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In the New Testament, there is only one sin that gets the divine death penalty: hypocrisy. There is a reason. It’s the devil’s best tool against the Christian witness. And it’s what so disappoints me about the Republican approach to faith and politics. The Patheos question this week is “Does a candidate’s faith matter?” It matters deeply when the candidate runs on their faith while ignoring its core tenents. Doing so does horrible harm to the Christian witness. It’s a big reason why I got into this work, and why when we started working with Democrats on faith back in ’05, we had two Prime Directives: 1) The work had to be authentic and 2) it had to come from a place of religious humility, not arrogance. And it is why I’m not surprised by the recent revelation that out spoken defender of family values and hardcore “Pro-Life” Tennessee Congressman Scott DesJarlais was taped encouraging one of his four mistresses to abort his unborn child.
I’ll get back to DesJarlais in a bit, and I want to preface the rest of this piece by making clear that not all Republicans or members of the Christian Right are hypocrites. Most are good people trying their best to do what is right. But they continually lift up and support leaders like DesJarlais, and it’s brutalizing the Christian witness in this country. It’s not a coincidence that people who run campaigns based on judging others so often crash and burn.
There is a reason Jesus spent so much time warning against righteous judgment and our human inclination to focus on our neighbor’s wrongs to avoid having to look at our own. That inclination is what has allowed the pro-life political movement in this country to be co-opted by Republicans who only talk about the issue instead of actually protecting the unborn. It’s much easier to just say you are pro-life and that women shouldn’t have abortions than to actually do the harder and more complex work of reducing the number who do.
It’s much easier to be “pro-family,” which recently has pretty much meant fighting over gay-marriage, than to actually do the hard work in our communities (and our own families!) to keep marriages strong. Gays make up what, 2% or so of the population? And 50% of traditional marriages end in divorce. I’m not saying gay-marriage doesn’t matter, but it’s mind boggling that so much attention and money is focused on picking at that speck of an issue while we mostly ignore the 2×4 of a problem wedged in our own churches and communities.
You see, the “advantage” of focusing on judgment in faith and politics is that it allows you to compare yourself to other people on a standard you choose…and thereby feel rather righteous and good about yourself, both because you are better and because you are fighting for God. But that isn’t what Christ taught. The standard we’re judged by is His, not our neighbors’. Given how far short we fall of Christ’s standard, it’s laughable that we could ever think “superior” or “more righteous” are terms we could use to describe ourselves.
But the main reason Jesus was so against the Pharisaical approach to faith that defines the Republican leadership and Religious Right is that it is not how you build relationship or show people God’s love. Jesus was the standard and perfect, but he was also the one to spent his time with the worst sinners in his society. He knew you can’t show people God’s love when you’re yelling at them.
Last week’s Pew study showing that 20% of Americans no longer identify with a religious tradition got a lot of attention and buzz. Some panicked, and a lot of the headlines and coverage misread the data saying it was a rise of atheism. When you look at the actual results, what Pew found was not that attitudes and beliefs are changing much. It’s more a matter of labels. What’s changing is that people who are marginally religious are no longer identifying as Christian. An argument can be made that this is a good thing, that civil Christianity isn’t real. You shouldn’t be Christian because it’s comfortable. But it also points to a much more serious problem. Twenty years ago “Christian” was a label people on the fence wanted and saw as a good thing. Now it’s a label they don’t want to be associated with.
Which brings us back to Rep. DesJarlais. One of the main reasons people gave for saying they had no religious affiliation is that they think religion is too focused on worldly power and judgment, and it’s been co-opted by politics and ideology. That is what hypocrisy does. It’s why politicians running on extreme judgment and fear should be so feared. DesJarlais was one of those guys with a 100% pro-life record and 100% pro-family record who probably deserved another 10 points in extra credit on each category. And he got those ratings and endorsements from the Christian Right after his first divorce and despite the fact that, as we now know, he had four mistresses and was pushing one to abort his child.
Not only does the Right’s approach often result in hypocrisy and harm to the Christian witness, it blinds them to people’s struggle. DesJarlais didn’t push his mistress to have an abortion because he was a two-faced liar. I have no doubt he believes abortion is wrong. But he found himself in a situation where he had nothing but bad options. He kept making worse decisions because when you’re constantly dishing out judgment, it’s hard to ask for grace.
Sadly, DesJarlais’ probably went to a church and had friends who will start shunning him. What he, his family, and his mistresses need right now are love and grace from his church. But he has also lost all claim to leadership over his fellow citizens. Re-electing him would send a horrible example to our children and to non-Christians about what we value. Thankfully, the alternative in this race, Eric Stewart, is a great guy and good Christian. Stewart isn’t perfect either, and he’ll be the first to tell you that. But by not looking down on his neighbors, he understands what they are going through and need. That’s what makes good leaders.
If you’re pro-life and think that label matters; if you are pro-family; you should help make sure Eric Stewart becomes the next Congressman from TN-04.