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George McHendry, Jr. Headshot

Obama Talks Faith, McCain Claims 'Values'

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The Los Angeles Times is reporting that across the nation Sunday some conservative evangelical ministers were planning to endorse John McCain for President.

I'm going to talk about the un-biblical stands that Barack Obama takes. Nobody who follows the Bible can vote for him," said the Rev. Wiley S. Drake of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park. "We may not be politically correct, but we are going to be biblically correct. We are going to vote for those who follow the Bible.

It is a stunning reversal of standard practice across the country that keeps (direct) politics out of the pulpit. As a result these churches could lose their tax-exempt status as a sanction from the IRS. This is, in fact, the goal. This would allow the conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund to take the IRS to court in hopes of overturning the ruling that tax-exempt groups cannot engage in such endorsements. The ministers involved claim the issue is about free speech, but they miss the mark. The are able to speak freely about any political endorsement as long as they also feel free to pay taxes on their political organization. The sad reality is, that the decision by these ministers could seriously harm their congregations. Without tax-exempt status, these churches will have less funds to carry out religious work in the community and the world. Moreover, however; John McCain fails as an exemplar of a politician who warrants support from Christian Americans.

Church and state issues have a long and sordid history in America. George W. Bush is recognized as the first true contemporary conservative evangelical President. Many conservative evangelicals seem to forget Jimmy Carter's faith. For many Bush is a symbol of the success of political action by conservative evangelicals. However, if evangelicals found a leader in Bush, they have an impostor in McCain. John McCain fails to talk about faith in a coherent way beyond the marquee issue of Abortion and lip service to the mailable "Family Values." Whereas, despite disagreeing with conservative evangelicals on abortion, Barack Obama demonstrates clear connections to the faith community.

John McCain
My purpose here is not to doubt or interrogate John McCain's personal religious beliefs. That is not appropriate for personal and political reasons. Instead, I want to interrogate McCain's stances on issue of Church and State. First, McCain does not take a solid stance on faith. Instead he focuses on flagged issues that appeal to evangelicals. For example, the closest policy he has to issues of faith on his website is titled "Human Dignity and the Sanctity of Life." Abortion and Gay Marriage become McCain's focus, arguing:

Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned, and as president he will nominate judges who understand that courts should not be in the business of legislating from the bench.

Further, regarding Gay Marriage:

The family represents the foundation of Western Civilization and civil society and John McCain believes the institution of marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

As a whole, McCain's stances line up with conservative evangelical issues but lack connections to faith. McCain is is either uncomfortable with or refuses to talk through the language of faith. One notable exception is his narrative of the cross in the ground while being held prisoner in Vietnam. His stance should reassure some who worry about the intrusion of Christian faith into American politics. However, the evangelical issues are all present, McCain just ignores the language of faith. This makes his support among evangelicals remarkable. It bears comparison to Barack Obama's views on faith.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama does not shy away from direct appeals to believers. Yet, Obama seeks to utilize faith to draw Christians together. He may differ on the two issues that dominate the popular image of evangelicals, however, Obama is comfortable talking about faith. Most importantly for believers and nonbelievers, he does so in a away that allows Christian values to govern individuals, but not be canonized into law. Obama has an explicit statement on faith:

Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.

Obama calls Christian progressives to be vocal. This is a departure form recent action by democrats. Usually, they concede this block to the GOP. Obama does not. Obama offers an example of how faith and politics can converse, without violating the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. Specifically, he uses the bully pulpit as a pulpit. In his "Call to Renewal Keynote Address," he argues:

This religious tendency is not simply the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers or the draw of popular mega-churches. In fact, it speaks to a hunger that's deeper than that - a hunger that goes beyond any particular issue or cause.

It bears reminding that Obama began his life working in community Churches. As a candidate. Obama has used the 'pulpit' to shame absentee father, call Americans (Democrats and Republcans) to faith, and talk about the hunger in Americans for faith. Where Obama strikes the right balance between church and state is that he refuses to see the coercive force of law as a way to articulate God's will.

In sum, church and state relations are deeply problematic in American history. While Christianity has helped mold this country's course, it has often done so for progressive cause like suffrage and slavery. In each case, however, those opposing such causes have used the bible to argue that these changes are an affront to God. Regardless, a desire to implement God's will (via law) takes the bible away from God's message and forgets the basic fact of Christianity: it is about faith. If the rule of law were enough, there would be no crime. The issue of church and state in America is troubling in the 2008 election. The endorsement by evangelical leaders of a politician who supports their issues but refuses to overtly talk faith seems contradictory. While at the same time, their cold shoulder to a politician who puts faith front and center ignores a basic commandment all Christians must follow: Love God, Love thy Neighbor.

The project to implement God's word via the coercive force of law is folly. On issues of abortion gay marriage, the destruction of God's earth, increased poverty, lack of health care, crime, and war preachers must provide biblical grounding. However, that grounding should not advocate for a candidate. Perhaps the best argument for this principle comes from Senator Ted Kennedy, speaking at Dr. Falwells Liberty Baptist College in 1983, Kennedy argues:

The separation of church and state can sometimes be frustrating for women and men of religious faith. They may be tempted to misuse government in order to impose a value which they cannot persuade others to accept. But once we succumb to that temptation, we step onto a slippery slope where everyone's freedom is at risk. Those who favor censorship should recall that one of the first books ever burned was the first English translation of the Bible. As President Eisenhower warned in 1953, "Don't join the book burners...the right to say ideas, the right to record them, and the right to have them accessible to others is unquestioned -- or this isn't America." And if that right is denied, at some future day the torch can be turned against any other book or any other belief. Let us never forget: Today's Moral Majority could become tomorrow's persecuted minority.

In short, John McCain is a poor fit for Christians across the country. Further, every Christian should take notice that the supposed evangelical leadership of President Bush over the last eight years have not taken the nation closer to God's will. It has made meaner the spirit of America and exacerbated the suffering of God's people. The solution is not in government. So how could John McCain offer such leadership? The greatest moral issue of our times is not abortion, as Dr. James Dobson suggests, it is the sullying of God's word in filth of politics. The bible can be implemented in Christian's lives, but not by the force of law. Any hope to the contrary neglects the lessons of both the bible and history.