Politics is Like Trying to Cure Cancer with Ointment

The last 24 hours have probably been some of the most historic 24 hours of politics in a long time. Barack Obama officially accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party with a stirring speech last night in Denver, making him the first African American presidential nominee in U.S. history. And today John McCain announced that Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin would be his running mate, making Palin only the second female vice presidential nominee from a major party in history. No matter who wins in November, history will be made.

I find myself caught up in the excitement—and rightly so; it is historic and ground-breaking and that has personal implications for me—but I’ve been reminded by several people that politics is not everything. As one friend said, “I freaking hate politics. It’s all trying to cure cancer with ointment.”

Even as politics enters uncharted, historic territory and is worth being excited about, I think it’s worth remembering that there are more important things.

The politicians continually question each other’s patriotism, each claiming that they will put their country first. Which sounds kind of dumb to me—who running for national political office wouldn’t put their country first? But it’s also curious that people who call themselves Christians say they put their country first, when presumably a Christian should be putting God first (perhaps said politicians would fess up to God being first, but it’s not what they say, and it’s not what the pundits ask).

I point to this as one minor example of the incredible infighting that happens over politics. It seems if we don’t agree, the only remaining option is to vilify each other into oblivion. It happens on both sides and it’s a mainstay of the commentator, punditry and political blogging world. That’s part of why I like watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and part of why I spent so much time poking fun at the vice presidential selection process. Politics deserves to be made fun of quite often.

But I think it comes down to a more serious issue: as Christians we don’t believe politics will enact the change the world needs. Now please hear me—I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics. We should be, as we should be involved in every other world arena so we can be salt and light where it’s needed. And Christians should most definitely vote.

As much good as political change can do, you’re not going to save anyone’s soul by passing legislation or casting a vote. In fact, the politicalization of American Christianity has done more harm than good. The book UnChristian notes five negative perceptions young people have about Christians. One of them is that we’re overly political.

And what have we achieved by being overly political? The religious right thinks that voting Republican will stop abortion. But the only time abortion rates have declined in the last 20 years is under a Democratic president. Now that’s admittedly a sink hole of debates and arguments (by the way, I appreciate how Steve Knight summarizes his position on abortion, which fits nicely here), but it makes a clear point. Not only did having Christians in political power not reduce the number of abortions, but I don’t see how you could argue that it’s brought more people to Jesus (which would be the more important metric). In fact, every president this country has ever had claimed to be a Christian. Did that bring more people to Jesus? (I’d argue that the freedom to practice our faith, not the faith of our leaders, is what has brought people to Jesus in this country.)

I’d go so far as to challenge the entire claim that this is or should be a Christian nation. All of our Christian presidents haven’t brought more people to Jesus (and why should they, that’s not their job), and an attempt to legislate Christianity upon the rest of the country hasn’t worked either. I’m convinced that legislating morality is a fool’s game. Not only does it not work (um, prohibition?), but what does it accomplish? If it worked, it might make fine, up-standing moral citizens: Good people. But Christianity isn’t about being good. It’s about grace. Besides, you can’t legislate Jesus into people’s hearts.

Trying to legislate morality, trying to make the United States a Christian nation, has only resulted in a nation of people who think living a good life is all it takes to get into heaven. That’s so completely the opposite of the message that Jesus Christ preached. For far too long Christians have blurred God and country, as if they were one and the same. Not only does it confuse our fellow believers around the world (like when our bombs fall on Christian believers in Iraq), but it pairs our faith with the rising and falling tides of a mere nation (I think the Bible calls that being ‘unequally yoked’). But much more importantly, it belittles our faith. “In God We Trust” is lip service at best, blasphemy at worst. By blurring God and country we lower our faith to the level of nationalism. Our faith is so much larger than the United States of America and so much more than national pride.

I want to see a church and Christians (myself included) that care less about politics and more about people:

  • I want to see a church that stops abortion not through political action, but through loving kindness that gives women with unwanted pregnancies another choice (talk about redefining pro-choice!).
  • I want to see a church that stops telling the world how to live, and starts telling the world how to die.
  • I want to see a church that stops treating homosexuals like a lower caste, and starts embracing them as human beings with full civil rights.
  • I want to see a church that worries less about sex education in schools, and worries more about fidelity in the pulpit and purity from the priest.
  • I want to see a church that stops praying for God to bless America, and starts praying for God to bless humanity.
  • I want to see a church that stops pledging allegiance to the flag, and starts pledging allegiance to God.
  • I want to see a church that stops telling the world how to live, and starts showing the world how to live.

I love the United States and the freedom I have to practice my faith. That’s an amazing privilege I do not take lightly. But the church needs to realize that freedom only comes when everybody has it. We can’t expect the rest of the nation to follow our moral rules unless we’d be happy following the moral rules of another religion. And given the freak out when Muslims try to live out their beliefs, I’m not sure Christians can handle that. It’s time Christians realized that the United States is a pluralistic society where we have to learn to get along with people we disagree with, people we think are unrepentant sinners. It’s time Christians disentangled their faith from their love of country. I can love my country and I can love my God, but mixing the two is not the message Jesus preached.

Politics is not only ineffective as a way to bring about spiritual change, it’s just not the way God does it. The Jews in Jesus’ day were looking for a political ruler, someone to come in and unseat the oppressive thumb of Rome. And at every opportunity Jesus said no. For his triumphant march into Jerusalem, his military parade, Jesus rode a donkey and the people waved palm branches. Activist Shane Claiborne compared that to the kind of political theater protesters put on this week in Denver and will do again next week in St. Paul (Jesus for President).

Go ahead and be excited about politics. Celebrate the first African American president or first female vice president. Go ahead and pursue Christian values in politics. Let your faith guide your vote, and encourage politicians to enact policies that protect life, pursue peace, seek justice, care for the poor and comfort the sick—but know in the back of your mind and the bottom of your heart that these efforts are like trying to cure cancer with ointment. They might help, but there’s a much deeper problem at the root, and the problem is only addressed by Jesus. And he’s a solution you can’t enact with policies or votes or legislation. He’s a solution you need to enact by living out your faith, by loving your neighbor, and when someone asks you the reason for the hope you have, being ready to give an answer. And that answer isn’t Barack Obama and it isn’t John McCain.

[Whew. Feels good to get that off my chest. If this reads like an impassioned rant, that’s because it mostly is. And like any impassioned rant, I may have said some things that are too easily misconstrued. If that’s the case I hope you’ll cut me some slack in a very unpolitical manner.]

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