Unconventional Thinking: Theological Touchstones for the Election Season

So, the Republican and Democratic conventions are over, all the partisan rhetoric has been exercised, and all the opposition's candidates have been demonstrated to be at best mistaken and at worst enemies of the American people. Occasionally our shared humanity has been acknowledged—I think of Vice President Joe Biden, for example, quieting the crowd in Charlotte by telling them he believes Governor Mitt Romney is a good father and husband by repeating, "I don't think he's a bad guy."

But mostly we saw divides and absolutes—our way is the right way, their way is the wrong way. And if our guys don't get elected, disaster will ensue.

In the face of this surety, what are we to think?

And when both parties claim to be looking out for the needs of everyday Americans while extolling mutually exclusive approaches to governance, how are we to decide?

Mickey Edwards, who served eight terms as a Republican member of Congress from Oklahoma, has written a new book, The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans, that explains some of the divisiveness of our decision-making in recent years from a political standpoint. He says that democracy is about process, not about policies, and it is our processes that have broken down.

That fits with my own conclusions about theology and politics over the last two years, especially in this column and in the book Faithful Citizenship: our process of making decisions that involve our faith and our civic life is usually flawed. As I took on the experiment of seeking a faithful ethic for Christians to employ in making political decisions, I have spent a lot of time thinking about process, and have discovered some theological touchstones that keep me from simply choosing what I already value and memorializing it as right, which is what we typically do, whether we're talking about politics, about religion, or about whether we prefer Avengers or Dark Knight Rises.

The most important touchstone, of course, is the life and teaching of Jesus, as interpreted through what St. Augustine called the Two-Fold Commandment of Love: The heart of Christian belief and practice is to love God and our neighbors, and we demonstrate our love for God most perfectly through our love for our neighbors. Any reading of scripture, Augustine tells us, that does not privilege love of God and our neighbor is an inept reading of scripture. I likewise believe that any theological decision or any action that does not foreground love is also flawed. That is the consensus of the Christian tradition, by the way: Thomas Aquinas tells us that "when a human act does not conform to the standard of love, then it is not right, nor good, nor perfect."

So one of the questions we ask when we enter into moral decision-making of any kind has to be whether that decision is loving toward both God and our neighbors—most importantly, toward our neighbors. In an essay last week, I mentioned how my governor, Rick Perry, has chosen to reject federal funds for low-income women's health care in order to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions along with that health care. This seemed to me an example of how it is possible to do something that is morally justified, but is not loving to our neighbors. Planned Parenthood will indeed suffer, but so will thousands of women who depended on Planned Parenthood for birth control, women's health, prenatal care, and the like.

What is not loving is wrong—even if it seems right.

My second theological touchstone turned out to be the Anglican clergyman William Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, an 18th-century classic of devotional literature that deeply influenced John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, the great evangelist George Whitefield, and in our own time, the Presbyterian pastor and activist William Sloane Coffin.

In response to the common argument that worship, prayer, and Bible reading are the core of Christian belief and practice, Law challenges us to dethrone every thing that is not God and to consider as holy only a life that is completely devoted to the moving of God: "He therefore is the devout man, who lives no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but to the sole will of God; who considers God in every thing, who serves God in every thing, who makes all the parts of his common life parts of piety, by doing every thing in the Name of God, and under such rules as are conformable to His glory."

12/2/2022 9:10:38 PM
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  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.