Friday, February 06, 2009

God in the White House

Last night on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart hosted author Randall Balmer, author of the book God in the White House, in a very interesting interview, that you can watch here.

There was a really fascinating point about 5 minutes in. Balmer states that Americans want to know about their presidents' faith because for many
"religion is a proxy for morality. So what we really want to know is 'Are they moral? Are they good people?' And the only way we can frame the question is to ask, 'Do they go to church? Are you a religious person?' And I think the problem is that we as the voters take those kind of blithe responses at face value and we should interrogate those claims. I thought many times over the last eight years, as we've been dealing with our travails as a nation, what if someone had followed up with George W. Bush, when he declared that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, and said, 'Governor Bush, your favorite philosopher calls on his followers to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies, to care for the least of these. How will that affect your policies as president?'"

It's a really interesting thought and it goes a little back to my idea that no nation can truly be a Christian nation. A nation's primary concern has to be for self-preservation and the protection of its own citizens. A Christian's primary concern has to be about others' well-being and bringing people into a reconciling relationship with God through Jesus, as well as self-denial and the other virtues. Can a Christian be in a political office? I think so, but there has to be a recognition that many of the ways that we try to preserve this nation go against what Jesus taught and exemplified for us. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney basically stated this explicitly in a recent interview with "Protecting the country’s security is 'a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business,'" he said. “These are evil people. And we’re not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.'" It's almost like we want His salvation but not his life.

I could be wrong about all that and am willing to consider it, but that's where I'm thinking right now.


Adam said...

This raises a couple of questions that I've been wrestling with for a while.
1) Are the ethics of Jesus only viable for individuals, or even groups (like churches)...but inapplicable to nations? (I believe that the Gospel does not operate by I'm not talking about imposing the Christian religion on people here. I mean...are we really willing to say that Jesus' ethics cannot be applied at that level?)

2) If we conclude that the ethics of Jesus are not applicable to government and/or national security, are we willing to argue that Christians get to make an exception to the ethics of Jesus, even by means of their vote, in the interest of national security? Do we just get to say, "well, yeah...but Jesus and Christianity don't really apply here."?

It seems problematic in terms of theological and ethical consistency. I won't say yet exactly how I work out these questions (hint: my answer to the first question might preclude my answer to the second question). What do you think?

Gusdog said...

First of all, Phil, I think you are exactly right about wanting His salvation but not His life. I think we all do that to an extent, being fallen human beings, but we don't want to admit it or see it.

As for the question about the applicability of Jesus's teachings to nations, I think it's a tough and unresolved question. Certainly Gandhi and Martin Luther King showed that nonviolence can work on a group, and perhaps even national, level. And that is an important part of the message of Jesus. But are we willing to accept the consequences of taking such a stand? Would we be willing to forgo retribution against our enemies? And nonviolence is only one part of the Gospel.

I think these are questions that those of us who follow Christ must constantly be asking ourselves. I don't have any really good answers yet, but the questions themselves are a beginning.

Jim Voorhies said...

How do we apply the adminition to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's? Is that just about taxation or does it become a parable for governmental actions?

Mike L. said...


Interesting post! Balmer is probably right to suggest this is a question about morals, and most people associate morals ONLY with religion.

I feel it is a huge mistake to separate Jesus’ message into public and personal spheres. Personal transformation is a key component, but it is a means to the end. If our personal changes do not create justice in the public realm, then they are for naught. If our quest for personal salvation does not create change for anything other than our own benefit, then we have not really died to self and we have not really made the resurrection story a living reality.

It is common among substance dualists (most evangelicals) to create this divide between spiritual and physical changes. By subordinating Jesus’ teaching into merely supernatural metaphysical assertions, they have domesticated Jesus’ words in order to ignore the original political meanings. The result is the kinds of hypocrisy we hear when Cheney said:

“…and we’re not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.”

Cheney misunderstands our goal to be winning a fight rather than establishing lasting peace. Winning fights is often easy. America did that in Iraq quickly (twice!). What Cheney ignores is that winning a fight doesn’t accomplish what we actually want – lasting peace and security for everyone (God’s will on earth). Cheney picked the way of Caesar who created peace through domination, oppression, and fear with displays of violent force (the shock and awe of crucifixions). That peace is temporary. There is only one way to bring real salvation to the world. It is the way of Jesus. It is the way of ushering in a world of peace by implementing justice and reconciliation. Many who came before and after Jesus have expressed this way by using different stories and metaphors. I don’t care what story (metaphor/religion) they use. I do care which “way” they pick.

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