Bible’s values take a beating in latest GOP debate (COMMENTARY)

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Governor Chris Christie speaks during the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada December 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GUSHEE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 16, 2015.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Governor Chris Christie speaks during the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada December 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GUSHEE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 16, 2015.

(RNS) In Tuesday night’s GOP presidential debate in Las Vegas, Chris Christie was given a chance to answer a recorded question from a young lady who wanted to know how biblical teaching about caring for orphans aligned with GOP talk about banning all Syrian refugees.

It was a fascinating test for the American political party that so often makes explicit references to Christian faith and values — especially in a debate in which much of the conversation centered on religion, in this case radicalized versions of Islam.

The question applied equally well to the subject of the entire debate: national security and counterterrorism strategy. Would Christian values in any form be considered in the development of such policies? Would it be appropriate for them to be considered by a president of the United States?

The answer appeared to be a flat “no.” Gov. Christie simply said that the first responsibility of the president is to protect Americans. Until security officials can develop a vetting process for refugees that is 100 percent foolproof in preventing even a single terrorist from slipping in under that cover, we cannot welcome them. And as if to demonstrate his biblical chops, he said that the Bible calls for looking after widows, too, but that we saw in San Bernardino that women can be terrorists. So national security trumps biblical demands for compassion to widows and orphans.


READ: 5 faith facts about Chris Christie: Cradle Catholic and member of the Church of Bruce


Sen. Rand Paul later took up the issue with a different, more libertarian answer. He said that compassion is perfectly appropriate in private and charitable affairs; e.g., giving money to church programs that help people. But the government is not a charitable organization. It is inappropriate to tax people in order to offer charity.

These answers point to an underlying theory about the role of government, the role of faith in public life and the integration of faith in the particular life of a Christian government official. To wit: The role of government is to secure the people from serious threat or harm. The role of faith in public life does not include shaping government policy. The moral demands of Christian faith, such as charity and compassion, do not apply to government officials in their public responsibilities, but only in their private lives.

This means that the Christian politician must be a religious and ethical dualist, a bifurcated soul. In public life, the Christian politician sets aside biblical teachings. In private life, however, she or he tries to practice them. They apply only to the inner, spiritual, charitable or religious dimension of life. They do not apply to what the government official does all day, which is to make and execute policy.

The GOP candidates could have cited the Bible and Christian tradition to support this view. It has been derived from Romans 13:1-7, which teaches that the power of the state to punish wrongdoers with the sword is God-given and must be respected. That text has often been used to justify state violence, and therefore the use of violence even by Christian state officials. Jesus’ demand for forgiveness and turning the other cheek has been rendered secondary, private, or as a mere ideal — and this would also hold true for the Bible’s many other demands that might cut against the responsibility of a government official.


READ: Five faith facts about Rand Paul: ‘My faith has never been easy for me’


There are at least three reasons why no Christian GOP candidate would have answered the faith question in a way that outlined the actual theory underlying the approach most of them were articulating.

First, they might not have known that’s the theory they were operating from.

Second, they would not have wanted to admit to themselves or their voters that their belief in Jesus does not extend to applying most of his teachings in public life.

Third, they would not have wanted to explain why their bracketing off of biblical teachings from a government’s public responsibility does not apply to other policy matters, such as abortion, marriage and family law.

Rev. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Photo courtesy of Mercer University

Dr. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Photo courtesy of Mercer University

My own view is that any airtight ethical dualism is ruled out by a robust belief in the sovereignty of God over all of life. For Christians it is also ruled out by our belief in Christ as Lord over every aspect of our lives. This means that a Christian government official who takes her faith seriously will constantly be struggling with the tensions between the demands of Jesus and the demands of office.

(Dr. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the author or editor of 20 books in his field, including “Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust,” “Kingdom Ethics,” “The Sacredness of Human Life” and “Evangelical Ethics.” He was recently elected vice president of the American Academy of Religion.)

  • GregJ

    I liked the thoughts. Christianity should not be reckless, nor should it be too safe. To me that is the individual tension the writer is talking about. That healthy tension is better represented in government by two parties than it is by one trying to be all things Christian. I don’t want what I believe mandated to me. I don’t want what I believe mandated to someone else. It won’t have its effect in either case. We are Americans. We are not too safe, we sailed the Atlantic and traveled west after we got here. We are not to reckless, we made it. Personally I don’t want to be so safe I’m worthless, but I’m not sure what that looks like. Somewhere between no one and anyone I guess.

  • Pingback: What a hypocrite: Liberal pro gay marriage Gushee calls out Republican politicians for setting aside biblical teachings | Laodicean Report()

  • Fran

    The Bible’s principles and guidelines should always take precedent in a Christian’s daily life. Unfortunately, the politics of man do not always agree with those principles and guidelines. It’s like mixing oil and vinegar. I will stick with Bible principles and avoid getting involved with man’s politics.

  • T J

    How does Christianity ever lose its effect?

  • Observer

    A party that mainly seeks to protect the wealth of the very rich should never be expected to carry out Christian principles.
    However, Christian principles can be carried fulfilled by building humane refugee camps that are safe with the sick attended to, the naked clothed, education provided and the hungry fed without allowing a mass migration of refugees into this country. Refugees could be prepared to return to their homelands once hostilities have ended.

    We do need to burden local government resources with added responsibility when it cannot or will not care for the poor and sick native born American population here now. We do not need to expose the population here to added security threats.

  • Larry

    When people use it as a political party. When it is used to excuse bad behavior towards others. When it is entangled with the apparatus of government.

    In those instances the credibility of Christianity as a religion becomes suspect. Adherence to it becomes more a measure of opportunism and hope to gain privilege over others, rather than an actual spiritual belief.

    “explicit references to Christian faith and values” used by conservative political candidates is nothing more than a means to an end. A way to appeal to reactionaries and sectarian bigotry with nothing to do with religious doctrines.

    One of the reasons immigration reform fails to gain traction among conservative christians despite overwhelming support by clergy is that when push comes to shove, bigotry is generally a more appealing use of religion than compassion by rank and file believers.

  • Larry

    “hungry fed without allowing a mass migration of refugees into this country. Refugees could be prepared to return to their homelands once hostilities have ended.”

    That is an utter pipedream, impossible to implement, but salves one’s conscience over indifference and hostility to refugees. Its like saying lets create humane concentration camps. At the end of the day, you have hordes of people who are stateless and dependent on international handouts.

    The US has a very good record of handling mass migrations of refugees that few other nations have. It is utterly callous and hypocritical to deny people the opportunities our own ancestors had.

    Our local governments are burdened with the inability to take care of our native born population because so many of those “Bible thumping” conservative politicians feel enriching the upper echelons of society are more important than properly funding and supporting a social safety net.

  • Bud

    It’s very frustrating that hardly anyone brings up this hypocrisy. They tout “Christianity” in almost everything they talk about, yet their actions are devoid of backing up said “faith”.

    I use quotation marks because they aren’t Christians, nor do they have faith other than in the almighty dollar. It pains me to see being religious automatically associating one with conservatism and the GOP, when, for decades now, they’ve been pretty much the opposite of the Bible’s teachings, preaching hate, fear, and intolerance.

    Love thy neighbor? Not if he’s gay, Muslim, or is affiliated with the Left.

    I may sound harsh, but the reality is harsh and IMO, these charlatans are doing serious damage to Christianity, and all religions in general. No wonder young people are turning away from religion in record numbers, making sense when you see their examples of it, day in and day out.

    My point is it seems those on the left are more akin to Jesus’ teachings, both in their speech…

  • alison

    Love your neighbor? Not if he’s a republican or conservative. You illustrated your point very well, Bud. And conservatives give more than liberals, so there’s that.

  • Bud

    Nowhere did I say I didn’t love them, I just abhor what they stand for and are trying to do to this country, pointing out how opposite of the Bible’s teachings they are.

  • Though I agree with the overall sentiments expressed in the artilcle above, I believe that way the argument was made in the article was self-defeating. First, we should note that taking care of the vulnerable is not just a charity issue, it is a justice issue. That means that instead of just focusing on the graciousness of the giver, we need to include in our examination the victims and what is owed to them by the rest of us.

    In addition, I’m afraid that the ‘ethical dualism’ argument could also be used by my fellow religiously conservative Christians as a justification for trying to prohibit practices like same-sex marriage in society. After all, we can rightfully say that our bibilcally based faith preaches against same-sex relations and marriages. So some ethical dualism must come into play if we are to support same-sex marriage in society–note that I wrote society, not the Church.

    Therefore conditions must be set for when dualism is appropriate and when it isn’t.