A friend recently watched, helpless and aggrieved, as her husband—a philosophy professor at a conservative Christian university—was pummeled online for co-writing an essay with a fellow professor on why they will not vote for Mitt Romney. Many readers claimed to be disgraced, disgusted, and just plain flummoxed as to how professing Christians could argue against voting for Romney on the basis of economic policies that, in the professors’ opinion, are detrimental to our nation’s poor.
These dissenting commenters argued for a government focused primarily on defense, for “fair” economic policies that let people keep what they earn, for the government’s absolute inability to help poor people anyway, and for making abortion the primary measure that Christians use to evaluate candidates’ platforms. A clear subtext underlay all of these arguments: Real Christians vote Republican, and the faith of anyone who doesn’t vote for Romney is suspect, because they have failed to put “Biblical” values above political, economic, and social concerns.
I am a Christian, and a registered Democrat who will vote, again, for Obama on November 6. I’d like to refute this most dangerous subtext—that real Christians vote Republican—by explaining, in broad terms, why I am a Democrat.
I am a Democrat because, in many churches (including mine), being a Christian Democrat is not an oxymoron. None of us practice a pure faith. Our faith is always influenced by both the Christian and wider cultures in which we live. I have spent my whole life worshipping in churches that lean left, where being a Christian and a Democrat is neither remarkable nor unusual. But conservative evangelicals, and to some extent the media, continue to put forth the fallacy that a “Christian” voter is a conservative evangelical voter, equating the evangelical subculture with the wider church. Underlying this fallacy is an assumption that anyone who fails to see a straight line connecting their faith tenets to the Republican party platform must have an insubstantial, lip-service faith corrupted by cultural influences. This assumption is dangerous, but mostly, it’s just wrong.
I am a Democrat because I understand that theological conservatism and political conservatism are two different things. I am theologically conservative, meaning that I believe all that stuff in the Nicene Creed about the virgin birth and the resurrection. Especially the resurrection. But theological conservatism and political/social conservatism are entirely different things. Jesus was not conservative or liberal, and the idea that Jesus would identify wholly with either of our political parties is ludicrous. But Jesus was radical. Jesus turned the values of his world and ours (giving priority to the pursuit of wealth and comfort, might makes right, individual success over the common good) upside down. I am not radical enough for Jesus (most of us, regardless of party affiliation, aren’t), and I certainly don’t think the Democratic Party platform is radical enough for Jesus. But as a follower of the incarnate God who put the last first, whose ministry focused on those on the margins of his culture, I align myself with the political party that most consistently puts the interests of marginalized Americans on their national agenda.
I am a Democrat because I daily appreciate the ways in which government improves individual lives and the common good. I harbor no illusions that our government is, or is likely to become, a paragon of efficiency, honesty, and effectiveness. But looked at through global and historical lenses, the extent to which our democratic (lower case “d”) government provides safety and opportunity to its citizens is remarkable. In much of the world, the government-funded resources available here (well-kept roads, food stamps, free public schools, unemployment insurance, relatively effective and non-corrupt law enforcement, etc.) simply don’t exist. Governments can do horrid things in the name of the common good, but our government often manages to do much of value for the common good. Today’s Democratic Party appears more willing than the Republican Party to believe that government has a responsibility to use its power for the common good, rather than leaving that good solely in the hands of a diverse (and divided) citizenry, or the free market.
I am a Democrat because I see a difference between “fairness” and “justice.” I was struck, in reading the comments to my colleague’s husband’s essay, by how many people called for “fair” economic policies. “Fair” appeared to mean that those who obtain much wealth are not asked to give a good chunk of it up to help those who have little. But in God’s math, we don’t always get what is fair or what we deserve by the world’s standards, either for our hard work (e.g., the parable of the day laborers, Matthew 20:1–16) or our sinfulness. God is not about fairness. God is about justice. God is about all people being treated with dignity as those made in God’s image, about extravagant generosity regardless of merit, about those stuck in bad luck or the consequences of bad decisions getting second (and third and fourth and seventy-seventh) chances, about everyone giving out of what they have so that all have what they need (e.g., the Loaves and Fishes, Matthew 14:13–21). It may be unfair for the very wealthy to be taxed at a higher rate than the middle class, but in God’s economy, it is just.
I am a Democrat because “Biblical” values are far from clear cut, so I focus on what Jesus chose to focus on in his earthly ministry. Jesus understood, I think, that our holy scriptures are not always consistent when it comes to details, even such important details as the character of God (Did the same God who called the little children to him really mastermind the murder of every first-born son of the Egyptians?*). So Jesus made it simple for us. Jesus said there are two things we must do: Love God. Love our neighbors as ourselves. To figure out in practical terms what it means to love God and others, we look to what Jesus did and said, searching for common threads. The most obvious common thread is that Jesus continually reached out and offered hospitality, healing, hope, and help to those who were poor, sick, powerless, or reviled.
Jesus’s continual emphasis on our duty toward the poor and marginalized is most beautifully and memorably expressed in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31–46). Jesus says, quite simply, that any time we offer concrete help to someone suffering from hunger or cold or imprisonment or sickness or lack of welcome, we are loving God. And Jesus doesn’t instruct us to first decide if those in need of a cloak or a drink of water deserve our help. Jesus doesn’t say we can first figure out whether it’s fair to ask me to give away my only cloak or offer a stranger a drink from the well I built with my own two hands, with my wealth, to nurture me and my family.
Time and time and time again, Jesus put caring for “the least of these” at the center of his ministry and his message. These days, neither party is doing a particularly good job of making the poor central to their message, preferring to focus instead on the middle class, who are more likely than the poor to vote. But when it comes time for me to color in a circle on my voting card, I’m going to choose the candidate whose party has shown, most recently via the adoption of universal health care, that it takes seriously our societal obligation to care for those who cannot, for whatever reason, care adequately for themselves.
I am a Democrat because adequately caring for the least of these requires some government support. Many Republican Christians argue that Jesus’s mandate to care for the “least of these” was meant for his followers, not for our governments. Let individuals and churches care for the poor, they say, and let the government perform a limited role, primarily in defense. Although I believe that all Christians and churches (including me and my church) could do much more for the poor and marginalized than we are doing, we are also limited to providing help within our cultural, societal, and governmental structures.
We can drive a sick, uninsured child to a hospital, but if a long hospitalization or surgery is required, that child’s parents will have to either scrape together thousands or dollars (and perhaps eventually lose their home or declare bankruptcy as a result) or hope that the hospital has charity funds available. We can help an immigrant learn English and a marketable skill, but if the law doesn’t offer him a reasonable avenue toward legal work status, we can’t help him get a job that will support a family. We can provide pregnancy counseling and baby supplies to a young unwed mother, but if that mother is unable to afford groceries, decent housing, quality daycare, and additional education for herself , she and her child will likely end up in unsafe housing, poorly nourished, un- or underemployed, and stuck in a cycle of poverty that isn’t just a problem for that family, but (in God’s economy) for all of us. Without government safety nets such as subsidized housing and daycare, food stamps, education grants, health insurance, and support for immigrants, private charity can only do so much to ease the burden of poverty.
Our government is far from perfect, but it is still, in my mind, the greatest example of the good that be done via a democratic government of, by, and for the people. As Christians, we have an obligation to care for all of God’s people—even when it doesn’t seem quite fair; even when poverty results from a toxic and convoluted mix of a sinful communal history, bad or nonexistent policies, and poor personal decisions; even when our initial efforts to fix a problem as big as our nation’s healthcare inequalities might be clumsy and in need of fine-tuning.
To put it simply, I am a Democrat because the Democratic Party is doing more than the Republican Party to care for the “least of these,” however imperfectly. And Jesus made it absolutely clear that caring for the least of these is central to our identity as his followers.
* I revised this sentence to correct an error in the first draft, in which I referred to the murder “of the innocents,” not the murder of all of Egypt’s first-born sons as told in Exodus 12:12). The murder of the innocents refers to Herod the Great’s murder of first-born sons after the birth of Jesus.