In the past few weeks, the issue of religion and politics has occupied center stage in the presidential campaign. When one person isn’t predicting the outcome based on what he claims God personally told him, another person is insisting that, appearances notwithstanding, he is a Christian.
While this makes for fascinating political theater, the important question is: How important is the religious faith of a particular candidate?
In a recent New Republic article, Franklin Foer called Vermont Governor Howard Dean “one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history.” In Foer’s estimation, Dean’s secularism, and not his policy proposals, is his biggest political liability, particularly in the South and Midwest. His admission that he doesn’t “go to church very often,” Foer writes, “[marks] him as culturally alien to much of the country.”
And Dean seems to agree. The past few weeks have witnessed a concerted, almost frantic, and sometimes comical attempt on Dean’s part to portray himself as a religious believer. He even talked about his “favorite book” in the New Testament: Job. Judging from the response in the media, few are buying it.
Now, Dean’s church attendance, or lack thereof, is the least of my problems with him. Still, his efforts to establish his religious credentials remind me of a similar mistake made by some Christians I know. They tell me that “things would really be different in this country if we could just get more Christians elected to office.” They believe that if we could fill the Congress and the courts and the White House with born-again believers, we’d straighten out this country in a hurry — all problems solved.
Now, while I’m in favor of Christians running for public office, and I’m thrilled when believers are elected, things just aren’t that simple. That sentiment ignores biblical principles about the role and limitations of civil government.
Someone who understood these principles was Martin Luther. Luther once compared a man who “would venture to govern with the Gospel” to a shepherd who should place in one fold “wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep together and let them freely mingle.”
Thinking that electing Christians to high public office answers all of our problems ignores a reality that Luther knew: In every society, “the wicked always outnumber the good.”
It’s a sinful world. Therefore, government’s prime job is to restrain sin and to preserve order. That is its ordained role from God. Our leaders, therefore, have to be those who are best-suited for carrying out these tasks, the most confident and responsible. Or, as Luther is supposed to have said, it is better to be “ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian.”
Does this mean that we shouldn’t encourage our fellow believers to seek elective office and support them once they do? Of course not. Christians are called to apply biblical truth to all areas of life, including politics and government. Nor does it mean that a candidate’s beliefs are irrelevant. A candidate’s beliefs shed light on his values, priorities, and character — all of which matter when it comes to governance. A believer should be a force for virtue, and having one in office is a witness, of course.
But this doesn’t change the fact that the first requirement is competence. And some non-Christians may be better prepared to carry out government’s biblical mandate than some Christians, no matter how often the latter attend church.
For further reading and information:
Franklin Foer, “Beyond Belief,” New Republic, 22 December 2003 (reprinted on freerepublic.com).
See yesterday’s BreakPoint Commentary, “Two Cities.”
Gene Edward Veith, “Keeping the faiths,” WORLD, 24 January 2004.
Ted Olsen, “Weblog: Dean Changes Tack on Religion Comments,” Christianity Today, 8 January 2004.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, “Groups Debate Religion on Campaign Trail,” FOX News, 21 January 2004.
Mark O’Keefe, “Bush has firm hold on the ‘religious’ vote,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), 10 January 2004.
“God and Caesar: The Logic of Christian Political Responsibility” by Nigel M. de S. Cameron addresses the issues of Christian engagement in the political process and the Christian stake in issues of public policy.
The BreakPoint Role of Government Packet includes four booklets that explain what the government’s role should be and what place faith has in public life, including: “The Causes of Virtue,” “The Social Necessity of a Moral Consensus,” “God and Caesar: Does Religion Belong in Public Life?” and “Creating the Good Society.” To request it ($10), call 1-877-322-5527.