From Jesus Candidate to Nation’s Theologian

A few months ago Rick Santorum asserted that there is always a need for a “Jesus candidate” and implied that his credentials made him ideal for the position.[1] Yesterday, Santorum challenged President
Barack Obama’s Christian beliefs, suggesting that President Obama’s vision of America and Christianity is “not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal.  Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.”

Later in the day, at a news conference, Santorum admitted that the President might be a Christian – “if the President says he’s a Christian, he’sa Christian” – although in the past, unlike presidential candidate John McCain, Santorum has not corrected persons who assert that the President is a Muslim.

Now, Rick Santorum has every right to affirm his own theological position, but
perhaps for one of the first times in political history a major presidential
candidate has chosen to become the nation’s theologian as well, implying that
he is able to discern the difference between orthodoxy and heresy and that he
alone (in contrast to President Obama and Mitt Romney) represents Christian
orthodoxy.  This is not only an act of hubris, bounding of idolatry, but also dangerous to the well-being of the Republic.

I have a practice that whenever someone alludes to him or herself as being an adherent
of orthodox Christianity, I ask “which orthodoxy are you talking about?”  Christianity is a diverse religion and virtually every religious movement, including Rick Santorum’s Roman Catholic
tradition has been denounced, to use Santorum’s term as “phony theology,” by
its detractors, and has claimed to be orthodox by its adherents.

Moreover, whenever someone claims to hold a biblically-based theology, I feel compelled
to ask the same question, “which parts of the Bible are central to your beliefs
and which are unimportant?”  Throughout history from Jehovah’s Witnesses to the recent end-time prophesies of Harold Camping and others, certain Christians have taken a handful of passages and
made them the sole lens through the scripture is to be understood.  Any faithful reader of scripture must consider the following:

1)     Scripture speaks in many voices, often in conflict with one another.
For, example, the acts-consequences (you reap what you sow) theology of
Deuteronomy and Leviticus is challenged by Job and Jesus; the blood-thirsty
nationalism of Obadiah is challenged by Jonah; the strict adherence to Sabbath
rules and ritual purity of the Hebraic Law is challenged in Jesus healing
ministry and hospitality to outcasts, sinners, and ritually impure people.

2)     Every reader of scripture comes to the Bible with a perspective that shapes how he or she reads the Bible, thepassages they affirm, and the passages they neglect.

For example, end-time preachers de-emphasizeJesus’ comment that no one knows the hour when the Messiah will return; biblicalliteralists omit laws against eating pork on Easter Sunday; believers in
predestination neglect passages that describe humans exercising free will and God changing God’s mind to adapt to new situations; universalists and hell-fireand brimstone pastors alike dismiss each other’s key passages suggesting only a few are saved or that God will redeem everyone.

From this perspective, Santorum’s comments betray not only tremendous biblical and
theological naïvete, they also come perilously close to establishing a
theological litmus test both for political candidates and lawmaking.  The United States has flourished religiously precisely because presidents and political leaders have consistently avoided
marginalizing or denouncing their opponents’ religious beliefs, faith
tradition, or depth of faith.  Santorum is presuming that President Obama is unfit to be president because his type of Christian faith and his understanding of the relationship of faith and politics differ
from his own.  Those who criticize President Obama’s recent decisions regarding contraception as violating the separation of church and state had better be horrified by Santorum’s
willingness to judge the orthodoxy of other political candidates, including the
unmentioned Mitt Romney.

Let me add two final thoughts, and I must admit that I have a biblical perspective –
that of progressive Christianity joined with a focus on social and economic
justice, affirmation of diversity and equality, and recognition the need for
social safety nets and affirmative policies to equalize the distance between
wealthy and poor.

First, it is my belief that although Santorum is seeking to appeal to the social conservatives and
evangelical Christians necessary for winning the presidential nomination, he is
disenfranchising himself by the authoritarianism of his theological and ethical
statements from the vast majority of younger, socially concerned evangelicals
and mainstream Christian political independents, both of which are
uncomfortable with theological litmus tests and religious positions that focus
on individual behaviors to the exclusion of concern for social justice.

Second, while social conservatives such as Santorum claim to be biblical, I believe a
good argument can be made for the position that the social gospel, concern for
economic justice, and affirmation of diversity is equally, if not more
biblically-based.  There are virtually nobiblical passages that address in a simple and unambiguous  fashion any of the key social conservative issues: abortion, contraception, and 21stcentury consensual homosexuality and GLBT behaviors.

From my perspective, the prophetic books clearly condemn people for practicing injustice
and profit-making that excludes the most vulnerable people.  No passage invoked among social conservativesrivals: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) The prophetic tradition is grounded in the recognition that governments need to promote justice and have a unique responsibility for equalizing economic imbalances.  This is surely the meaning of the sabbatical and jubilee years.

Further, no one can describe Jesus having a preferential option for “job creators” or
the “1%.”  While Jesus was criticized for his hospitality to upper middle class tax collectors, who served the Romanoppressors, he was indicted as un-orthodox and religiously suspect for his
welcoming of women, people of dubious occupations and lifestyles, persons suffering from sicknesses that rendered them impure, and other socialoutcasts.  Jesus never resorted to
statements demeaning the poor and immigrants nor did Jesus say one word about
abortion, contraception, or homosexuality.

I am sure that Rick Santorum is a person of faith. He is correct in saying that he and President Obama have differenttheologies and that these theologies implicitly are at work in their
decision-making processes.  Any further affirmation beyond this point implies a God’s eye view and a type oftheological omniscience and authoritarianism withheld from mere mortals.  Candidate Santorum needs to rememberLincoln’s admonition that our task is not to assume that God is on our side but
to hope that we are God’s side.  Giventhe sinfulness of the human condition and the pride, characteristic of thepolitical arena, it would be best for Santorum to resign his position as the“Jesus candidate,” disavow the role of “theologian in chief, and settle” for following the words of  the Bible, spoken by another prophet:  “What does God require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8)


Bruce Epperly is a theologian, pastor, and writer.  He is the author of 22 books, including “Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,” “Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed,” and “Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Age.”





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