Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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What Are We Voting For?
Being anti-peace, anti-choice, and anti-gay is a rather sad litmus test for making a decision about who the next president of the United States ought to be. Yet that seems to be what Billy Graham thinks is the appropriate set of criteria. In full page newspaper ads this past Sunday, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association presented this not so subtle endorsement of Mitt Romney. No doubt orchestrated by his son, Franklin Graham, the ad says the following over a picture of the elder Mr. Graham:
The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren, and this great nation is crucial. As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God.
Given Dr. Graham’s private meeting with Mr. Romney some weeks ago, his widely reported endorsement of the candidate, and the transparent selection of issues named, this ad by the BGEA is about as clear a violation of a religious organization’s legal obligations as one could find.
Billy Graham once claimed to have learned his lesson about the dangers of becoming court prophet to any president, in his case Richard Nixon. But apparently that lesson has been forgotten, or perhaps more likely, is being ignored by his son. Four years ago I sat in a meeting of religious leaders convened by then candidate Barack Obama. Franklin Graham essentially accused then Senator Obama of being a closet Muslim. The Grahams would probably affirm the church sign erected recently in Texas that reads, “Vote for a Mormon, not a Muslim, a Capitalist, not a Communist!”
Support for Israel’s right to exist within secure, internationally recognized borders alongside an economically viable Palestinian state is something many Christians have supported for decades. But the Grahams’ notion of supporting Israel means unqualified support for Israeli policies, unaccountable military aid, and de facto annexation of the Occupied Territories in violation of international law. Many Jews, Muslims and Christians, both Israeli and American believe this is not only morally suspect, but also disastrous for any future negotiated peace agreement. Either a third Intifada, an apartheid single state, or a demographic disaster for Israeli Jews seems likely in the current trajectory, any one of which further exacerbates tensions across the Middle East. Yes, the Grahams’ manifesto is anti-peace.
For many, the ad is also anti-biblical as it is anti-gay and anti-choice, For Christians who have found in a deep and broad reading of Scripture warrant for a far more complex ethical calculation around women’s decisions over agonizing reproductive choices, as well as a warrant for understanding marriage in new and liberating ways, supporting reproductive choice and marriage equality is not incompatible with “Biblical values.” The Bible also has some pretty clear words about creation and welcoming the alien, but the Grahams seem disinterested in issues of climate change or immigration. Further, many Christians would want to point out that biblical values are significantly oriented toward concern for the poor, something the Grahams’ advertisement also chose to ignore.
American religious leaders have involved themselves in electoral politics since the 17th century Election Day sermons in New England. At their best, clergy have lifted up a comprehensive vision of the role of government and the quest for the common good based on the ethical values of their communities and the core texts of their traditions. Against this backdrop, members are encouraged to make free, informed, personal choices. At their worst, clergy have become shills for one party or the other, something a few of my progressive church leader colleagues came close to doing four years ago. Along with being illegal, such behavior cheapens the faith, narrowing rich ethical reflection and social teaching to a few hot button issues. It further alienates the faithful who yearn for a teacher in their pulpits, not a campaign manager. And it almost inevitably disappoints, for court prophets discover that politicians will buy their favor for the cheapest possible price. They learn that in order to sit in the halls of power they have sold their calling for a pittance, becoming neither pastor nor prophet to power, but simply partisan prop.
There are real choices for Americans to make next week. As their pastors, let’s help them make those choices with care rather than trying to sell them to the highest political bidder.
John H. Thomas
November 1, 2012