For the last couple decades, conservative political candidates have made overt appeals to Christian voters, pushing the political agenda of the Religious Right. They talked as if they represented all of Christianity. Most moderate and progressive political candidates did not make such appeals, frequently citing their opinion that religious beliefs are a personal matter, that we live in a pluralistic society, and must keep our religious views separate from our politics. As a result, many people began to accept the idea that the Religious Right represented the message of Christianity.
 Voters responded as one might expect. Most Religious Right voters had an unquestioning commitment to those candidates and their issues.
 Conservative Christians who are not doctrinaire members of the Religious Right, and there are many of them, never developed a blind loyalty to those politicians. However, all other things being equal, these voters would generally support Religious Right political candidates because those candidates talk openly about their faith.
 More moderate or progressive Christians, including many who see connections between their own faith and political views, didn't think they should talk about those links because the only political talk about religious faith came from the religious right. Not since the civil rights movement had there been open discussion among moderate or progressive politicians of the positive role of religious faith in political struggles for justice.
 Only in the last three or four years have significant numbers of moderate and progressive politicians gone back to their roots and started talking about their faith. Some of them are now doing so because they recognize their silence was interpreted as a lack of religious faith and values. They saw that the Christian faith was being used to justify policies that they considered diametrically opposed to the message of the Gospel. They ended what was basically their self-censorship on the matter. Other moderate and progressive candidates simply came to the same conclusion as many conservative politicians -- it is smart politics to talk about their faith.
 In just four years, Democratic presidential candidates have gone from Howard Dean, who flatly declared, "My religion doesn't inform my public policy," and John Kerry, who stumbled repeatedly in trying to explain his faith, to Barack Obama, who seems to be the most articulate of the candidates on his faith and how it relates to his politics. In Obama's case, it is clear that he has put significant thought into the matter.
 Voters are now hearing talk of religious faith from a broad spectrum of political candidates. How should Christian voters evaluate all of this political rhetoric? Here are some ideas on the matter:
 Keep in mind that the religious identity of a candidate may have little to do with whether that candidate is the best choice for public office. If people vote based on how closely each candidate's religious identity matches their own, Mitt Romney, as a Mormon, would not be a viable candidate even to the religious right, though he now shares their views on most issues.
 Don't automatically assume that talk by a political candidate about personal faith or religious beliefs is sincere. You have seen their ads twisting and distorting the views of their opponents. There is no reason to believe they would be any more honest in their statements about their religious beliefs. In order to score political points some politicians will say anything about their faith that they think voters want to hear.
 Be aware that there can be a big gap between the professed values of a candidate and his personal life. Think of all the religious right politicians who preached "family values," only to be exposed for personal indiscretions that belie their political rhetoric. Remember Louisiana Senator David Vitter who built his entire career on being the Christian family values candidate? When his name popped up on a prostitute's client list, he admitted only to a "very serious sin in my past." He never mentioned resignation even though a few years earlier he was one of the lead politicians calling for President Clinton's resignation over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Vitter never once discussed the hypocrisy of his political appeals. Or think about Rep. Mark Foley who was a national champion against child sexual abuse who was later forced to resign in the Congressional page probe. These are politicians who campaigned on their personal faith and values.
 When one looks at connections between religious faith and American politics, a candidate's personal life should not be the primary focus. A public official's personal life may have a very limited impact on the public responsibilities he or she is elected to handle. Ironically, it is often the politicians with the most scandalous personal lives who talk about the importance of a virtuous personal life -- perhaps to leave the impression that they live such a life -- while the politicians who have nothing to hide usually urge voters to look for candidates who would best serve the public rather than seeking a candidate for sainthood.
 One place for voters to begin scrutinizing candidates would be to evaluate a candidate's integrity. The level of integrity can be measured through indicators such as how they conduct their campaigns. Candidates who run mean-spirited attacks on their opponents might be electable politicians, but they are not people of integrity.
 When candidates present their "Christian" agenda, it is fair game to measure their priorities against the scriptures they claim to be following. Abortion and other social issues are important, and deserve a more thoughtful discussion than the simplistic, bumper-sticker quality debate that has occurred in recent years. However, the Bible speaks out a hundred times against injustice to the poor for every reference to what the religious right calls a moral issue. The teaching of Christ and the prophets about economic justice couldn't be more clear. And those teachings are not calling for tax cuts for the wealthy, they are calling for food, shelter, and clothing for the poor.
 Observe how a politician treats those who are least popular. Christ spent time around tax collectors, prostitutes, and other easy-to-disparage people. Christ told us to "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you." Christ calls on us to show compassion to everyone, including some very unpopular people. Politicians instinctively want to do what is popular, and helping ostracized people isn't a big vote-getter. Politicians know they can win votes by vilifying people scorned by the broader public. But candidates who stir up fear, resentment, and hatred towards immigrants, minorities, or people of other nations and religions, are not living out the teachings of Christ. Welcoming those who are unwelcome in society may well be the best measure of a candidate's faith.
 Recognize that a candidate who says she holds "the Christian position" on an issue is using religion to sell her own platform. The beliefs any candidate holds should be attributed to that candidate, not to God. In the 1960s, Jerry Falwell preached in favor of racial segregation; it was God's will. A couple decades later, Falwell had reversed course and opposed racial segregation. Did he think God's mind changed during that twenty year period? Like Rev. Falwell, political candidates are qualified to speak for themselves, not for God.
Remember that candidates' actions in office do not always reflect the religious values they claim to hold. Some politicians who claim to be compassionate have cut funds for people with serious disabilities or reduced financial help for the parents of poor children, but they have no intention of finding an alternative way to meet the needs of these vulnerable people. Talk about compassion for the poor and down-trodden may well be nothing more than talk.
 Our faith shapes our values, our concerns, and our priorities. However, our scriptures do not spell out the stances we are to take on specific policy issues. The Bible doesn't tell us whether we should help hungry children with food stamps, a higher minimum wage for their parents, with food pantries, or something else. It does tell us that we are to make sure children have adequate food and shelter. We can try any number of approaches to addressing needs of hungry children, but if our approach doesn't adequately address the problem, we aren't "off the hook." We are responsible for doing more.
 If we take seriously Christ's call to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, to attend to those who are sick or in prison, then we should seek politicians who will promote these values. Differences in political ideology do not excuse a politician from addressing those needs. If there are homeless people, and the private sector and non-profits have not resolved the problem, it is time for public officials to step in and engage government and the business community and non-profits to tackle the situation.
 If politicians have a deep religious faith, it will fundamentally shape every aspect of their lives. It makes a profound difference in who they are and what they stand for, so it is valuable to include a discussion of faith and values in politics, especially when those candidates are up for election. But keep in mind that not all talk about a politician's faith is sincere, and even sincere faith does not mean the candidate deserves support.
© November 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 7, Issue 11