Christians seem to have a genetic disposition for describing people and events through a biblical lens. It makes sense. We are story-formed people, and the Bible shapes our political, moral and social imaginations.
It follows, then, that our judgments about Presidents and presidential candidates will also arise from our Bible-shaped imaginations.
For example, at the 2008 Republican National Convention, former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs spoke of John McCain and Sarah Palin as if they were a modern-day Amos and Hosea. Some Christians have likened George Bush to the “man of God” of Chronicles and Kings. Others have heralded John Ashcroft as “Daniel of the Year.” Barack Obama has been declared both the “antichrist” and the “Messiah.” And Christians have compared Newt Gingrich to King David for his marital problems as well as his extraordinary gifts.
Like it or not, faith is a vibrant tableau against which we evaluate our candidates. Some of them have been comfortable with this fact, others not so much. John Kerry’s reticence to discuss faith until the eleventh hour in 2004, and McCain’s insufficient attention to faith values in the eyes of many evangelicals in 2008, were in part blamed for their defeats. Yet Barack Obama was able to confidently answer Rick Warren in 2008 with the statement, “I can maybe carry out in some small way what [God] intends.”
Evangelical Christianity, in particular, has in the past decades embraced the once forbidden relationship between faith and politics. Some Christians dislike the situation. Others welcome it.
A recent CNN article written before the Iowa Caucus addressed this issue in light of the 2012 election. It gave math as one of the reasons candidates are speaking so publicly about the importance of faith values in their campaigns. Conservative Christians form the majority of caucus-goers in Iowa and have been the most consistent voter block in recent elections. Candidates cannot ignore their concerns.
Yet, the public articulation of faith beliefs by candidates is not simply political posturing, the article suggests. Candidates framed their presidential aspirations using religious language in Iowa for deeper reasons.
The DesMoines Register asked the Republican candidates before the caucus, “How would your faith inform your decision-making as president?” Their answers indicated, across the board (except for Ron Paul), that they connected faithfulness to governance. Rick Santorum explained the connection philosophically. “If your faith is true and your reason is right — the ultimate decision will be explainable and good for the nation.”
Santorum’s confident view of the faith’s role in governance is similar to those voiced by past and present Christian politicians, most notably, Jimmy Carter. In his 1976 campaign he said, “I try to use my religious beliefs as a constant guide in making my decisions as a private or public citizen.” Bill Clinton put this view to practice when explaining his support for a V-Chip in televisions in the 1996 campaign. Using scriptural reasoning, he said, “There are hundreds of admonitions in the Bible to take care of the children…if that was true for Jesus, surely that must be true of America.” Yet, coupling right reason and true faith outside the reach of democratic deliberation may be politically unsatisfactory to many non-Christians and Christians alike.
Many Christian traditions view the possession of faith as a sign of rebirth, the kind of change that represents new life. This is orthodox doctrine received from the Apostle Paul himself, who describes the new creation of the believer through a water-and-spirit baptism. He says it washes away sins and in doing so imparts righteousness (I Cor. 6.11).
Following generations of Christians would easily equate their baptisms with the knowledge of God’s will. While this is not an erroneous belief, it does have its limits. And in situations like presidential nominations, the claims of faith must sit with the overall needs of public service.
The story of the baptism of Jesus found in Mark 1 is usually read by the church before Christmas or Epiphany. It asks us to prepare ourselves for the Lord’s coming. In this story, baptism functions neither as a cleansing of sin nor as the acquisition of knowledge of divine things. If it were, then Jesus would have no need of it. The gospel of Matthew recognizes this problem and recounts Jesus’ explanation to John about the meaning of his baptism.
The New Interpreters Bible commentary describes John’s baptism in water as a preparation for the one to come. It is an invitation to be God’s people once again, to follow Jesus into that perfect relationship with God in the eschaton. Rather than imparting right reason, it gives us the trust to find reason in the right place.
Why, then, was Jesus baptized?
In Mark the answer appears to be that he too was to be prepared for the coming forgiveness. In the water, however, he learned that he was that forgiveness, the Beloved. That day he learned it as he emerged from a crowd, and he continued to learn it as he ministered to the crowds. Although he might not have seen himself as divine, as Marcus Borg says, he began to see it as his task to embody the kingdom of God, as N.T. Wright says.
I find it comforting that candidates describe their political aspirations in the language of faith. They reveal a sense of call, one discovered through a deep faith in God, and the Creator. This view of vocation resonates with many Christian traditions and teachings.
However, we encounter story after story in the New Testament that describes the knowledge of God’s reign as a communal thing. It is acquired in humility and through relationships. It is acquired in practices of reconciliation, justice and peace.
Should we—and much less our political leaders—really claim to be aligned with God’s will when not even the faith of baptism guarantees such a knowledge?
Andy Watts is an Associate Professor of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville where he teaches a variety of courses in Christian Ethics.