President Joe Biden, for example, quieting the crowd in Charlotte by telling them he believes Governor Mitt Romney is a good father and husband by repeating, "I don't think he's a bad guy."
But mostly we saw divides and absolutes—our way is the right way, their way is the wrong way. And if our guys don't get elected, disaster will ensue.
In the face of this surety, what are we to think?
And when both parties claim to be looking out for the needs of everyday Americans while extolling mutually exclusive approaches to governance, how are we to decide?
Mickey Edwards, who served eight terms as a Republican member of Congress from Oklahoma, has written a new book, The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans, that explains some of the divisiveness of our decision-making in recent years from a political standpoint. He says that democracy is about process, not about policies, and it is our processes that have broken down.
That fits with my own conclusions about theology and politics over the last two years, especially in this column and in the book Faithful Citizenship: our process of making decisions that involve our faith and our civic life is usually flawed. As I took on the experiment of seeking a faithful ethic for Christians to employ in making political decisions, I have spent a lot of time thinking about process, and have discovered some theological touchstones that keep me from simply choosing what I already value and memorializing it as right, which is what we typically do, whether we're talking about politics, about religion, or about whether we prefer Avengers or Dark Knight Rises.
The most important touchstone, of course, is the life and teaching of Jesus, as interpreted through what St. Augustine called the Two-Fold Commandment of Love: The heart of Christian belief and practice is to love God and our neighbors, and we demonstrate our love for God most perfectly through our love for our neighbors. Any reading of scripture, Augustine tells us, that does not privilege love of God and our neighbor is an inept reading of scripture. I likewise believe that any theological decision or any action that does not foreground love is also flawed. That is the consensus of the Christian tradition, by the way: Thomas Aquinas tells us that "when a human act does not conform to the standard of love, then it is not right, nor good, nor perfect."
So one of the questions we ask when we enter into moral decision-making of any kind has to be whether that decision is loving toward both God and our neighbors—most importantly, toward our neighbors. In an essay last week, I mentioned how my governor, Rick Perry, has chosen to reject federal funds for low-income women's health care in order to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions along with that health care. This seemed to me an example of how it is possible to do something that is morally justified, but is not loving to our neighbors. Planned Parenthood will indeed suffer, but so will thousands of women who depended on Planned Parenthood for birth control, women's health, prenatal care, and the like.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.