America is a religious nation. Polls may differ, but most find that over 80 percent of Americans say they believe in God. Fifty percent also say they go to church on Sunday, while only half of those actually do. I guess this shows that we want to look better than we actually are, at least to the public — if not to God, who presumably knows what we’re really up to.
Most political candidates also profess their belief in God. At the same time, they rarely make a big deal of their devotion. They’ve probably read Matthew 6:1, which warns, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who just announced he’s running for president, has taken a different tack. A week before announcing his candidacy, he led a prayer meeting for evangelical Christians in Houston. The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit trying to stop him from participating in this rally, arguing that he was violating the First Amendment by using his position, stationery, and website to promote the event. The court dismissed the complaint, saying that the plaintiff didn’t show sufficient harm to merit the injunction.
I disagree with the court’s ruling. I think the governor misused his office to promote a particular religion. That might have been clearer to the judge if Perry had organized a rally in support of Islam rather than Christianity. There’s no difference as far as the First Amendment is concerned.
In any case, Gov. Perry’s decision to make his Christian faith a central part of his political identity opens him up to questions not usually asked of presidential candidates.
The press has traditionally been unwilling to question politicians about their religion. But in Perry’s case, Christianity is front and center on his platform. I hope David Gregory will ask him some of the following questions when he next appears on Meet the Press, and that other members of the media won’t shy away from them either.
First, are Rick Perry’s political positions in line with Christ’s teachings?
I see a fundamental inconsistency between Perry’s concerted opposition to government social programs and his promotion of himself as a Christian politician. When asked about the impact of Texas’s low-tax, low-service policies on the poor, he suggested that people who wanted more government services could find them in New York or California.
It’s more likely that he knows that passage but reads it in a particular light. When I wrote Failing America’s Faithful, I interviewed Rick Warren, the evangelical Christian minister and author, about his bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life. Rick very kindly welcomed me to Saddleback, the church he had founded more than 30 years before. He and his wife were gracious to me. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness with which he reached out to his congregation, and his sensitivity to their needs and wants.
I had read his book, and coming from a different Christian tradition, I was struck by how much it focused on getting you to feel good about yourself rather than caring about your neighbor, which Christ had said was the greatest commandment.
Warren, who now runs many charitable programs and supports government efforts to help the poor and the sick, was forthright in explaining that his views had changed since writing the book. The evangelical church he had grown up in, he told me, had focused on the believer’s personal relationship to Jesus and pretty much ignored the social side of the gospel. He finally realized that he had “missed the 2,500 passages” in the Bible that called on him to care about other people, including those outside his church.
Does Rick Perry acknowledge those 2,500 passages? That’s the second question I’d like the press to ask him. Maybe he believes, like some socially conservative evangelicals, that these passages refer only to personal charity, not government programs. But I don’t see any place in the Bible that says we shouldn’t use all the tools we have at hand to help the poor, the sick, and the hungry.
The same conservative Christians claim that the Bible teaches them that the government should outlaw gay marriage and stem cell research. But why should the government carry out some Biblical injunctions and not others?
The Bible is certainly open to interpretation. For example, most churches in America today don’t require us to gouge out our eyes if we look lustfully at someone, or to cut off our hand if we use it a sinful way. And yet, right there in Matthew 5:27-30 are clear instructions.
How does Gov. Perry interpret the Bible? Even more to the point, I’d like to hear him explain how he arrived at his interpretations. If you’re running for president in a democratic country, it’s not enough to proclaim that the Bible says something is right or wrong. You must have reasoned positions. Catholics have been taught to inquire into God’s will by using our reason, examining nature, and listening to Church teaching — as well as by interpreting the Bible.
A last question for the governor: does he believe that God agrees with his reading of the Bible? I’m not saying he does believe this; I’m just wondering.
An alternative to assuming our views are aligned with God’s is to humbly acknowledge that God works in mysterious ways, and that our human nature may blind us to His will. In that case, our belief in God could lead us to question the infallibility of our own interpretations rather than making us proud. Pride, at least in the Catholic catechism, is one of the seven deadly sins.
No one has a monopoly on faith. In a democratic nation, simply saying you believe in Christ doesn’t mean you get a free pass and don’t have to explain your positions. The story of the Good Samaritan reminds us that it is our actions, not our public displays of piety, that make us good neighbors.