Every four years the same ideology resurfaces from its shallow grave among conservative, evangelical Christians. This ideology is rooted in the belief (myth) that America was founded as a Christian nation, and therefore the elected leaders of this nation, especially the president, ought to be Christians. Therefore, the so-called “Christian” way to vote is to determine which candidates are Christian and which are not. More particularly, certain vocal evangelicals will declare which candidate is the most Christian in their eyes, and thus most deserving of the evangelical Christian vote.
As Robert Parham shrewdly noted, this almost always is about which candidates are the specific “brand” of Christian a given preacher or denominational body likes and which candidates are not. In other words, a candidate might be a Christian, but still not be qualified for public office, according to certain Christian groups, if they are not one of them.
In this election cycle, comments by Reverend Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas regarding Mitt Romeny’s Mormon faith and Rick Perry’s Christian evangelicalism have received the most press.
Enough has been written critiquing and condemning the folly of Jeffress’ statements about Romney and the Mormon faith. What I wish to address is a few of Jeffress’ statements given during a recent CNN interview.
Comment 1: “I am concerned that these men [Mitt Romney, Bill Bennett and Jon Huntsman] are attempting to prematurely marginalize religion as a relevant topic in elections.”
According to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The constitution itself marginalizes religion as relevant in public elections by eliminating it as a qualification for holding public office. This is not to say that religion has no place in the public square (see Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus), but to say that the constitution has removed religious tradition as an item for discussion about a candidate’s qualifications (or lack thereof) for holding public office. As such, Jeffress is entitled to believe that his kind of Christian would make the best president, but it goes against the Constitution to suggest that Romney is not qualified for the presidency because he is Mormon. Finally, Jeffress ought to at least be consistent if he wants religion to be a qualification for presidential office. Instead, he has implied that evangelical Christians ought not vote for Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon or for President Obama because he is a Christian whom Jeffress said does not live by biblical principles, while also asserting that Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s Jewish faith should not “be held against him.”
Comment 2: “While I prefer a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian, religion is not the only consideration in choosing a candidate. Frankly, Christians have not always made good presidents. We must also consider whether a candidate is competent to lead and govern according to biblical principles.”
Jeffress has already endorsed Perry as his choice for president and, seemingly in violation of IRS tax codes for non-profit organization like churches, has, apparently, posted his endorsement on his church’s website. It stands to reason that Jeffress believes Perry will “lead and govern according to biblical principles,” which begs the question, which biblical principles?
1. In an October 18 debate, the Republican candidates attacked each other on a perceived “weak” stance against illegal immigration. Perry attacked Romney for his “soft” stance, saying, “Mitt, you lose all of your standing, from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year.” Regardless of his record, Perry desires to appear strongly opposed to the hiring of or providing amnesty to illegal immigrants. With Jeffress supporting Perry as a Christian standing for biblical principles, we should examine some of the biblical principles regarding treatment of strangers or resident aliens:
- Exodus 22.21: You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
- Exodus 23.9: You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
- Leviticus 19.32: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
- Deuteronomy 10.19: You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
- Malachi 3.5b: I will be swift to bear judgment against…those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who cast aside the alien.
- Matthew 25.35: I [Jesus] was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger [foreign, alien] and you welcomed me.
2. Perry has expressed in his book and in more than one debate that he has serious problems with the safety net programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In fact, he has called Social Security a “ponzi scheme,” a comment he has sought to qualify, but never fully disown. Politfact.com has an excellent article pointing out the problems with this statement, the most grievous of which, in my opinion, is the moral aspect of comparing a program aimed at helping aging and low-income Americans to a scheme to rob people of their money. To be fair, Perry thinks the states should take care of the poor and aging population, but it is troubling that he would compare a program aimed to help the “least of these” with a scheme to rob people of their wealth without their knowledge. Given Perry’s perspectives on programs aimed to provide a safety net to the least and lowliest, we should compare his opinions to the the biblical principles by which Jeffress says Perry will lead:
- Exodus 23.11: In the seventh year you shall let [a field] rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat.
- Leviticus 19.10: You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.
- Deuteronomy 14.28-29: Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill.
- Deuteronomy 15.7-8: If there is among you anyone in need…do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.
- Isaiah 58.6, 7: Is not this the fast that I choose…to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them?
- Matthew 19.21: If you wish to be complete, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.
- James 1.27: Religion that is pure and undefiled…is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.
- 1 John 3.17-18: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Jeffress, like every other citizen of this country, is entitled to his opinion and to his vote. However, he ought to consider to three things. First, it is illegal for him to endorse a candidate on his church’s website as he has done. It is a moral grey area for him to publically endorse a candidate at all given his influence on his congregation. Second, his religious tests for public office are precisely what the founding fathers sought to avoid in Article VI of the Constitution. Finally, while it is acceptable to desire a candidate to lead and govern according to “biblical principles,” it might be helpful to clarify a list of biblical principles Jeffress deems “essential” because Perry’s stance on illegal immigration and federal safety net programs grates against the principles exposited in the biblical texts.