* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Problem with Theocracy (and why a born again evangelical president is a scary

Amid my re-contextualization of the Bible, this seems like an appropriate time to address The Response (a prayer rally organized by Texas Governor Rick Perry), given its implications for religion and politics…

I don’t know Rick Perry’s heart.  My conclusions are therefore more about generalities than about anything specific regarding a single individual.  My take on things may be seen by some as cynical. I see some people’s take as na├»ve.  That’s fine.  We all have our opinions.  But some “believers” I’ve heard over the past couple of days are confused about why anyone would have a problem with a devoted Christian president.  They think that fear of authentic Christian leadership is totally irrational, and they may be right. There are a few issues worth keeping in mind, however.

First, I have a very difficult time believing that there is nothing political about a politician organizing a massive prayer meeting with people who are celebrities in the eyes of typical Christian Conservatives. Anything a politician does in public is political. If it isn’t, then we’re talking about a very uninformed or thoughtless politician. Anything and everything a politician does can make or break an entire political career, so everything a wise politician does has to be calculated. Timing the event one week before he officially announces his intention to run for president of the country suggests a very calculated political decision.

"But over the course of the seven-hour event, nothing was mentioned about anything political. It was just prayer and worship."  Someone doesn’t have to come out and say something political in order for their actions to be politically motivated.  In fact, not saying anything about national politics was a very smart political move that potentially won over the hearts and minds of thousands of Christian voters.  If it wasn’t intentional, then the man isn’t half as smart as I give him credit for being.

"But he prayed for President Obama and his family."  Again, doing so was very politically and strategically astute.  In a time when a large number of people are very frustrated by news about ineffectual partisan bickering in Washington, the only appropriate response by a presidential candidate is to illustrate how well he can get along with the other side.  He didn’t just make a campaign promise, he prayed for his potential opponent in front of tens of thousands of people.  I simply cannot believe that this was not a politically-motivated decision.

There is nothing wrong with a politician being political.  That’s what politicians are supposed to do.  Politicians are also supposed to be elected based on their ability to make appropriate decisions and lead effectively, not because of their fervent and passionate faith.  Preachers, on the other hand, are supposed to preach.  Christians look to pastors for faith matters, because the role of a religious leader is to guide people in matters of spirituality.  To elect a president based primarily on his statement of faith is tantamount to saying that our country’s problems can only be solved by God.  It’s like saying that we need a leader who will not rely on his own wisdom, but will be subservient to God’s will.  I understand that some people do indeed hold this belief, which is why I believe it’s important to point out a couple of problems.

Spokespeople for the Christian Right have claimed that secular thinkers are arrogant for believing that they know better than the word of God.  It’s true that some secular views differ from the views of some Christians, and they often differ from a Fundamental biblical perspective.  Christians don’t all agree on what God wants, though.  Some Christians think that homosexual couples should be allowed the freedom to marry, and some Christians are on record as believing that all homosexuals deserve to burn in hell.  Some Christians believe that God wants his people to be prosperous and some believe that the model of the early
church in the Bible demonstrates that socialism is the appropriate model for a godly society.  Christians interpret the words of the Bible with incredible variety and nuance, and no person can know with certainty that one interpretation is better than another, because God has never clarified it distinctly enough for all Christians to come to the same conclusion.  So, while secular thinkers may seem arrogant for coming up with an idea that isn’t overtly Christian, every Christian who boldly claims to know what God wants is being equally arrogant.

Trusting one’s own ability to draw a reasonable conclusion is a good thing.  It’s a trait that leaders need, even when they are willing to hear a multitude of different views on a subject.  Effective leaders make difficult decisions and take responsibility for what they decide.  This goes for leaders who embrace secular ideas as well as leaders who base their conclusions on spiritual conviction.  Secular leaders don’t have any real excuse when an idea doesn’t play out as planned.  They can blame their advisers, but ultimately a leader with integrity bears the responsibility for his decisions.  Few leaders have unrestrained ability to act on their ideas, so it’s often easy to spread the blame around.

People who base their decisions on spiritual conviction are not really all that different.  While some people may seem to be spiritually attuned and utterly convinced of the rightness (and righteousness) of certain ideas, their position is no less subjective than a secular view point.  Since all Christians do not agree on what God wants, every believer has an individual responsibility to determine what makes the most sense.  Certainly there are broad schools of thought, but the same is true of secular thinking.  The conviction that an idea is better because it is based on some scriptural passage is just as arrogant as any other conviction that an idea conceived by a human mind has merit.

Here’s the hitch: There is no way to debate Conservative Christian absolutism.  It doesn’t matter what the conclusion is -- if it originated from something in the Bible, it is unassailable.  Secular ideas can theoretically rise and fall based on their own merit.  If something doesn’t work, it can be dismissed in favor of a better alternative.  When an idea is thought to come from God, it cannot be legitimately questioned, it is "beyond human understanding", it is allowed to fly in the face of human wisdom, and to ignore or dismiss it is a rejection of the Almighty.  Secular leaders may be able to get away with blaming their advisors from time to time, but how does one respond when a spiritually-motivated leader “blames” God?

Sure, it creates the ultimate illusion of humility for a leader to claim, “I am not the important one here. I am but a vessel for the work of Almighty God.”  It also creates the ultimate deflection of responsibility.  Whatever happens is what God wanted to happen, and no one can truly measure a person’s obedience to God’s will without making assumptions about what God wants.  When anyone uses the argument that God spoke to them, the conversation is over.  There is no real way to refute an argument that needs no logical explanation and must be accepted on blind faith.

This is why theocracies are essentially no different from dictatorships.  An unscrupulous person can declare whatever he wants and frame it as a command from God.  People may think that they would be able to see through such chicanery, but some of those same people likely believe that there was absolutely nothing political about Governor Perry’s prayer meeting.  A smart person can easily take advantage of the absolute authority some Christians bestow upon a mouthpiece of God.  If a majority of voters decide to elect the person who seems to walk closest with their God, it is really no different than electing a high priest.

All of the usual checks and balances will still be in place, of course, and a leader with wild ideas is likely to meet opposition in Congress no matter where he claims the ideas came from.  And Governor Perry’s idea of what God wants may not be all that bad.  Maybe he knows that God wants us to stop killing people on foreign soil in the name of freedom.  Maybe he knows that God wants women to have the freedom to make up their own minds about whether they are willing to be good mothers.  Maybe he knows a truly Christian government would set an example of humble servanthood, would turn the other cheek, would pool everyone’s resources and ensure that no one went without.  Some Christians think those things.

I don’t know Rick Perry’s heart.  But along with at least 15% of the American population, I find it difficult to trust the intentions of a person who claims to take his marching orders from on high.  My sense is that anyone elected to the American presidency with the political support of the Christian Conservative bloc will mirror their values.  If they represent the majority view of the American public, then it’s understandable that someone who reflects their values would be placed in charge of the country.  If such a person is elected based on personal capability and strong leadership skills, every citizen can reasonably expect an appropriate measure of responsibility and accountability.  However, if a person is elected based on perceived godliness, it sets a dangerous precedent that could be easy to manipulate and difficult to challenge.

1 comment:

  1. I guess the same thoughts would apply to Santorum - or anyone even in local politics. If no one can verify what God wants or what God says to anybody, I can see why you'd want that taken off the table for political decisions. And you're right, if someone really has the capability and character to lead the country, every citizen's perspective should be valued. A person doesn't have to be of any particular religion to have respect for the people he leads.