Monday, January 25, 2016

A Few Things for Christians to Keep in Mind When We Vote

Little-known fact: Jesus would make a horrible president.
Presidential primary season is upon us. Around this time every four years, Christians on both the left and the right engage in a lot of motivated reasoning to explain why their political ideology is the most appropriate expression of Christian values in our American democracy. Perhaps this post isn't so different from all the others, but I'd like to think it is at least a little bit. I have three simple thoughts that it seems to me ought to help inform our vote. You might come up with a different list, but I'm increasingly struck by the extent to which our political system runs on the values of self-interest, nationalism, and incumbent wealth. I emphasize these three factors not for their comprehensiveness, but for the dearth of attention paid to them. Because these issues cut across partisan boundaries and structure the very terms of political debate, they are often overlooked. Too often, we rush into partisan debate without realizing that the mainstream positions of both parties are troubling.

Each party in its own way appeals to the following values that are, at best, irrelevant to the life Jesus invites Christians to discover. 

1) Self-interest. This is the most basic form of political appeal. Candidate A says her policies will benefit you more than those of candidate B. This kind of appeal should not move Christians in the least. It is not enough to start from self-interest and then produce rationalizations explaining that the interests of others mysteriously align with yours.

2) Nationalism. Both parties, the Democrats in their diplomatic way and the Republicans in their more militaristic tone, assure voters that they will do whatever it takes to protect the national interest. But Christianity has nothing to do with nationalism. Imagined solidarities based on the modern nation-state have no bearing on the valuation of human beings in the kingdom of God. Any hint that, say, an Iranian life is less valuable than an American one is heretical to Christians. It is not enough to start from nationalism and then produce rationalizations that what is best for the U.S. happens to be best for the world.

3) Incumbent wealth. Both parties go out of their way to emphasize their determination to protect and promote the interests of those who are already successful. Whether it is the Democrats talking incessantly about the middle class or the Republicans praising job creators, both parties try to avoid talking too much about the social and economic groups about which Christianity is most concerned: the poor and marginalized. It is not enough to start from middle-classness and only then come up with rationalizations for why what's best for the wealthy will somehow be best for the poor.

Some will read this as vulgar emotionalism. Don't I know that democracy, though it thrives on self-interest, is the best form of government we've managed to find in this broken world? Don't I know that the nation-state is a bulwark of protection in dangerous times? Don't I know that middle-class success really is crucial for the alleviation of poverty?

These are complicated issues. But I emphasize what we Christians don't seem to know well enough: that the entire ethic of the Kingdom of God challenges the most taken-for-granted allegiances and structures of the modern world. So when--or, indeed, if--we walk into the voting both, my hope is that we will do so with a substantially more subversive frame of mind than we have thus far imagined.

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