Religion (Chiefly Christianity), Religious Leaders, Politics and Responsible Citizenship
Now that both political conventions have ended and we’ve headed into the final stretch for Election Day (November 6 – remember to vote!), I’ll try to offer some observations on Christians and politics. They are prompted by trying to keep track of TV, social media and the blogosphere. I’m still trying to figure out what I think.
Although (apparently) I’m among that minority of United Methodist clergy who is not a registered Democrat, I loved Bill Clinton’s speech. It outshined everybody else’s, in both conventions, by miles. President Obama gave him a run for it last night, but even his fell short. Clinton’s was an amazing display, combining Policy 101 with sermonic pathos. After reading a Washington Post analysis the following day, I can see “fudges” and I can criticize, but I still loved the speech. I wish more of both conventions could have been like it!
Now, thinking of Election Day, I’m getting pretty lathered over how too many Christians go at the political process. Obviously, I believe Jesus’ disciples must exercise responsible citizenship. Both these terms are important. We should take responsibility and act and speak responsibly, which means that we pay attention, listen carefully, make the best judgments we know how, on the basis of trustworthy information. “Citizen” reminds us of the focus of our allegiance – to the nation, not to a political party. Being partisan is not the problem. Hostility, a “take no prisoners” approach to politics is most definitely a problem. And Christians should not participate in the over-the-top political theatre even while participating in the political process.
Which leads me to something I know I should avoid, but cannot. Blog posts and Facebook status updates and comments from a number of United Methodist clergy illustrate the problem. (Not all or even most clergy are guilty of my complaint, but far too many are.) I think religious leaders – if we clergy are leaders – have to exercise special caution about how we state our political views. I must say, I have been often quite disturbed and sometimes even alarmed at comments and links UM clergy attach to their Facebook status or elsewhere. I found myself wondering, “Does this pastor have any church members on the other side of the issue? What might those members think if they knew of their pastor’s open disdain for their candidate?” That scenario works for both ends of the political spectrum.
Let’s go on a little side trip. With so many cable channels, not to mention the wide variety of offerings on the Internet, why do Fox and MSNBC get all the attention? For the Democratic Convention, I watched (mostly) PBS, with David Brooks, Mark Shields, Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff and Ray Suarez. If you don’t like Fox or MSNBC, don’t give them any attention. If more people did that, they would shrivel and fall off the TV vine. And by the way, I don’t have anything (or much, anyway) against Fox or MSNBC. I don’t watch Bill O’Reilly, but I like Greta Van Susteren. I don’t care much for “Hardball,” mainly because Chris Matthews never lets anyone finish a sentence. I like “Morning Joe.” We can all mix it up a little, can’t we?
I think it’s silly how people go after one or the other cable news channels. They are almost all (except PBS, in my view) engaging in such over-the-top hype in order to get people to stay tuned that it borders on pathetic. Most of the programming on these channels has nothing to do with news. It might be a good exercise for us to talk about what criteria help us decide what “news” is and what it is not. I’m sure journalism students have to do this sort of thing, no?
And religious leaders – as leaders – should have to do the same thing. We might even be able to help other people learn how to exercise responsible citizenship. If leaders lead, then wouldn’t this kind of leadership be a good outcome? We all decry the sour political climate. Maybe we clergy ought to try to help do something about it.
So, you see, I am not calling for political quietism from religious leaders. As I said, we must exercise responsible citizenship. But we also need to remember a larger principle: followers of Jesus are commanded to exercise discipleship in his Kingdom. While we are citizens of the United States, we are citizens of another kingdom beyond the United States. If Jesus is Lord, then…
This tension makes responsible citizenship truly a constant challenge and we must exercise vigilance. Christians around the world all live under some sort of regime, some “kingdom.” We Americans are fortunate to live in a really good one. We love liberty. But, for Christians (and especially leaders), our primary job is to bear witness to the Word-made-flesh, the One who is above all things. And we have to figure out how to do it in this world (ergo, I’m not spiritualizing “Lord”), which means we’re going to get our hands dirty, get cross with one another, make some mistakes, need to repent and apologize and try again.
To say this all another way, my jaw drops sometimes at how confidently religious leaders express their opinions about complex political matters. Since I work on a college campus, I have the privilege of asking questions of real experts – professors whose academic lives are given to studying American politics. These folk are really good and they disagree with each other! If the experts, who spend the lion’s share of their professional lives studying these things can offer significantly divergent opinions, then maybe I’d better just slow down a little bit in my pontificating about what this or that candidate “really” means.
So, please, fellow Christians of all political stripes – and especially United Methodist clergy leaders of all political stripes – let us diligently, prayerfully, reverently, humbly exercise responsible citizenship. Let us do so with vigor, energy, strong opinions and love. And, most of all, let us remember who we work for. And, just in case that’s not clear, I do not mean The United Methodist Church. I mean a far greater Power.