How faith should guide presidential campaign

Ted Cruz: Judeo-Christian values built America
Ted Cruz: Judeo-Christian values built America

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Story highlights

  • David Bartlett: It's no surprise presidential candidates are highlighting their faith
  • Candidates seem to genuinely believe their religious convictions positively influence their opinions, he says

David L. Bartlett is professor emeritus of Yale Divinity School and professor emeritus of Columbia Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister of the American Baptist Churches. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The U.S. presidential campaign is now in full swing, and along with the various campaign pledges, promises and rhetoric, it has been no surprise to hear plenty of something else: Professions of faith.

Monday night was no exception.
Like many others, I stayed up late watching the results come in from the Iowa caucuses, and heard Marco Rubio celebrating his third-place finish in the Republican caucus by thanking "my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
    First-place Republican finisher Ted Cruz, meanwhile, said he was trusting God to handle the outcome of the election, and so appropriately began his victory remarks by saying "To God be the glory." He went on to assure his supporters that they were well on their way to re-establishing "Judeo-Christian values" to America.
    David Bartlett
    And while Donald Trump made no mention of God in his speech, he had in recent days brought out the Bible his mother gave him.
    On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton used a town hall last week to stress how deeply her Methodist upbringing affected her political concerns.
    Of course, even before this past week, it had been evident during this campaign season that many of the candidates for president would refer to their Christian faith. In part, this is no doubt meant to appeal to the many American voters who are Christian. But to be fair to the candidates, they also appear to genuinely believe that their religious convictions positively influence their political opinions.
    The question for many, though, is whether the tone of the campaign is matching the spirit of the faith being invoked.
    Erskine Clarke, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, for example, has noted that the rhetoric of the campaign has become increasingly harsh and even mean. With that in mind, he wondered whether we might find a way for Christian Americans to lay claim to a vision of Christianity that stresses openness and charity.
    So at his suggestion, a small group of pastors and professors drafted an "Appeal to Christians in the United States" hoping to persuade leaders of Christian faith communities to sign up and reaffirm our most basic convictions about the teachings of the Bible and the theological assumptions by which we seek to lead faithful lives.
    I was one of those involved in drafting the appeal, which is based not upon particular political biases but certain basic convictions about the claims and implications of our Christian faith. "A fundamental conviction of Christian faith is that God is sovereign over our lives, over all nations, and over the course of human history," the appeal states. "When we abandon that faith, we surrender to fear on the one hand and to pride on the other. Both pervasive fear and overweening pride violate our commitment to the lordship of Christ."
    It seemed to us that there are at least three ways in which faith stands against the rhetoric of fear and pride in our current political context.
    First, fear leads us to denigrate or caricature anyone we think of as "other." Pride leads us to boast of our own special, chosen status.
    In the current election, pride and fear have led to a pervasive anxiety over immigration, anxiety that goes far beyond economic considerations to a kind of personal animus. We have considered refugees as though they were enemies and not guests. We have cast aspersions on our fellow citizens who are Muslims. In contrast, the appeal opposes any such separation from our fellow human beings: "We resist such stereotypes and pledge to work for laws and practices that honor the dignity of all people."
    Fear also leads us to an un-Christian and inhumane reliance on guns as a way to bolster our own security, while pride leads us to assume that we can easily distinguish the good guys from the bad, and that we are always among the good. Fear of danger, too, easily becomes fear of those who are mentally ill and to the illusion that by isolating such people, we can preserve our own safety.
    Finally, because of fear, we have too easily capitulated to so-called "security" measures that only make our God-given dignity less secure, while pride has led us to assume that we can be saved by our technological prowess. Again our appeal includes a promise: "We resist such pride and pledge to work for systems of security that guard human dignity and protect the vulnerable as well as the strong."
    As of Wednesday morning, some 2,700 Christian leaders had signed the appeal, including small-town pastors and pastors of large city churches; lay leaders; presidents of theological seminaries; and faculty of divinity schools and of university religious studies departments -- some of them more evangelical, some more "mainline."
    Why have so many felt compelled to sign such a document? One of those who did so, Rev. Joanna M. Adams, minister emerita at Morningside Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, put it well:
    "When fear takes root within the human soul or in human society, the result is always a grim harvest of hatred. Even more troubling is that some justify their rhetorical stance with the Gospel of Jesus Christ," she said.
    "I recommend the Sermon on the Mount, especially the passage that summarizes the entire Biblical tradition: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' "
    As the political campaign grows ever more heated, I hope more people will take note of Reverend Adams' words and our plea from a Christian perspective for a more excellent way forward.