The Spiritual Landscape
Winning the White House and Losing Our Souls
So a few observations might be in order as we descend ever more deeply into that moneyed manipulation of national perceptions that we euphemistically describe as "the democratic process."
One, the choice of a president matters in the moment, but in the grand sweep of history, it matters very little. If history, viewed from the Christian point of view, tells us anything, we are not in control and history is littered, not just with leaders who have come and gone, but nations and empires that have vanished. We would do well to remember that we are dust and to dust we will return.
Two, the legitimacy of the church's position on any issue does not rise and fall with the endorsement of a president, never mind a presidential candidate. The church is obliged to be faithful to God. The moment the church becomes desperately dependent upon the positions taken by our leaders or our country, it has defaulted in that responsibility. I love my country, but my faith makes transcendent claims on my energy and loyalty.
Three, political speech and theological speech are not one in the same. Yes, theology has collective and corporate implications and, therefore, political implications. But the church is called upon to think about those issues from a fundamentally different point of view. Methodists are fond of talking about the resources of Christian theology as lying in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. That list is inadvertently read as a list of two resources unique to the church (Scripture and tradition), alongside two resources shared in common with everyone else (what goes on inside our heads and what goes on in our lives). But when Christians talk about reason, we are talking about reasoning with the church, and when we talk about experience, we are talking about the experience of the church. When we use political language as if it were theological language, or when we use theology as if were a surrogate for politics, we fail to live and think as Christians were meant to live and think.
Four, because the church and the state think differently, they are also obliged to behave differently. This means that our nation is not obliged to adhere to the standards that shape the church. The church has no business arguing that the state conform to the standards that shape the church. And the church need not conform to the standards that govern the nation.
Fifth, for that reason the church—not the nation—is the locus of Christian reflection and faith. And candidates for political office will never authentically represent a Christian's point of view, nor can they. Our country will inevitably reflect some of our values. Arguably, the values that have shaped our nation's laws and history are deeply indebted to the influence of Christian theology. Candidates for office will bring their own faith to the work that they do; however, it will always find expression in a political environment devoted to a defense of pluralism. But no matter how much we love our country and no matter how important the political decisions we face may be, the nation's political machinations are not the end-point of Christian striving. The church is.
And when you are dependent upon the Lord of heaven and earth, it really is all downhill from there.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/