“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith!”
In a little over two weeks, the 2016 election campaign will be over. The presidential candidates will have “finished the course.” Almost all of us can agree, however, that they have not “fought the good fight.” To a jaw-dropping degree, not only in solo campaign speeches but in the nationally televized debates, candidates have majored in name-calling and character-assassination. To put it mildly, neither party has been meticulous with the truth. As Christians we know, only Jesus Christ is the perfect leader. It is idolatrous to accept any merely human being as the savior who will make everything alright. No merely human individual, no political party is smart enough or powerful enough or good enough to do that. Whether we are ancient Israelis demanding a king, or American voters electing a president, the bible teaches, we are sinners choosing among sinners. So in a way, all that rhetoric is overkill. In words and behavior, both candidates point to the obvious.
In a leader, character does matter. But it makes a difference in a complicated way. We are not electing a president to be our friend. We are choosing someone to preside over our country. America is a great social experiment, framed by our constitution and bill of rights. The president is supposed to take the lead in designing and working with Congress to implement social policies that will make the American dream become a reality for our people. When it gets down to doing the job, the president will have to dig deeper than sound-bites and slogans, to get into nitty gritty complications of how to inch forward with measures that work for everyone.
To fight the good fight, presidential candidates would have had to be resolutely issues-oriented, to present policy proposals well worked out and grounded in the facts, about growing jobs, promoting public safety, and strategizing our international relations. To fight the good fight, presidential candidates would need to point the way to social arrangements that would bring out the best in us, instead of stirring up the worst in us, whether it be fear of “the other” or bad-faith rejoicing when rivals trip and fall. By not fighting the good fight, they have made it more difficult for voters to make a constructive decision. Often it seems as if each is glad to win as “the lesser of two evils,” by threatening that it would be disastrous to have their opponent in the White House.
Sadly, our candidates have not fought the good fight. But that does not lighten our responsibility as Christian voters to base our choice on which of them is most likely “to keep the faith.” This, too, is complicated. We learned in school how our bill of rights guarantees religious freedom. This means that it is illegal to deny people the vote or the opportunity to own property or to run for public office because they are Jewish or Moslem or Roman Catholic. By contrast with England, no religion is established in America. In our pluralistic society, we are usually not in a position to choose and it would not be appropriate to select candidates on the basis of whether they subscribe to the Nicene Creed or use the Book of Common Prayer. Nevertheless, the bible’s God is advertized as out to create a just society. We need only to scratch the bible’s surface before we hit some core principles that we should hold our elected officials to–a faith that Christian voters should require candidates to keep.
Let’s start with the Second Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself!” Understood as a principle for social policies, this doesn’t mean that we have to like or have “warm fuzzies” towards the people next door. It means something more like acting as if we have nothing to gain by denying our neighbors the necessities of life, nothing to lose by making sure that our neighbors have access to the good things of life. The necessities of life include food and shelter, medical care and education, safety that protects life and limb so that we can pursue our own goals and mind our own business without getting in one another’s way. Loving your neighbor means acting and holding powers-that-be to account to adjust the social system to allow neighbors their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Of course, talk of neighbor-love is tribal. We are perhaps ready to think we have a stake in promoting the interests of people who are in the same boat as we are. But Torah cuts across this natural human tendency to privilege us and ours over them and theirs by expanding the commandment’s scope to apply to resident aliens. Torah teaches that social policies for distributing goods and opportunities must be based on the premiss that we have nothing to lose by providing, nothing to gain by denying immigrants life’s necessities and a chance at the good things of life. Torah’s reason is simple: Israelis have an obligation before God to look after immigrants, because they were once immigrants themselves! Sermon-on-the-Mount Jesus is more radical still, when he commands us to love our enemies. However much we disapprove of one another, however much they may want to deny us, we must act and demand that our public officials act as if we have nothing to lose by securing, nothing to gain by denying our enemies the necessities of life. The bible is challenging us to break out of tribal “us vs them” thinking, as our baptismal covenant puts it, to respect the dignity of every human being. Really, it’s very simple. As followers of Jesus, we are called to hold politicians and public officials to the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you!”
The bible’s God is realistic. God our creator knows of what we are made. God also knows that the world in which we live and move and have our being is a place of real and apparent scarcity. Real-world politics generally, the 2016 presidential campaign in particular exploits our fears that there is not enough to go around, urges that we have a lot to lose if we organize society in such a way as to guarantee a piece of the pie to them. Torah cuts through such darwinism with a realism of its own. First, the bible’s God knows that we are too scared and too stupid to organize an economic system that will deliver equality. The bible’s God does not command that everyone should get the same. The bible does not problematize the fact that some eat steak while others chow down on beans and rice. The bible does not get hot and bothered about the fact that some will walk or ride a bus while others drive Lexus SUVs. The bible’s God aims snake-belly low, when God demands that we organize our society so that everyone gets a decent standard of living–enough to eat, safe shelter, good medical care and schools, the chance to get a job. Here is a fact that checks: even in conditions of scarcity and economic downturns, America is rich enough, if only we elect leaders who will put their minds to it, to see to that.
Second, the bible’s God cuts across human society’s tendency to spawn inequalities by modelling a bias towards the worst off. Torah teaches, a God-pleasing society will distribute social resources by beginning with the poor and disadvantaged, by asking what we need to do to make sure they start getting a decent standard of living, one that gives them the chance to do better and make something of themselves. Good and godly government does not abandon those most in need to scramble for crumbs and left-overs. Good and godly government gives top priority to changes and adjustments in the system that make things better for them.
So, what faith should Christian voters demand that public officials keep? Really, it’s very simple. We should be voting for the candidates who are most apt to make provision, most likely to change the system and invent the structures that will guarantee a decent standard of living to each citizen, beginning with the worst off. We should be voting for candidates most able to resist privileging some at the expense of degrading others. Sisters and brothers, we are all sinners, and our choices are among sinners. We should be voting for those most likely–when they fall–to repent and turn again, to be caught up in God’s own vision of a society where justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.