Why is it that people who call themselves Christian are often the most intolerant?
Pre- and post-election pollsters have contended that the “religious” — specifically, Christians who regularly “attend church” — delivered George W. Bush a second term as president of the United States. In the absence of careful parsing of these claims, the impression is that the “moral values” President Bush espouses and that his policies represent are the core values of church-going Christians or the “religious” in general.
If that were not enough of a misrepresentation of differently “religious,” church-going Christians, we now read that “Republicans and people who described themselves as highly religious” were likely to be among the 44% in a Cornell University poll testing public support for lifting Constitutional protections of Muslim-Americans (“Poll: 44% support restricting rights of Muslim-Americans,” Dubuque, Iowa, Telegraph Herald, 12/18/04).
This is depressing news, both about what Christian churches are teaching their regular attenders, and about what they are not getting in civics courses in public and private schools. What don’t they understand about Constitutional protections that more “Democrats” and “people who are less religious” seem to understand? The restriction of the rights of perceived “enemies in our midst” is not something new in American history, as the Germans and Japanese living in the United States during World War II know so well.
Without going too far with the analogy, we should also recall that the “evangelical” (Protestant) state church of Germany also supported the Third Reich’s identification of Jews as “enemies” in their midst, a stance that the “Confessing Church” declared incompatible with Christian faith.
What do the self-described “highly religious” in the Cornell poll not understand about these lessons from recent history?
I cannot, and will not, speak for them (I wish they would return the favor), so let me describe the “faith and values” that a differently “religious” Christian church-goer, and a Democrat (that is not an oxymoron), brings to the discussion of public policies and the lessons of history. I do not doubt that President Bush is sincere when he talks about his personal faith, his prayer life, and his Bible-reading piety. Nothing is wrong with that, and there is much to commend that way of being “Christianly” religious. But that’s not all there is to Christian “faith and values.”
What I have yet to hear from President Bush, or others in his administration or his Christian religious supporters, are the “faith and values” of the prophets of ancient Israel and of Jesus. The Bible certainly gives lots of support to those who want to wage war as a primary means of resolving international conflicts. But the values in such passages as Psalm 33:16-17 (“A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.”) strike me as more central to the biblical message taken as a whole. From a Christian perspective, Jesus’ words, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39), and his intercessory prayer on the cross, “forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), contain important values to apply in debates about so-called “just war.”
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich correctly tried to remind “highly religious,” church-going Christians that, according to Jesus, God would judge nations on the basis of their care for the least powerful in their midst: that is, on the basis of their care for the poor, “strangers,” the sick, and those in prison (Matthew 25:31-46).
National judgment and repentance are important religious values. Ancient Israel’s prophets were clear about invoking God’s judgment on Israel when it acted in ways that violated God’s justice. Amos, for example, pronounced judgment on Israel’s idolatry of affluence and love of luxurious living. Isaiah and Jeremiah saw God’s judgment in Israel’s defeat at the hands of its enemies and its subsequent exile. Their pronouncements of divine judgment were meant to bring about Israel’s repentance.
I long for public engagement with such prophetic traditions. That would lead to the critical examination of U.S. policies and actions in the Middle East, for example, and the President’s determination to secure the global dominance of U.S. economic and military power. Without that kind of national self-examination and repentance, success in U.S. efforts to confront terrorism will be piecemeal and temporary.
Those who fear the “stranger” in our midst can find support in the Bible, but far more central to its message is the call to treat them with hospitality and justice (as in Deuteronomy 10:17, Psalm 146:9, and Matthew 25:35).
These biblical values of hospitality and justice for “strangers” among us stand opposed to the restriction of the rights of Muslim-Americans and its basis in the fear of “the other.” The Bible also names loving the neighbor as oneself as the sum of all the law and prophets (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, and James 2:8). These are nobler religious values than those of the culture of fear that President Bush and his religious supporters have been so successfully cultivating.
If you want to contemplate how much the lifting of Constitutional protections for Muslim-Americans can contribute to a culture of fear, just consider the bureaucratic intrusion into private religious preferences [by] Federal intelligence agencies [that] would be needed to enforce restricting Muslims’ rights in the U.S. Would every Muslim-American be required to show law-enforcement officers, on demand, a government-issued card identifying their religious preference or practice? It is the duty of Christian-Americans, on the authority of the Constitution and on the basis of biblical values of neighborly love, hospitality, and justice, to reject such policies.
These are some “faith-based” values missing in the discussion of “faith and values” in politics.
Lull is Associate Professor of New Testament at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. This article originally appeared in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. It is reprinted with permission.