HWJV: How Would Jesus Vote?

With the 2016 presidential election cycle in full swing, the Republican candidates have each reached out to Christian evangelical voters. Since the Reagan era of the 1980s brought us Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, evangelicals have consistently been one of the Republican's core constituencies, just as labor unions have been for the Democrats.
12/15/2015 02:52 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2016

With the 2016 presidential election cycle in full swing, the Republican candidates have each reached out to Christian evangelical voters. Since the Reagan era of the 1980s brought us Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, evangelicals have consistently been one of the Republican's core constituencies, just as labor unions have been for the Democrats.

Candidates on the more socially conservative wing of the party, like Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, speak with ease in evangelical venues such as Liberty University (also founded by Falwell) while moderates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio must "run to the right" during the primary season, downplaying prior positions such as their support for Common Core and immigration reform, because these activist voters also hold some of the most conservative views of the party. Even Donald Trump, usually not shy about setting his own agenda, has also uncharacteristically proclaimed his Christian bona fides by declaring his love of the Bible and casting dispersions on the Seventh Day Adventism of Carson as opposed to his own "normal" Presbyterianism. Trump's recent proclamations vowing to restrict Muslim immigration into the United States in response to fears surrounding recent terrorist attacks also plays into the sentiments of many evangelicals who lament that the US has become less Christian.

With the major exception of the near-universal support of African-American churches, Democrats, on the other hand, distance themselves from religious themes, especially in the liberal intellectual circles of the party. While the "Red State" versus "Blue State" maps of the country show concentrations of blue Democratic support in the population dense Northeast and West Coast, broad areas of Republican red cover most of the country from the Midwest to the South, not coincidentally also the states with the highest rates of church attendance.

The strange irony of this situation in which Republicans compete to see who appears to be the "most Christian" is that the majority of the Republican platform has no basis in the teachings of Jesus as presented in the New Testament. While sound economic, social, ethical, geopolitical, or practical arguments for each of these positions may exist, many run so contradictory to what Jesus taught that if the Second Coming happened today (an eagerly awaited event for many evangelicals), a returned Jesus would be as angry with how his teachings had been distorted as he was when he overturned the money changers' tables at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Let's examine how Republican positions measure up to Jesus' teachings. In the area of Economics where the Republican position of smaller government, freer markets, low taxes, and decreased welfare spending in order to encourage economic growth may have theoretical basis from economists since the days of Adam Smith to the more modern Milton Friedman, Jesus' position on wealth was unsettlingly clear: "Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation." (Luke 6.24) Jesus would be appalled by our affluent American consumer society. His explicit teachings against the accumulation of wealth directly contradict the Republican ideal. Jesus recognized that focusing one's efforts on money and the acquisition of material items caused one to turn attention away from the spiritual aspects of life. He preached, "No slave can serve two masters...You cannot serve God and wealth." (Luke 16:13)

Contrary to Republican criticism of the "Welfare State," Jesus called instead for the people to help out the poorest members of the community. Jesus not only condemned the wealthy elites of his society, but he asked that his followers give up all of their possessions to follow him. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus instructed a man looking for salvation and eternal life who had so far lived ethically, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Mark acknowledged the difficulty of what Jesus asked because the man was unable to follow through: "When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions." Jesus did not let this good man off the hook, however, but turned the incident into a teaching moment for his disciples (who had given up everything to follow him): "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God...It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (Mark 10:21-24)

On the issue of taxes, when Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees about whether his followers should pay taxes, he showed them a coin with a picture of Caesar's head on it and said, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:21) Note that Jesus said that the money belongs to Caesar not to the person who earned it. In a similar anti-libertarian vein, the Apostle Paul took Jesus position a step further in affirming both the importance of government authority and the need to pay taxes: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God...Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed." (Romans 13:1-7)

Ironically the presidential candidate closest to Jesus' economic policies would surprise many evangelicals: the Jewish Democrat Bernie Sanders whose socialism echoes the practices of the earliest Christians. One of the first Roman Christian Apologists, Justin Martyr (so named because he was executed for his faith) wrote about this community in the year 155: "We who once valued above everything the gaining of wealth and possessions now bring what we have in common stock and share with everyone in need." (First Apology) In the decades after Jesus' death, the early Christian community lived according to an economic principle Republicans today would deride as communist.

Turning to the Republican issues of building (and using) a strong U.S. military to defend our interests abroad while also being tough on crime within our country whether through incarceration of criminals, capital punishment, or gun ownership, Jesus again argued counter to the Republican positions. A Jew himself, Jesus was a radical social critic, proclaiming an alternative wisdom to the conventional Jewish teachings. Jesus condemned retributory justice, punishment, and even defensive force. Instead, he preached about compassion, nonviolence, and forgiveness. In a direct refutation of the ancient Hebrew Scripture, Jesus said, "You have heard it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well." (Matthew 5:38-40) When the authorities came to unjustly arrest Jesus and take him to be crucified, a follower drew his sword to protect his teacher, but Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." (Matthew 26:52)

Many of the same evangelicals who have made abortion one of their most important issues (because they believe every life, even the potential for life is sacred) also support capital punishment in which the state takes a human life. While Jesus would certainly have been against the killing of a baby, as he was against all violence, a legitimate argument exists over whether a fetus is a human life (or more accurately when in the process a single fertilized egg becomes a human life), and Jesus was silent on this issue. However, Jesus was against all violence whether for purposes of defense or retribution and would never have supported capital punishment.

Instead of punishment and retribution, Jesus believed in radical forgiveness. In his Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus told of a father with two boys: one was respectful, obedient, and hardworking, while the other squandered his inheritance on prostitutes and materialism. When the wayward son returned home destitute and broken and asked for forgiveness, the father threw him a huge banquet much to the chagrin of the well-behaved son. The father explained his joy at the return and repentance of his lost boy, "We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." (Luke 15:32) Not only would the concepts of using military force against other nations or capital punishment against criminals have been anathema to Jesus, he took his radical morality of compassion and forgiveness a step further and required not only nonviolence from us, but that we must actually love our enemies, proclaiming, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:44)

How would Jesus' commitment to extreme nonviolence even in the face of oppression look in a modern world? Certainly, such a vision would not include years of bombings, military actions, and wars against other nations and their people. Instead, the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi demonstrate how such principles exercised with authenticity transformed nations. Similarly, Nelson Mandela, who called for forgiveness and reconciliation with the same white South Africans who previously imprisoned him and oppressed the majority black population during apartheid, provides a vivid example of Jesus' ideal of forgiveness put into action that prevented a nation from erupting into a violent civil war.

For many evangelicals, the topic of "family values" ranks high on their list of concerns. In many contexts, this term is code for opposition to homosexuality, especially gay marriage, as well as a reason to condemn out of wedlock births and single mothers. Although the Old Testament had specific admonitions against homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22) and certain New Testament authors also caution against it (1 Timothy 1:10, Romans 1:27), Jesus was silent on the issue. One might infer, however, from his core teaching on the importance of love--the commandments that trump all others are that we love God and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:28-31)--that two people in a loving relationship regardless of gender would not run afoul of his teachings. Jesus himself violated the technicalities of Jewish law when love and compassion compelled him to do so, such as when he healed a man on the Sabbath rather than not working as the Hebrew Scripture required. (Mark 3:1-6)

While Jesus was silent on the issue of homosexuality, he was clear on both adultery and divorce; both were forbidden (Luke 16:18). While evangelicals (and the politicians courting them) rant against gay marriage, many remain silent on the issue of divorce, which occurs in American society at five times the rate as does homosexuality. The recent case of Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis who refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples yet was herself divorced three times highlights this hypocrisy.

On the broader and murkier issue of "family values" in general, Jesus was also unclear. He was a wandering ascetic teacher, as were his disciples of whom he demanded much. Jesus declared to his potential followers, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26) Jesus demanded that his followers abandon their families in order to follow him. Becoming a disciple of Jesus was not a part-time job, but one that required an extraordinary commitment that superseded one's family obligations.

Finally, on the issue of immigration that has currently spilt the Republican Party, one can imagine Jesus relying on his many teachings about the necessity of helping out those less fortunate as a reason to welcome immigrants who seek our country as a place of asylum or opportunity. Jesus commanded, "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." (Matthew 5:42) In telling a follower not to invite friends or rich neighbors to a dinner because in doing so one expects something in return (to be invited back), Jesus instructed instead that "when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you." (Luke 14:12-13) In his parable of the Good Samaritan, a man lay bleeding on the side of the road after being robbed, but those who live in the area passed him by without helping. Only a foreigner (a man from Samaria) stopped to aid the victim. Jesus explained that the man who was the true neighbor was "The one who showed him mercy...Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:37)

Jesus' teachings on morality and social order were as radical in his day as they seem to us today. He presented an ideal difficult to follow, but one that if attempted (as Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela did) could transform society. Jesus, like his mentor John the Baptist before him and the Apostle Paul after him, believed in the imminent End of the World in which a new Kingdom of God would arrive and upend the social order so that "the first will be last, and the last first." (Matthew 19:30) Because of this expected Armageddon, which never occurred, Jesus did not have to deal with the practical realities of managing order in a society, growing an economy, running a government, or protecting a nation. Numerous philosophical, economic, logical, practical, and political arguments support many elements of the various Republican candidates' positions. Republicans can turn to Plato, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, John Locke, Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman for intellectual support. However, claiming the mantel of Christianity as reason to vote for these political positions ignores the uncomfortable reality that Jesus' explicit teachings reject most of these stances outright.

By shying away from religion, the Democrats, on the other hand, have missed an important strategic opportunity. They have ceded much of the white Christian vote to the Republicans when Democratic policies actually more closely align with Jesus' views. By reaching out to those voters in the language of their faith, Democrats could broaden their support while also anchoring their policies in the ancient moral teachings of one of the world's greatest religious figures.