Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Democracy without decency - looking back at the race for the White House

This article first appeared in the November issue of the Presbyterian Herald. You can purchase the PDF edition for £1 to read other articles that remember the Somme, ask whether there's a place for nationalism in our churches and reflect on a congregation that has deliberately embraced change as well as peruse the Letters page!

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The election campaign has been a bruising affair for the candidates after 18 months of canvassing. It has also called into question the morals and behaviour of the candidates. The conduct of some of their supporters has been dubious too.

Politics and religion are intertwined throughout history and across the world. People who take their faith seriously – Christian or otherwise – will seek to live out their beliefs and make the world a better place by applying their convictions through the political structures that govern most societies.

While only a handful of readers of the Presbyterian Herald will have had a vote in the US election, there’s a general fascination with the race and its result. And perhaps by focussing on the external we can learn lessons that can be applied to elections and political machinations on this island.

Both leading candidates claim a Christian background. When we think about the US, the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ often comes to mind though it does not appear in that form in their constitution. Instead Thomas Jefferson – founding father and later President – explained in 1802 that the First Amendment meant Congress should “‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State”. So there is no state-established church in the US. But it does not preclude a religious dimension to the political realm.

As a child Trump was baptised in First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a congregation in the New York borough of Queens. He describes himself as Presbyterian. Jerry Falwell Jr is the son of the late televangelist. In January he explained his decision to endorse Donald Trump, saying, “When you go into the voting booth, you’re not electing a Sunday school teacher. You’re not electing somebody that agrees with you … Jesus said render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. And that means be a good citizen and choose who would be the best leader for the country.”

It wouldn’t be terribly Presbyterian for a congregation to consistently withhold their United Appeal contribution for 18 years. Giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s cuts two ways and one wonders what Falwell now feels in light of Trump’s long term avoidance of federal income tax.

Preacher and author Max Lucado seeks the decency which society appreciates, applauds, teaches and seeks to develop. In the Washington Post he asked, “why isn’t decency doing better in the presidential race?” and called on the presidential candidates to ensure that their words live up to the role of being “the face of America”. After all, Luke 6:45 reminds us that “the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart”.

So what kind of (world) leaders should we desire? No one is without sin. And clay feet are a common feature of Biblical heroes.

King David was a murderer and an adulterer. Although he repented, his sin still ripped his family and his nation apart. It’s popular to compare ‘The Donald’ with King David as a way of justifying his moral turpitude. Ultimately the account of David’s life and legacy in the Bible teaches us more about God’s faithfulness than David’s fitness to govern.

Trump admits having had extra-marital affairs and has recently revised his position on forgiveness from “I am not sure I have [anything to forgive]” (July 2015) to “will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness” (June 2016). At the time of writing, he has “pledged to be a better man” after lewdly boasting of his power to abuse women. By now we will know whether the electorate accepted his promise.

Nehemiah certainly set a precedent for building walls, though he was seeking to protect a minority who remained in Jerusalem and were under attack. And it only took 52 days, by hand. Trump’s ‘great wall’ along the country’s southern border will require around 1,000 miles of concrete at an estimated cost to Mexico of $10-25 billion.

Trump has described Mexican immigrants as “rapists” who “are bringing drugs” to the US. Having previously told Fox News that the US should accept Syrian refugees due to the “unbelievable humanitarian problem” in Syria, he told a rally in New Hampshire that “If I win, they’re going back”, adding, “ listen, they could be ISIS”. What does Trump understand by ‘loving your neighbour’ and ‘loving your enemy’?

The prophet Nathan boldly pointed his finger at King David. Perhaps that was in the back of Gradye Parsons’ mind last October when – as the then stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – he took the unusual step of writing an open letter that challenged the Republican candidate’s statements about refugees and immigrants and shared PC(USA)’s well-established policies.

“Presbyterians profess a faith in Christ, whose parents were forced to flee with him to Egypt when he was an infant to save him from King Herod. Knowing our Lord was once a refugee, faithful Presbyterians have been writing church policy urging the welcome of refugees and demanding higher annual admissions into the United States since the refugee crisis of World War II … Our relationship with people of faith and communities in these countries gives us knowledge of the root causes of the flight of refugees and further cements a commitment to welcome …

“We have challenged our government when it neglects to acknowledge the refugee status of those fleeing persecution … I also respect that we came uninvited to a land already occupied by people. This creates a sense of humility about my citizenship that shapes my views on those who seek a place here.”

Parsons stopped well short of Pope Francis’ comment in February while flying home from a visit to Mexico that: “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian”. While “[giving Trump] the benefit of the doubt” the pontiff added, “this man is not Christian if he said it this way”.

While Hillary Clinton quoted John Wesley’s maxim, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can” during her Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, she has spoken little about her faith during this campaign. Back in January in a town hall meeting in Knoxville, Iowa, she opened up about her beliefs in an answer to a question from the floor.

“I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist. I have been raised Methodist. I feel very grateful for the instructions and support I received starting in my family but through my church, and I think that any of us who are Christian have a constant conversation in our own heads about what we are called to do and how we are asked to do it."

She went on to state that, “the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbour as yourself” and observed that the Sermon on the Mount “sure does seem to favour the poor and the merciful and those who in worldly terms don’t have a lot but who have the spirit that God recognizes as being at the core of love and salvation.”

“There is so much more in the Bible about taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up, to find faith themselves that I think there are many different ways of exercising your faith.”

Clinton has been dogged by the private email server scandal, distrust of an emerging oligarchy, and distractions around the mission and activity of the charitable Clinton Foundation. And that’s on top of the well-publicised and unforgotten misdemeanours and scandals that surrounded her husband Bill, and her own actions to defend him, before and during his period as US President.

Confidence in the currency of ‘Clinton truth’ is definitely low. And not helped by secrecy around the candidate’s health scare in the run-up to the first presidential debate.

Clinton finished her answer to the question in Iowa by expressing her sorrow and disappointment that “Christianity, which has such great love at its core, is sometimes used to condemn so quickly and judge so harshly”.

The good news of the gospel, especially for the poor and vulnerable, should surely prevail over ideological politics.

Virtue should allow one leader of a superpower to look a peer in the eye and powerfully challenge their attitudes and behaviour.

Truth should overpower falsehood.

“When good people run things, everyone is glad; but when the ruler is bad, everyone groans” (Proverbs 29:2, The Message)

Yet perhaps before we are guilty of looking at the speck of sawdust in candidates’ eyes we should pay attention to the plank in our own eyes? Back to David and Psalm 51. King David when confronted with his sin didn’t squirm or brazenly deny. In humble leadership of the Shepherd King he confessed and begged forgiveness and a fresh start.

For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgement … Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. (Psalm 51:3-4,10-13)

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