When I was in college at Biola University in the late 1980s, a common debate was whether one could be both a Christian and a Democrat. I always got a chuckle out of that, since it ultimately seemed to me that it’s just as philosophically difficult to be both a Christian and a Republican.
Years later, I had to chuckle at an interview in the university alumni magazine that posed the can-you-reconcile-Christianity-and-being-a-Democrat to my old political science professor, a longsuffering local member of the City Council and devoted Democrat, but failed to ask the same of famous alumnus John Thune, now a senator representing South Dakota.
Some things never change.
The primary reason Biola students struggled with the Democratic Party is the issue of abortion; Democrats are undoubtedly a pro-choice party, and Christianity preaches against abortion. For many people, the debate never goes beyond that single issue. And that’s too bad, because the Bible has plenty more to say about social justice than it does about abortion, and that’s too often ignored.
I was reminded of all that when I saw a story about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid telling some fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that it’s OK to be both a Mormon and a Democrat. From the story in the Salt Lake Tribune:
What [Dawn] Miller heard from Reid, D-Nev., is that he’s a Mormon because of his faith and not in spite of it and that people like Miller should “be proud of who they are” and not “be afraid of what your neighbors think.”
He spoke in a crowded hotel room before a bank of television cameras, reporters and Mormons from the North Carolina area and those who are delegates to the convention. He told them Romney isn’t the first Mormon to run for president, though he might be the most conservative and he said LDS beliefs about caring of the poor and protecting the environment fall in line with his votes in the Senate.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Reid said, “every member of the church should be an environmentalist.”
After his speech reporters asked him about Utah. “The only message I have for Utah,” he said, “is to get a little more moderate. It is a little too right wing.”
That’s Reid: a gift for understatement.
The bottom line is, Christianity cannot be shoehorned into either of America’s two major political parties. Consider the Roman Catholic church: It opposes abortion and war, supports organized labor and immigration, opposes gay marriage but supports programs that care for the poor. There are plenty of Catholic Republicans and plenty of Catholic Democrats, each with support in biblical texts.
The problem comes when one party or another seeks to lay sole claim to religion: Republicans who cite passages in the Bible that condemn gays or abortion tend to gloss over other passages, such as prophets inveighing against Old Testament kings who neglect the poor or Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.
Republicans this week are condemning Democrats for failing to mention “God” in their party’s platform, as if the omission proves Democrats are godless heathens (who nonetheless open their convention with an invocation, as Republicans did). The reference was being written back in as I write this, apparently after the intervention of President Barack Obama himself. The Republican platform, of course, invokes God repeatedly, including as the source of human rights, a common error.
My own view is that religion and politics should be kept as far apart as possible, on the oft-proven theory that religion never sanctifies the state, but that the state often corrupts religion. Of course, individual believers may be motivated by their beliefs — Republicans to try to outlaw abortion, for example, or Democrats to save Medicare and Social Security for poor people — but the Bible was simply not meant to establish state policy. Both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty in that regard, and both are wrong when they do.
Besides, the question really shouldn’t be “can you be a Christian and an (fill in the blank)?” The real question should be what have you done to show a commitment to your beliefs, and to fulfill the great commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.