Texans have been “treated” to a unique spectacle as we watched the Olympics on TV the past few days.
Yep, you guessed it—presidential campaign ads.
I can’t remember what happened before then, but in 2000 and ’04, Democrats and Republicans alike toted Texas smack-dab in the middle of the “red” column. And so they spent their ad money elsewhere. Why bother with the hearts and minds of citizens in a conservative state whose popular former governor tops the ballot?
But this year, well … . Maybe the presidential spots are national ads capitalizing on the patriotic fervor of the Olympic spirit. Or maybe both candidates think they’ve got a chance at taking Texas this November.
In 2008, presidential politics feels upside down. That’s never truer than when you’re talking about (or, more precisely, they’re talking about) religion. For so long, the Republicans monopolized faith as a political issue. Big-time leaders of the Religious Right acted as if “GOP” stood for “God’s Own Party,” and Democrats did their best to prove it true.
But now, the Communion tray is passing down the other aisle. The Democrat is the one who converses more easily, and often, about his faith. And the Republican is the one who seems uncomfortable when pressed to express his religious beliefs and practices. Although he hails from the liberal United Church of Christ, Barack Obama has spent much of his adult life speaking in and working with progressive African-American churches, where the language of faith is cultural currency. And although John McCain attends a conservative Baptist church with his wife, his Episcopalian reticence to discuss private issues typically trips his tongue when he speaks about spiritual matters.
Still, to get your vote, they’ll appeal to your piety. The most partisan members of both parties are prone to denigrate the others’ faith, particularly as it applies to public policy. Just as some Christians base their votes exclusively on such moral issues as abortion and homosexual activity, others stress the moral nature of environmentalism and justice for the poor. Interestingly, an increasing number of younger Christians seem to be taking a both/and approach to morality and faith, rather than the either/or attitudes of their parents.
Jesus provided two words of advice that can guide Christians through another political season:
• “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We must be discerning, yet gracious; skeptical, yet not cynical. Too often, Christians get in the political game and adopt its ethics and practices. We must understand them and account for them, but we are accountable to Christ. Our ethics must be measured against his righteousness. We cannot forget this.
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• “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). We cite this quote in discussions about taxes. But we do not dishonor the passage when we apply it to other “things that are Caesar’s and … God’s”—loyalty and hope. As patriots, we should be loyal U.S. citizens, but our only hope lies in God.
Years ago, columnist Cal Thomas illustrated this latter truth. As 12 years of Reagan/Bush leadership concluded, he observed the anger and angsts of conservative Christians, who failed to achieve their moral goals through political processes. They did not fail because politicians they trusted let them down, but because they trusted politics and not God. The only way to change America morally, he advised, was to persuade fellow Americans to behave morally, not legislate them into submission.
Thomas’ wisdom remains true. In this year of politics, discern carefully and vote wisely—graciously understanding fellow Christians may discern differently. Ultimately, however, rest your hope in God, not a president.
–Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. Visit his FaithWorks Blog.