The Theological Stakes in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election
The following is a slightly revised version of my remarks to CCL's Political Symposium this weekend, held in Saratoga, California. This was a closed-door, invitation-only event, and it was, frankly, one of the finest events I have ever had the honor of attending. The discussions were at an extremely high level. The participants were extremely well-informed, articulate, and insightful. I benefited greatly, and offer my own contributions that you might benefit, as well.
The Theological Stakes in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election
A Brief Presentation for the Center For Cultural Leadership Political Symposium, October 27th, 2012
Dr. Brian G. Mattson, Senior Scholar of Public Theology
Good morning! I understand that my task is to briefly present what I believe are the theological stakes involved in the upcoming presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in hopes of priming the pump for a lengthier discussion. I find this task quite impossible only because of its requirement of brevity. In truth, I think this topic alone could cover our entire time today (in fact, it likely will) because it is my firm conviction that “theology” is not a discrete, separate topic, after which we can safely move on to other things. Rather, as the study of God and his revelation theology is inescapably the most relevant factor in all our topics today, whether they be social, cultural, philosophical, or economic issues.
But that is just a theologian talking, one who continues to believe that ancient, archaic, and quaint idea that theology is the “Queen of the Sciences.” I hope my remarks over the next ten to fifteen minutes will explain how this is so a bit more fully.
How does one go about probing the “theological” stakes of a presidential election, much less any other cultural event? Where do we start? I have developed my own rubric or framework for evaluating such things, and it begins with God. I lay this out in my book, Politics & Evangelical Theology, and I will summarize it for you. At its root, I seek to ground our political evaluations in what God has told us about himself. For this is our preeminent creaturely task. Reformed theologians, particularly from the Dutch Neo-Calvinist tradition, call this “Thinking God’s thoughts after him.” For my taste, that is a bit narrowly intellectual for a general rule, with slightly too much emphasis on “thoughts” and “thinking.” My own version is simpler and more down-to-earth: As creatures made in the image and likeness of God, we must seek to love what God loves. Love comprehends more than just our intellects; it tells us not just of an object of apprehension, some nugget of truth we should know, but also an object of affection and desire. “Love” is a more well-rounded term than “thinking,” which is why I prefer “loving what God loves” to “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”
In and of himself, as the Triune being, God is love. If this is so, his revelation of himself has to be a revelation of what he loves. When it comes to the distinctly political questions facing our nation and culture, I find three of God’s loves particularly significant. God loves people. God loves prosperity. And God loves justice. In those three categories I believe I have captured all of the great relevant political questions of our time. That God loves people means something for issues of the dignity and value of human life and sexual well-being. That God loves prosperity means something for economics, wealth creation, and helping the poor. That God loves justice means something for our earthly systems of justice, foreign and domestic.
My book covers each of these categories in fuller detail, and it is obviously impossible to rehash it all here. Rather, I want to get straight to the heart of things. What are the theological stakes if either Barack Obama wins reelection or Mitt Romney succeeds as the challenger? Although I have been (and remain) very confident that Mr. Obama will fail in his reelection effort, I will begin with him.
Barack Obama: Life & Sexuality
Human beings are the preeminent creaturely object of God’s love. They alone are the products of an unprecedented divine deliberation: “Let us make man in our image and likeness.” Moreover, it is solely for human beings that God became incarnate, suffered, died, and rose again from the dead. The Apostle Peter tells us that the inhabitants of the spiritual realms look on in wonder at God’s commitment to the human race.
It is this theological truth, which we ought to call “human exceptionalism,” that grounds the political privileging of human dignity, human life, and human rights. Barack Obama, however, holds the ignominious distinction of being the only President of the United States to publicly support not only the widespread legal codification of the practice of abortion, but also the practices of so-called “partial-birth” abortion and infanticide for children who survive abortion procedures. History shows that great cultures that devalue human life, especially its own progeny, are destined for decline and failure. And just as Christians were successful in overcoming the practices of infanticide in the Roman Empire, they have been instrumental and incrementally successful in opposing these policies in the United States.
The most pressing theological stake with respect to issues of life is this: The reelection of Barack Obama will set the Pro-Life movement back an entire generation. Another 40 years in the wilderness. That is not hyperbole. The recent Department of Health and Human Services Mandate that all employers, including religious institutions, must provide sterilizations and abortifacients to their employees is a heavy-handed clue as to the kind of culture Mr. Obama envisions, as is the Left’s lionizing of such dubious “heroes” as Ms. Sandra Fluke, who apparently believes it a violation of her civil rights if her neighbor is not forced to pay for her birth control pills. If Mr. Obama did this while facing a tough reelection battle, imagine what he might seek to accomplish in a constraint-free second term.
But he will set the Pro-Life movement back in far more profound ways. Specifically, he will replace Justices Breyer and Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme court with their ideological clones 40 years younger, and with a mere happenstance—say, a heart attack for Clarence Thomas, a stroke for Antonin Scalia—he will have the opportunity to stack the Supreme Court with a pro-abortion majority for a generation. If you take some comfort that Republicans might have enough Senators to filibuster his nominees, you are fooling yourself. Mark my words: A second-term Barack Obama gets his Supreme Court nominees confirmed, Republican Senate majority or not. Republican Senators are, and have been in recent history, the leakiest possible vessels into which to pour your hopes.
With respect to marriage and sexuality, Mr. Obama has now gone public with his support for same-sex marriage, and his advocacy will continue. He has already refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts (illegally, I might add), and I expect much more of the same, only with a far more aggressive marginalizing and penalizing of religious dissenters. Religious freedom is nowhere under more sustained attack right now than in the shrinking freedom to speak and teach the Bible’s view of sexuality.
Barack Obama: Economics
God loves prosperity. Barack Obama decidedly does not. Or at least he does not like the mechanisms God created for material prosperity: namely, work and reward (i.e., economic incentives). His vision of an all-encompassing welfare state purposely divorces the God-established connection between work and reward. Those who create wealth see it confiscated in ever-increasing amounts (thus, depressing their incentives to work), and those who receive this largesse are denied the dignity of earning it (thus, also depressing their incentives to work). And so the very mechanism of wealth creation, work, is fundamentally undermined. The result of this kind of redistributionist economic “equality” is not greater social cohesion, but social fracturing, class warfare, or pitting rich versus poor. Since Mr. Bahnsen will no doubt thoroughly address the economic issues I will simply leave it at this: God created the mechanisms for wealth creation, and Barack Obama simply rejects the designs. This will lead, 100% of the time, to economic catastrophe.
Barack Obama: Justice
With respect to issues of justice, I could simply observe that Mr. Obama over his tenure has shown a shocking lack of interest in the rule of law, brushing aside his Constitutional obligations time and again in favor of raw executive power. I do not expect a second-term President Obama to improve in this regard. But there is more: Mr. Obama is committed to the identity politics of the Progressive left, which is above all committed to complete cultural egalitarianism. He sees the role of government as picking cultural winners and losers (like, say, the LGBT movement), redressing the perceived marginalization of this or that interest group, and punishing others for their success (e.g., “You didn’t built that.”). This view of justice is diametrically opposed to the kind of justice God loves: the complete and utter impartiality of the law. Look for more favoritism, more “affirmative action,” more quotas, more identity politics in a second term from Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama’s tenure has hardly been better when it comes to the justice issues of foreign policy. I think a fair review of his record could be sloganized thus: “Alienating Our Friends and Encouraging Our Enemies Since 2008.” I will not say that this administration has actively colluded with various bad actors in the world; I will say it has completely abdicated the traditional U.S. leadership role of promoting freedom, democracy, and human rights (i.e., things God loves!) in the world. “Leading from behind,” is the phrase, and it begs the question: behind whom? Behind autocrats like Vladimir Putin and others, who routinely—and sickeningly easily—frustrate our every effort when it comes to reining in a potentially nuclear Iran. That is the foremost foreign policy question facing the world today, and Mr. Obama’s administration has demonstrated a frightening lack of sobriety on the question. The spectacle of the Vice President, for example, publicly claiming that a nuclear Iran is not a problem because “they don’t have a missile to put it on” is alone juvenile enough to disqualify them from another term in office.
Moreover, Mr. Obama’s administration has obviously lost moral clarity (if it ever had any) when it comes to radical Islam. The signal was sent early on when “War on Terror” was replaced with “Overseas Contingency Operations,” and that mentality has led to the obscene spectacle of blaming the obvious premeditated murder of an American Ambassador and three others on an obscure Internet video.
God loves people, prosperity, and justice, and I have given just a glimpse of its political implications. As defined by Scripture and Christian theology, President Obama has shown a profound aversion to each of them. The stakes are clear if he wins reelection: Less respect for the individual dignity and value of human life, less respect for the institution of marriage, less respect for private property and wealth creation, and less respect for the impartial rule of law.
Mitt Romney: People, Prosperity, & Justice
It is a happy coincidence that when it comes to public policy issues, the worldview of Mitt Romney contains substantial overlap with that of orthodox Christian teaching. This is partly due to the fact that Mormonism is a uniquely American folk-religion of the 19th century. The American values promoted by Joseph Smith were therefore 19th century American values, a time when human life, prosperity, and justice were far more informed by the Christian worldview than they are today.
Mitt Romney is therefore pro-life, pro-marriage (thankfully the 20th rather than 19th century Mormon version), pro-economic freedom, against partiality before the law and various race and class quotas, and he seems to believe in that old-fashioned distinction between good and evil. They do not seem for him to be relative terms.
But his election to the office of President presents its own set of theological problems, and I think it wise that we face them squarely. I have in mind this: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has wanted nothing more than to be culturally included as a respected and legitimate branch of orthodox Christendom, and having one of their own as the President of the United States will go a very long way to achieving this aim. This will present a theological and cultural challenge for orthodox Christianity, especially since we might, frankly, agree with a President Romney on many things.
As a Christian theologian I believe we must resist the mainstreaming of Mormonism. In other words, I believe we must join in common cause with Romney on many political issues, but the ground of our agreement needs to be kept crystal clear. There is, as I said, substantial overlap between the cultural views of Mormonism and orthodox Christianity. The word “overlap” suggests that we must not conflate the two. The theological ground for Mormonism’s views of people, prosperity, and justice is, frankly, the imagination of a 19th century religious fanatic who happened to land on some truthful things. The ground for orthodox Christianity’s views of people, prosperity, and justice is the Word of the Living, Triune God, revealed to us infallibly in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
I believe we need to resist the inexorable slide into “conventional wisdom.” Let me give an example. We can see already even in the conservative political movement a certain conventional wisdom that homosexuality is a perfectly legitimate lifestyle choice. Oh, yes, the National Review set might agree with us on the issue of the definition of marriage, but it is fast becoming conventional wisdom that opposing homosexual conduct itself is bigoted and beyond the pale. I foresee something similar with respect to Mormonism. With the election of Mitt Romney, Mormonism will be well on its way to becoming legitimate and sacrosanct, insulated from critique. It will soon be considered bigoted and out-of-bounds in polite society to oppose Mormonism as antithetical to orthodox Christianity. I do not know of an easy solution to this coming problem. But I do know we need to be able, as an aphorism has it, to walk and chew gum at the same time, maintaining our substantial overlapping agreement on many issues while simultaneously making clear our foundational theological divergences. If we fail to do this we will be damaging the true Church of Jesus Christ, inviting cultural confusion, and ultimately harming the message of the gospel. This will be the foremost theological consequence of a Romney presidency, and we must be prepared for it.
The theological stakes are high in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. Political Progressivism is, I firmly believe, antithetical to a Christian theology of people, prosperity, and justice. And in a mere ten days’ time we will know whether we are in the middle of the fourth great progressive “moment” in American history or at its end. I pray it will be its end, for its triumph on November 6th may well mark the end of the Western experiment. We will be a society formerly grounded in Christian theological principles regarding life, property, and the rule of law.