Campaign 2008: Barack Obama vs John McCain: Is God a Republican or a Democrat?
Is God a Republican or a Democrat? In a presidential preference poll would God cast a ballot for Barack Obama, John McCain, a third party candidate or none of the above?
I grew up in a Republican household where it seemed to be axiomatic the God was a Republican. This was long before the rise of the so-called Christian right, but around the dinner table in the household led by my Republican parents, there was little doubt where God stood on the commanding political questions of the day. Later on, in college and especially during my years at Union Theological Seminary in New York, just the opposite was the case. For the vast majority of seminary professors and students in that school at the time, God was clearly perceived as occupying a position somewhere to the far left of the political spectrum. At seminary it was clear that if God was not a registered Democrat, it was only because God's will for this nation was for something more radical than even most Democrats would countenance.
Today things may not be so clear cut for any of us. We have become sufficiently disillusioned about politics that it is hard to identify God with any party, and few are prepared to hold up their candidate of choice as God's chosen instrument for the salvation of our Republic. Still, in a democracy, every presidential election is in one sense a test of conscience and character for the people. We the people have the challenge of translating our values, our beliefs, our vision of the future into political action. If God has a will for this nation, then it is our responsibility as a people to figure out what God's will is, and find a way to achieve it. Let's look at the question of presidential leadership from a biblical, theological and historical perspective.
We begin with Moses. Moses was a man who firmly believed that God had called him to a life of political action. At the beginning of his career, God commanded him to lead the people out from their bondage to freedom in a new land. And at the end, Moses returned to the holy mountain, where it all began, and there he received the ten commandments. The same commandments which the Christian right today proposes as suitable for framing and hanging upon school house walls all across America.
Consider, if you will, the political significance of the Mosaic law. In an age when the people of the ancient near east lived under the supreme power and authority of an earthly monarch, the ten commandments reserve ultimate power and authority to God. Unlike anything else in any other country, the laws of Moses applied equally to all people. In an age which would permit a ruler to murder human beings like cattle, Moses said that for all alike the commandment reads: Thou shalt not kill. What was truly radical about this commandment was that it applied equally to all: there was no monarch on earth who could claim power over your life, such power was reserved exclusively to God.
In an age when slavery was considered perfectly routine, Moses put an end to slavery among his people. Normally we give credit to the Greeks for giving birth to democracy, but here in the Mosaic law, we find the basic human rights established thirteen centuries before the time of Christ.
Even in their period of greatest glory the Greeks did not dream of putting an end to slavery or making all citizens equal under the law. In the ten commandments, the freedoms which had been so dramatically achieved in the crossing of the Red Sea, were now guaranteed to all the people by the force of law.
In this new nation, there was to be little difference between politics and religion, the highest principles of ethics and morality were to be the very basis of their political system. In this regard Moses believed that he had received direct marching orders from God. As it is written in the book of Exodus: "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, saith the Lord, and how I bore you up on eagles wings. Now, therefore, ... you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation."
A kingdom of priests? A holy nation? That ideal of government stands in direct contradiction to the teachings of another political leader and teacher, Machiavelli. Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian statesman of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. He served for fourteen years in the chancellery of the Florentine Republic. And after being exiled from the city, he spent the rest of his life writing political theory. In his most famous book, The Prince, Machiavelli argues that a political leader should be governed by principles entirely separate from morality. As a diplomat he traveled extensively through Italy, France, and Germany. He had seen popes and emperors alike exerting their power. His experience in the real world of politics led him to the conclusion that the last thing in the world one would want would be what Moses had devised, namely a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. He believed that religious faith must very definitely be separated from politics. As he put it: "A prudent ruler cannot and should not observe faith when it is to his disadvantage." According to Machiavelli, the secret in politics was the ability to gain and maintain power; that was the essence. "A prince should have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study, but power, its organization and discipline, for that is the only thing that is necessary to one who commands."
Now if we set the example of Moses and the example of Machiavelli side by side we have the two extremes of idealism and realism. In the book of Moses politics and religion are very definitely joined together, and the ideal ruler is one whose actions are directly responsive to the will of God. But in the book of Machiavelli, the political leader cannot and should not confuse politics and religion. The whole point in the political process is to build and to maintain ones power base; all talk about principles of justice or morality is only a confusing smoke screen used deliberately to conceal ones naked political ambition.
One of the problems we have in America is that we are a house divided, trying to have our cake and eat it too. We want our leaders to be motivated by the idealism of Moses, but to govern with the effectiveness of Machiavelli. We know that every politician must be realistic, but we also expect our leaders to represent the highest standards of idealism and morality. Especially in presidential politics, we are asking our leaders to combine the efficiency and effectiveness of Machiavelli with the high principals of Moses.
Here's the crazy situation we present to our politicians. Faced by the necessity of winning a majority of the votes on election day, the candidates must appeal in the same breath to groups of people whose practical interests may be completely at odds. Business and labor, young and old, black and white. Our politicians must tailor their ideas to the will and wish of these various interest groups, sometimes compromising basic principals to espouse a view that will fly politically. Yet we the people are swift to react when we catch them in the act of making those compromises and forging those alliances. We force our candidates to walk an incredibly thin line between idealism and realism; we force them to combine in one person the morality of Moses and the pragmatism of Machiavelli. Our candidates are forced to serve at once both God and Mammon.
But as Jesus clearly said, no one can serve two masters, for in trying serve the one you will fail the other.
As a nation only a little more than 200 years old, we do not tend to be very mature when it comes to making our way between the extremes of Moses and Machiavelli. As a people we tend to confuse differences of practical politics with differences of principle, we tend to believe that those who disagree with us are somehow lacking in character. And we tend to equate our own opinions with the will of God.
For example, there are many who believe that support of a woman's right to abortion is tantamount to murder and there are others who believe that interference in a woman`s right to choose is a violation of human freedom. In this context real discourse and debate quickly disintegrate into name calling, pushing and shoving, and the opposing sides grow farther and farther apart. But this is not an isolated case. Typically, we allow our passions to cloud the understanding, and rather than pressing toward the solution to our problems, we are mired in partisan conflict.
In these opening years of a new millennium, it is time to grow up America. Our problems are too serious and the opportunities are too great to let ourselves become mired in power games, as the president, congress, and we the people all too often do.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.