Some pundits call it "playing the Jesus card." Others deride it by asking "What would candidate Jesus do?"
Despite the criticism, however, Campaign 2000 has featured surprisingly open confessions of the candidates'"personal" relationships with Jesus Christ. And for some,
this openness has served as a politically useful alternative to taking strong stands on traditional conservative issues.
At first glance, this new spirituality seems like a heartening development. It's in part a reflection of the reality that true religion encompasses all of life - regardless of personal and political boundaries. To the extent that this is true, it's a refreshing change from earlier days when candidates of faith were viewed
suspiciously as closet despots eager to foist their beliefs on an unwilling public.
But in politics, there is always another way to spin the story. And the alternative theory is the one that
raises serious questions about the new ubiquity of Jesus references.
A campaign anecdote illustrates this other view. During the last few days of the recent presidential contest in Iowa, Republican candidates Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer turned up the heat on frontrunner George W. Bush. They demanded that the
Governor confirm his conservative credentials by taking pledges on issues from gays in the military to a pro-life litmus test for judicial nominees. But Bush declined to sign any pledges. Instead, he depended on his public affirmation of faith in Christ to carry him through the caucus season, which is heavily influenced by Christian conservatives.
Apparently, the strategy worked. Bush garnered 41% of the vote in a five-person race (Senator John McCain chose not to campaign in Iowa). By "playing the Jesus card," Bush was able to confirm his Christian conservative bona fides, even as he avoided taking
explicit stands on the traditional issues associated with the religious right - stands that, coincidentally, could have hurt him politically in the
general election a few months down the road.
It's difficult to determine whether Governor Bush's belief in Christ is genuine. But real questions do arise when this belief is used as a campaign tactic to avoid specific stands on tough issues.
It's conceivable that the Governor didn't consciously take this route. Those who say they know him best confirm that he is open about his faith regardless of whether he is on the campaign trail. And evangelicals would even add that the Governor's testimony is causing others to consider the claims of Christ in their own lives, making Bush a kind of evangelist cum politician. But in politics, perception is often more important than reality. And the perception that Christ's name is being used tactically smears true Christianity.
A further question, and one that is probably the most important to Christians in general, is that of whether Jesus would have even involved himself in the political scene to begin with. Christ's message certainly had
political implications. But his fundamental themes dealt with individuals' responsibilities to those
around them on a personal level. His parables resound with themes of humility, forgiveness, meekness and
obligations to the poor and less fortunate - most of which are antagonistic, if not antithetical, to the goals and rules of the modern political campaign.
Consider, for example, Christ's response to the question of taxes:
"Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and give unto God the things that are God's." A more artful dodge of the issue can hardly be imagined. But
this statement is enlightening for what it reveals about Christ's view of politics. One could rephrase his quote in modern terms: "Politics will take care of itself. It's more important to spend your time worrying whether you are fulfilling God's call
on your life."
This is a lesson that each of the presidential candidates should heed. For Christ made clear that his
concern was never an earthly office or station - regardless of what the voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and across the country might think.