Beliefs Culture Election Ethics Faith Government & Politics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Law & Court Leaders & Institutions Legislation Opinion Politics Social Issues

Theologian Miroslav Volf makes a surprising case for one candidate

Miroslav Volf is Henry B. Wright professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and co-author of "Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely and Vote with Integrity." Photo courtesy of Miroslav Volf

(RNS) As Christians watch 2016 burn, we must remember that fire both consumes and refines. That is, it forces us to return to what makes us who we are. For Christians, this means asking once again how faith and theology should inform our political thinking and engagement. Few thinkers are better qualified to explore this territory than Miroslav Volf.

He is Henry B. Wright professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and co-author of “Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely and Vote with Integrity.” And as a Croatian, Volf is arguably less influenced by partisan conditioning than many American Christians. Here we discuss how he believes Christians should engage the public square, and Volf makes his best case for the candidate he believes is more “Christian.”

What do you mean when you say the Christian faith is a “public faith?”

The Christian faith is one single faith that we encounter in myriad of forms. By “public faith” we don’t mean some special kind of faith, but we refer to the public dimension of that one faith. It is faith as it concerns common goods. There are circles of these common goods: from the roads and water pipes that run by our houses, through elementary schools all the way to a nation’s monetary policy and international relations. Since Christians believe in the God who created and is redeeming all things, Christian faith is concerned with all these common goods. We should not forget that there is no clear demarcating line between common goods and personal good, between public faith and private faith. My desires are intimate things, but they, too, concern the common good and are of public import.

In a given election, is there ever a “Christian” candidate?

With just a bit of facetiousness, we could say that Jesus Christ is the only Christian candidate. Short of him, just as, strictly speaking, there are no Christian nations, so there are also no Christian candidates for the public office. Candidates can be more or less aligned with the commitments, convictions and character that we see displayed in Christ, in the New Testament as interpreted in the context of the entire Scripture and taking into account the changed economic, political and cultural conditions under which we all live.

Who, in your opinion, is a more “Christian” candidate in this presidential election?

It seems clear to me that Hillary Clinton is not only the more competent of the two major-party presidential candidates running for office now, but that the kind of vision she stands for is more in line with the Christian faith than is Donald Trump’s. It is important to keep in mind the whole range of convictions and virtues when making an assessment, rather than zeroing in on just one or two. In “Public Faith in Action,” we discuss some 25 of them, ranging from positions on wealth and education, through positions on abortion and euthanasia, to positions on war, policing and religious freedom.

I want to get to these issues. But first, make your best case for the candidate you think Christians should vote for.

The best case to be made for Hillary Clinton is that on balance she better represents the convictions and character that should concern Christian citizens. No candidate is perfect. There are certainly areas where Secretary Clinton’s policies and record might give Christians pause. But she takes the threat posed by climate change seriously. Her policies, such as paid family leave, would actually strengthen American families. She is committed to a just and welcoming approach to immigration that does not unduly compromise the legitimate good of security. She supports major reforms to America’s overly retributive and racially biased criminal justice system. And, perhaps most importantly, she has demonstrated much deeper commitment to supporting the disadvantaged and the vulnerable than her opponent has, his grandiose rhetoric notwithstanding.

Image courtesy of Brazos Press

Image courtesy of Brazos Press

The second best case for voting for Secretary Clinton is Donald Trump. Mr. Trump is an exceedingly poor candidate whose public life has not demonstrated a single one of the moral virtues that are important for a political leader to have. Braggadocio is not the same thing as courage. His policy proposals, such as they are, range from half-baked to obviously incompatible with deep Christian convictions, such as the importance of welcoming the needy stranger, care for the nonhuman creation and pursuing peace.

What about the traditionally conservative issue of abortion? How should Christians think about this?

Human life should be inviolable. That follows from the fact that human beings were created in the image of God and that God is attached to them in love. No matter who we are — how underdeveloped, incapacitated and unproductive or how brilliant, diligent and productive – we all have equal dignity before God and equal worth. That holds true for the new one in the mother’s womb, for the dying and for everyone in between. The debates about the point that life in a mother’s womb becomes human life should not obscure that basic conviction.

And the traditionally liberal issue of inequality of wealth? How should Christians think about that?

It is clear from the New Testament that Christians should be interested in the flourishing of every human being. The kinds of inequality that allow billions to starve, work day and night without time to rest, and die young of easily treatable diseases is a scandal from a Christian perspective. Some 30 years ago, evangelical John Stott was advocating that the ratio in disparity of income between the best- and worst-paid employee should be 7-to-1. In many corporations it is now 500-to-1. At the last judgment, many of us in wealthy nations will end up on the side of the goats.

In what sense must all Christians be pacifists?

You ask the question well, not “Why must all Christians be pacifists?” but “In what sense must they be pacifists?” Christ commands us to love our enemies as Christ loves them. Every deployment of power in war (and in policing, of course) must pass the following simple test: Is it a case of love of enemy? If it is, it is licit; if it is not, it isn’t. So I am the love-your-enemy kind of pacifist. All Christians should be. It is a scandal that many Christians have become hate-your-enemy kind of hawks, whether that enemy are “godless Marxists” as after World War II or “devout Muslims” as over the past two decades.

How should Christians think about the Black Lives Matter movement? Should they support it or not?

I said earlier that God loves all human beings but that the poor are God’s first love. Apply it to the issue of race in this country – and in the world – and you will end up saying that, of course, “all lives matter” but that “black lives matter in a particularly urgent way!” Racism is rampant and has been growing over the last decade. Racism is an affront against the scope of God’s love. As a movement, Black Lives Matter is diverse, and Christians will need to make discerning judgments about which initiatives and stances to support and which not. But there is no question that the enacted systemic racism against which Black Lives Matter is a rebellion is something that all Christians should resist.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

ADVERTISEMENTs