Confession of a Christian in the United States

Flickr photo: smokingloon

Originally posted on 01.24.13 on

As I scanned my newsfeed this morning, I had another one of those, “No duh, Bruce.” moments.

Yes, I am a Christian.

Yes, I am a citizen of the United States of America.

As a Christian — I believe that we must love and serve one another: the stranger, the enemy, the prisoner, the poor, the outcast, the hungry and the oppressed. And while often falling short, I strive to live this daily – even to the detriment of my own wealth, comfort and station.

As a US Citizen — I believe that each of us has been “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” – even if this belief gives people the right to make choices that are not always in their best interest.

Add this one in the “easy to say, hard to do” file.

Reading story after opinion after post, each tackling important questions around mental health, war, immigration, gun control, abortion, marriage equality or healthcare, I was again reminded that I must hold in tension the commitment to live my Christian faith with the responsibility of being a citizen of the United States of America.

Like I said, “No duh, Bruce.”

This is not a comfortable or simple tension to hold and it would be much much much easier to compartmentalize my world pretending as if the two are always in state of blissful alignment and never in direct conflict. But with our country’s ideologically discourse seemingly at a constant boil, as we debate such complex and passionate issues, it is never a bad idea to remind myself – Bruce, you are first a citizen of the Body of Christ and then a citizen of the United States of America.

When such difficult questions before us as a country, I must constantly commit to being a Christian who happens to be an American and not the other way around. For if I confuse the two, my independent American sensibilities and the pursuit of my own individual rights will too often result in just the opposite being inflicted up those whom my Christian faith calls me to love and serve. If my citizenship trumps my faith, the pursuit of my own life, liberty and happiness will lead directly and indirectly to the death, oppression and despair for the stranger, the enemy, the prisoner, the poor, the outcast, the hungry and the oppressed.

Does this mean that I want the United States to become a theocracy governed by a less than unanimous understanding of the Christian faith, of course not. And are there times when my faith and citizenship align, sure.  The big takeaway for this Christian, who cherishes the opportunities to dialogue about the politics and policies of our country, is that I must be open to solutions to complex issues that might indeed infringe upon my own independence and personal gain so others may thrive. For in the end, our life does not belong to the United States of America, in life and in death, we belong to God.

Woe to me if I confuse the two.

God and Politics – Grace Ji-Sun Kim

Flickr image: ford_paul

I will never forget the answer that George W. Bush gave in an early presidential primary season debate – December 13, 1999 – when he was asked, ‘who is your favorite political philosopher’.

He looked into the camera and with a child-like demeanor, he said, “Jesus Christ, because he changed my life.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his answer.

Bush’s answer opens up the discussion of how religion and American politics are intertwined. As much as the government wants to separate church and state, American politics shows how differing political opinions influence religious decisions and differing religious confessions influence (or are used to validate) political values.

I am Canadian and I grew up in Canada. Most of the people who run for Prime Minister are Protestant or Roman Catholic. Many of them are religious and attend Sunday worship service. However, religion and politics do not mix up in Canada, where much political thought is influenced by its being an officially bilingual country. If a Prime Minister candidate talked about God on the campaign trail, Canadians will believe the candidate is strange or has become a little crazy. If a candidate ever did that, the candidate will certainly lose their opportunity at becoming the Prime Minister.

It is the opposite in American politics. The presidential candidates believe they have to often talk about God, refer to God, and how their God is viewed by their faith, and therefore in their politics. As the recent Vice Presidential debate between Joseph Biden and Paul Ryan demonstrated, this means they must even speak to the issue if their point is that their religion has no influence on their politics. Both Vice President Biden and Mr. Ryan are Catholic, and the two have very different views on the influence of faith and politics.

However, 2012’s election campaign has seen relatively little “God-Talk”. It is usually the conservative right who like to push the God-talk upon the candidates. They like to use “God-talk” to illustrate which candidate is “more” Christian than the other. Christianity or “God-talk” within the campaign trail has been frequently used by the parties to sway voters and to convince that one candidate is the better Christian than the other. Or even to paint the false picture that the other candidate isn’t even Christian at all. Much religious talk and some phony issues revolve around the character of the candidates. The ink and sound waves spilled over President Obama’s birthplace and Mr. Romney’s tax returns are less about substance than they are about whether or not the candidate is lying.

Mitt Romney has been shy to talk about God, but once in a while he goes off script and brings God back into the conversation.

He said, “I will not take God out of my heart, I will not take God out of the public square, and I will not take it out of the platform of my party.”

This is in reaction to the Democratic Party that had to argue to get God back into its platform at the convention.

However, Mr. Romney is still avoiding discussions of his own faith conviction and what it means to believe in God. Since Romney is a Mormon, a minority religion, possibly not even truly Christian, and he is having such a difficult time with that issue, the conservative right commentators are shying away from religion, God-talk and Christianity.

The presidential candidate who can sincerely and genuinely talk about God will win the voters, because regardless of their faith, an honest stance in the faith demonstrates a positive character. This worked well with Jimmy Carter. However, to use God and to use God’s name to sway voters to either candidate is simply manipulation. It puts voters off, because it is no longer a matter of personal conviction, it becomes a matter of “you must do what I believe.” This is poison, especially in social issues such as feminist matters and the environment.

Furthermore, having faith is does not merely mean ‘talking about God’ but is about ‘living out the gospel and showing God within our lives’. If a candidate cannot live out the faith, but just ‘talk about God’ it means nothing. “Faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Living out the gospel means obeying God’s commandment to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. This includes taking care of the poor, the elderly, the widow, the distraught and the down-trodden. When a candidate merely “talks” about their faith without wanting to live out the gospel, it makes us wonder which God they believe in. We all know that actions speak louder than words.

As we reflect upon this election and who to vote for, we should remember that using the name of God to manipulate an election is general ‘politics’ and “character building”. It does not reliably reveal anything about the candidate’s beliefs or faith in God. This does remind us of a commandment, “Do not use the name of God in vain’ (Exodus 20:7). It comes down to “when you do it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”

Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim received her M.Div. from Knox College and her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and is an Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the Master of Arts in Theological Studies program at Moravian Theological Seminary. She is the author of two books, The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology and The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology. Grace was recently ordained as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and also blogs for 99 Brattle and at gracejisunkim.

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