Culture At Large

Rick Perry and a different religious test for candidates

Timothy Hendrickson

Should Christians be racing to support Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who led a prayer rally earlier this week in Houston and is poised to announce his presidential campaign?

In a July post on ThinkChristian, Michelle Kirtley argued that the faith of political candidates matters, writing, “Faith informs our view of human dignity, of justice, of integrity and ethics and cannot be separated from both the political and the policy decisions elected officials make everyday.” Perhaps a more important observation comes in the next sentence, though: “Simply choosing a candidate that claims to follow our own religious tradition will not guarantee a thoughtful application of faith to public policy and will lead to politicians giving lip-service to faith.”

Because I agree that faith should play an important role in both shaping our opinions and driving our actions, and because I fear that too many politicians understand the value of appearing faithful, I propose a different kind of “religious test.”

More important to me than the faith of the politician is whether his or her policy positions match up to both the faith he or she professes and my own. The problem, though, is figuring out how we can make that determination, as politicians are notorious for their rhetorical ability. In short, the problem is how we sift through the garbage and really get to know a candidate. Personally, I follow a three-step process that I think could be useful for everyone, one that appears simple but can be surprisingly difficult. In the end, though, the work is rewarding, both practically and philosophically.

First, take some time to boil down the essence of Christianity into three or four single words. I always end up with words like “compassion,” “mercy” and “love,” but I suppose that you could come up with something different. Next, think about those issues that are most important to you and determine what positions most accurately reflect those Christian “characteristics.” Finally, examine each candidate’s record on those issues, determining how closely his/her actions live up to his/her words and how closely his/her positions match up with those you’ve identified as Christian. The right candidate, then, is one whose policy positions and record align most closely with your own conception of the soul of Christianity.

This is all abstract, so I’ll give you an example of how I apply the process.

For me, one of the core values of Christianity is compassion. As people of faith, I believe we must not only be thankful for what we have but also acutely sensitive to the needs of others (as Jesus most certainly was). Two issues that reflect the need for compassion most clearly to me are health care and education. As such, I ask myself what positions in regards to those issues I consider most compassionate. What I answer - universal, free health care for at least everyone under the age of 25; a system of funding education not tied to property values - gives me a kind of road map to finding the right candidate, one whose positions and actions align with my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. All that is required then is a bit of legwork to research each candidate’s record. Just as important as figuring out who to vote for, though, is that finding a candidate in this way results in greater awareness of both our own faith and the ways in which we can act faithfully in even the most worldly of arenas.

Ultimately, my method encourages me to look past professions of faith and search for God in policy. The logical extension of this thinking, however, leads me into conflict with many Christians, for Christ-like policy can be (and often is!) both championed and implemented by non-Christians. Some might find this a weakness, although I hold quite the opposite. Indeed, we limit the power of God when we disqualify from public service those who do not practice the same religion as we do. If we truly believe in an all-powerful God, then we must allow that He sometimes works through the least likely of people, including Muslims, Hindus, religious Jews and even atheists. I encourage Christians, then, to take a broader view of the relationship between faith and politics, one that focuses on policy rather than rhetoric, one that cares less for religious affiliation and more for Christ-like actions.

All of which means Rick Perry will have to do more than hold a prayer rally to get my vote.

As a Graduate Assistant at Northern Illinois University and an Adjunct Professor of English at Trinity Christian College, Timothy Hendrickson understands the power of language to both reflect and distort God's truth. He currently lives with his wife and two children in Homewood, Ill., though he'll always be a New Yorker at heart.

(Photo courtesy of the Texas Office of the Governor.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Prayer, Other Religions, News & Politics, North America