Whether Christian believers like to admit it or not, the Judeo-Christian tradition is both a religious and political story. Jesus Christ was willing to challenge both the religious and political leaders of his day, calling them to guide their actions with truth, justice and morality. In the process he stood up to some politically powerful people, and we know the earthly results of those efforts. But if the moral of the story stopped there, Christianity would not be much of a religion. Instead the courage of Christ in standing up to the forces of earthly power and poor religious judgment is the ultimate model for Christians to hold leaders accountable for their words, deeds and actions.
Truly, as Christians we need to draw on the example of Jesus to guide us in not sacrificing the spiritual purpose of faith in pursuit of power. Jesus set a clear example for us all. It is not okay to rationalize our faith to try to win favor with the rich and powerful. We are supposed to hold ourselves to a higher standard than that.
But many Christians find that a tough example to follow.
You would expect that Christian leaders would demand basic patterns of moral behavior from political candidates who come to them for support. These include of course reasonable respect for marital fidelity, embracing financial ethics and legislating on behalf of the the poor and needy, whose welfare Jesus most consciously favored.
Yet a certain breed of politically motivated evangelical Christian leaders seems willing and even eager to ignore basic moral principles whenever political power comes within their reach. Thus we find evangelical Christian leaders dispensing forgiveness like Pez candy to front-running political candidates who have nasty personal and professional records.
We all know forgiveness is a powerful and wonderful thing. Some would argue it is the heart of faith itself. But let us be honest: it is not true forgiveness if our primary motive is power-brokering. That is nothing more than an ugly rationalization. Christian evangelicals who claim to have their finger on the pulse of faith yet lend their support through rubber-stamped forgiveness for corrupt leaders should be called to account for giving away the authority of faith for cheap political promises.
By example we have the 2012 election cycle, in which we find Christian evangelicals bending over backwards to support none other than Newt Gingrich, the serial wife-dumper and man of apparently confused moral character who recently blamed his propensity for dalliances and faithlessness on an overabiding love of country. Talk about a cynical argument for patriotism and a poor damn excuse for a husband! Why would any Christian evangelical support such a lout?
The answer is that Christian evangelicals are still achingly desperate for political power. Frankly it may be that because their attempts to convert society to a theocracy through religious means have failed, they hope to leverage political influence to impose a virtual theocracy that would fulfill the motives of an often warped, anachronistic interpretation of scripture. In fact the consistent policy failures of conservatives in general, all who seem set on turning back the clock through an agenda of regressive, repressive doctrines is driving the movement to new extremes. They really have nowhere else to go. So they push back even harder. And that is why social and religious conservatives are willing to dismiss all sorts of sins in political candidates. It is rather like the Old Testament stories where people in the desert beseeched God to deliver them from exile. But this time round they are not justified. Quite far from.
For example, many of today’s Republican evangelical leaders are attempting to forgive the politically front-running Newt Gingrich his many sins. Gingrich recently converted to Catholicism and that would seem to give evangelicals grounds to forgive. As if he were a changed man. Despite his very long track record of questionable ethics and a calculatingly harsh demeanor toward his enemies. In fact he does not even seem to have all that much patience or compassion for his supposed friends. Or anyone. Given his strange act of endorsing child labor to teach them the value of work, one wonders if Gingrich’s next act will be protecting child-abusing priests because it will teach children the merits of obedience.
Gingrich is a living, breathing hypocrite as well as misanthrope. We can all recall how Gingrich and the entire GOP castigated Bill Clinton for his extramarital affairs. Yet we now know that Gingrich was engaged in behavior as bad or worse than Clinton’s while the whole political takedown took place. That makes Gingrich a hypocrite and a liar.
Jesus really did not like hypocrites most of all, especially in political and religious quarters. He saved a particularly harsh brand of invective for anyone leveraging religious influence to gain power, calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” for turning scripture into literal law. So why does anyone think Jesus would favor a hypocrite like Newt Gingrich for president? It’s frankly ludicrous. And yet so-called Christian evangelicals seem to be lining up to endorse him.
In a November 2011 Newsweek article, writer Michelle Goldberg documented just how far Christian evangelicals will go to partner up with politicians approaching the nation’s key seat of power. When asked why evangelicals were suddenly willing to embrace Gingrich as a candidate when his serial affairs indicate a man of poor moral character, prominent evangelical Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Center, brushed away concerns about Gingrich by saying, “Under normal circumstance, Gingrich would have some real problems with the social conservative community. But these aren’t normal circumstances.”
That is moral relativism, plain and simple.
Consider also the moral gyrations of influential conservative radio host Steve Deace, a conservative talk show host who outlined the evangelical moral quandary over Gingrich this way; “Maybe the guy in the race that would make the best president is on this third marriage. How do we reconcile that?”
Deace goes on to answer his own question by drawing on examples from the Bible: (Deace says) “I see a lot of parallels between King David and Newt Gingrich, two extraordinary men gifted by God, whose lives include very high highs and very low lows.”
But let’s follow that comparison of Newt Gingrich to King David to its true conclusion.
The supposed parallel is that both King David and Newt Gingrich lived less than exemplary lives. Both committed adultery, and in David’s case he conspired to have the husband of his desired mistress sent to a war front, so that he would essentially be killed so that David could then claim the man’s wife.
The Bible also tells us that David committed multiple counts of genocide, including crimes against his own people. So bad was David’s behavior in life that when he asked God if he could be allowed to build a temple to his Name, God responded: “You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a warrior and have shed blood.” You see, even God has his limits when it comes to accepting rationalizations of bad behavior.
The Christian evangelical community conveniently forgets to mention this sordid little episode toward the end of the life of King David. That is because it does not seem to fit the conservative narrative of the triumphant leader who wins the permanent favor of God, and who is rewarded for everything he has done.
Instead the honor of building a house for God must be passed to David’s son Solomon, who asked God not for wealth, nor riches or honor, nor the death of his enemies, not even for a long life. Solomon instead asked for wisdom and knowledge, a decidedly liberal engagement of the Almighty, you see. And God granted Solomon that request. And Solomon built a great temple to God.
Solomon went on to educate himself on matters of the natural world and became known for his great capacity for equity in judgment and justice for all. But even Solomon had his failures of character, proving that it’s altogether dangerous to use religion to justify placing our hopes on our political leaders, both flawed and virtuous, because they are virtually guaranteed to place their own priorities and motives over those of the people they are elected or appointed to serve.