What Would a Faith Based Politics Actually Look Like?
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; the Lord has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners … For I the Lord love justice. (Isa. 61:1-2, 8)
Given the invocation of the name of God in contemporary politics, with nearly every politician ending nearly every speech with the phrase “God Bless America,” one might well ask what a faith based political agenda might look like. In recent years, it has become nearly axiomatic that a faith based political agenda would include opposition to abortion and gay marriage, combined with support for posting the Ten Commandments on school house walls, teaching creationism, and spending billions of dollars fighting a war against “Islamic Extremism.” Curiously enough, these hot button issues do not arise from the pages of the Bible.
In fact, within the pages of the Bible one actually finds a very different list of concerns. A faith based politics would clearly be radically different from that promulgated by contemporary politicians and preachers.
Biblical and Prophetic Principles of Justice
Hear the words of the Lord: God has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6: 8)
Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor God. (Prov. 41:31).
You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes… Justice, and only justice, you will pursue… (Deut. 16:19)
The formation of any biblically based agenda for America begins with the account of creation in the book of Genesis. Here we find that humanity is created in the “image and likeness of God.” From a biblical perspective no individual or group, whether nation, race or tribe can be considered superior to another as all people are created as equal in God’s image. Likewise this becomes the basis of the entire legal and ethical system that follows in that all members of the community are considered equal in the eyes of the law. Genesis further assigns to humanity the task of caretaker or “steward” of creation which God calls “good.” We will discuss in some detail the practical implications of such principles below, but first, there is more.
Later in the Hebrew Bible the fundamental principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition are set forth in what later came to be known as the double love commandments: the people are instructed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (DT 6:5) and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (LV 9:18) Jesus clearly affirmed these two principles and connected a loving relationship with God to a loving relationship with one’s fellow human beings. One of the core principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the link between unjust treatment of another human being and a wrong committed against God. Further, the Bible expresses a special concern for the most vulnerable and powerless members of the human family.
In the biblical context, these principles apply to individuals to be sure, but also to groups of people as well as nations. Indeed, within this tradition, the ethical norms that apply to individuals are identical to those that apply to nations. Further, these principles are not merely abstract ideals, but are consistently connected to concrete behaviors; for example, leaving sufficient food in one’s fields at the time of harvest so that the poor would have enough to eat. Further, specific biblical laws provide for the periodic forgiveness of debt, the liberation of prisoners, and the return of land to those who may have lost it, even through the consequences of their own behavior. In other words, the Bible outlines specific means for redressing wrongs such that the disadvantaged members of society have an opportunity to regain their means of self-support and self-sufficiency.
In addition to providing special protections for the poor and the marginalized members of a community, the Bible also imposes upon the powerful and the privileged leaders of the nation substantially greater obligation to maintain the well being of the community. Hebrew Bible prophets focus their harshest criticism against leaders who make decisions on the basis of mere expediency, rather than justice, or who exercise their authority by exploiting the poor or the marginalized. The nation is seen as having a positive responsibility for the welfare of its least privileged members.
In the New Testament, Jesus clearly identifies with this prophetic tradition. Indeed, in one of the few passages in which he speaks of a final judgment at the end of human history, he makes this identification explicit. In this dramatic passage, Jesus outlines the standards by which entire nations shall be judged: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (See MT 25:32ff) Curiously, those who are being rewarded in this passage are unclear what they have done to deserve such high praise. The answer which Jesus places in the mouth of the “king” in this story is instructive: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Here, once again, attaining a right relationship with God is equated with concrete acts of compassion for the less fortunate members of society. And the principle is applied by Jesus to entire nations as well as to individuals.
In addition to affirming the ethical norms of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament explicitly forbids the economic oppression of the poor, weak, and the vulnerable. There are specific instructions to tax collectors and soldiers to avoid extorting money. Jesus personally criticized certain hypocritical religious leaders for “devouring widows’ houses,” and thus taking economic advantage of those who were, in the context of the Ancient Near East, the least powerful members of society.
In addition to issuing specific instructions to share economic resources with those in need, especially those who cannot reciprocate, the New Testament also warns those enjoying an abundance of wealth to avoid the temptation of putting their trust and loyalty in money and possessions rather than God. Moreover, in his declaration that he has come “to preach good news to the poor” and “release the oppressed,” Jesus invoked the most basic prophetic principles, suggesting that changes in the basic structures of society would be required to advance God’s will for humanity.
Clearly, a nation that operates in a manner consistent with such biblical norms of fairness, justice, and equity must foster the well being of all of its citizens, and cannot permit exploitation of the weak by the more powerful. The use of power to privilege the rich and disadvantage the poor is, from a biblical perspective, an offense against the Creator.
As history reveals, it is more difficult to apply the basic principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition to international relationships, especially in the context of war. Still, there has been a great deal of thought and effort invested in working out a “just war theory” that attempts to apply universal norms to affairs of state. In this context, the most basic principle of Genesis clearly does apply: namely, since the entire human family is created in the image and likeness of God, no nation holds a greater claim upon the favor of God than any other nation. Likewise, actions in the international arena can and must be judged by the same standards used in evaluating social structures, policies and laws within a nation’s borders: namely, does a given policy advantage the powerful over the weak, and does a given policy have beneficial or harmful effects upon the entire human family?
While there are examples of wars being justified in the name of God within the pages of the Bible, there is a dawning prophetic awareness of the evil of warfare. Isaiah, in particular, paints a vision of the future in which all nations shall live peacefully together; the prophet envisions a day when God “will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:3f) In the New Testament, Jesus warned that those who “live by the sword will die by the sword.” He also counseled against behaviors that are based on a desire for retaliation or revenge, and he instructed his disciples to extend love of neighbor even toward one’s enemy: "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.” And: “You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:38ff)
Bottom line: a biblical ethic does not and cannot justify the use of evil to attain the good, even in international relationships. “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. "But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17ff)
In short, a nation that relies upon the power of its weapons, like an individual who relies upon the privileges of wealth and power, stands under the judgment of a just and loving God.
Where Biblical Principles can and must be put to work
It is difficult to imagine how a political system that allows such a large role to be played by money, and monied interest groups, can be justified given the principles outlined above. Likewise, when elected officials allow their decisions to be influenced by the most wealthy and the powerful, rather than acting in the common good, those officials are acting in direct violation of the most basic norms of the Judeo-Christian tradition. On the other hand, when observing all of this happening in the nation’s political life, individual citizens should not yield to the temptation of cynicism and despair. For as outlined above, nations have a clear responsibility to act on behalf of the common good and to insure the equal protection of the law for all citizens. In a democracy, the people can and must hold their elected rulers accountable.
There are also clear implications of the Judeo-Christian tradition for the criminal justice system. Vengeance and retribution have no place in a society that governs itself by the rule of law, let alone by the ethical norms of the biblical and prophetic tradition. Rather, the purpose of the criminal justice system is to restore those who have violated the law, whenever possible, to a situation of good standing in the community, remembering that even the most hardened criminals are created in the image and likeness of God. Today our criminal justice system hardly even attempts to rehabilitate its vast prison populations, one of the largest in the world. This is a crime not only against humanity, but against the Creator.
In Foreign Policy and in National Security
While biblical principles allow for the use of force as a last resort in self-defense, it is clear that reliance upon the force of arms to the exclusion of diplomacy and in preference to non-violent means of resolving international conflict is a major violation of the core principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition. While our elected leaders are required by the Constitution to defend the nation against attack, and the people have every right to expect them to be resolute in doing so, our rulers are also required by an even higher authority to act in the best interest of the entire human family for no nation holds a position of privilege in the eyes of God. Therefore the first and foremost responsibility of our nation’s leaders is to forge global partnerships, and nurture international relationship such that Isaiah’s vision of a peaceful world can, at last, be realized. The United States must use its extra-ordinary power and wealth in the same ways that individuals are required to do, namely, on behalf of the world’s least fortunate people and on behalf of the cause of peace which all the peoples of the world desperately desire.
In Health and Welfare Policy
Arguably, the most urgent priority of government is to insure the health and welfare of its citizens, with specific attention to the needs of those who are disadvantaged by the present educational system, who are marginalized, unemployed or underemployed due to changing circumstances beyond their own control, and to insure that no citizen suffers without access to basic means of survival including food, shelter, and medical care. The state must provide quality education to all of its citizens, and access to health care by providing universal coverage for all. As indicated above, the very young and the very old would be specially favored by a biblical ethic. This suggests that early childhood education as well as retirement and health care benefits to seniors be among the nation’s highest priorities, and that a system that favors the wealthy over the poor and the powerless stands in a direct violation of the clearest and most unambiguous principles of the prophetic tradition.
Further, the biblical mandate that humanity act as steward and caretaker of all creation suggests that government has a more positive role to play in protecting and preserving the environment. Recent attempts to roll back environmental legislation in favor of short term profits for corporations are not only short sighted and self-interested, they are also a violation of the biblical mandate to care for the health and welfare of the planet which is our God given home.
In Economic Policy
It is also clear that in the context of today’s market economy, government cannot meet all the needs of citizens. But governments can act to insure that every citizen has access to job training, child care, and as a last resort, government subsidized employment, so that the least well equipped and well educated citizens can find a way toward economic self-sufficiency. In our market driven economy, a sense of self worth is often contingent upon finding the means to earn a decent wage and provide for the necessities of life for one’s self as well as one’s family. Today there is a grave structural problem in that larger numbers of the nation’s working people are investing longer hours at their jobs and being rewarded with lower wages. At the same time, with average wages for the working poor continuing to decline, even as those at the top enjoy tax cuts, rising stock prices, and increases in compensation, our system is failing those who would be most favored by a consistent application of Judeo-Christian principles to the nation’s tax system, its economic policies, and its regulatory policies. Short term profits for the few have all too often been encouraged by national policies rather than the best interests of the many.
The nation’s tax system in recent years has become regressive rather than progressive, favoring the rich over the middle class and the poor. This is not only bad for the economy, it is bad for the soul and the conscience of the nation and is directly in conflict with the core principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition. From a biblical perspective, a regressive tax system is a form of theft.
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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.