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New York Times hosts large debate on the Christianity of presidential politics

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 1 2011 10:22 a.m. MDT

In this file photo taken September 22, 2011, Republican presidential candidates, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, left, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann, listen to Jon Huntsman speak during the Fox News/Google GOP Debate at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida.

Mark Wilson, Getty Images

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As the dialogue about religion becomes a larger part of national politics, and may continue to be for years to come, the New York Times declared it is fair to ask: "If politicians say their religion guides them, and influential ministers have a litmus test for candidates' 'biblical values' . . . which politicians espouse policies that align with Christianity?"

The Times posed that question to 11 respected and "knowledgeable outside contributors" to discuss the issue in its online "Room for Debate" feature. The responses covered a wide range of thought and insight.

Michael Novak, for example, noted that "one thing that cannot be said is that Christian thinking on politics is simple-minded, inexperienced or one-size-fits-all." The well-known theologian and author added that "it is useful to recognize that thoughtful and committed Christians make strong arguments on several sides of many absolutely central national debates — from abolition to abortion. The great Catholic moralist Blaise Pascal wrote once that the primary moral imperative is to think clearly. And it is useful to enter such debates, therefore, with a degree of modesty and humility. There is always some truth in errors of one's opponents, and some errors in our truths. That is why public argument is so important to all of us."

That position was supported by several of the commentors in the Times debate, including Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, who writes that "there is no 'checklist' for who Christians should vote for."

As voters, she said, "we look for candidates who embrace principles we cherish."

Similarly, Josef Sorett, an assistant professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University, writes that "there is no simple or singular formula for applying Christianity such that a clear candidate emerges." And Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, said that because "no candidate will ever embody perfectly a commitment to biblical principles . . . a well-informed conscience, aided by prudence, is required to discern the truth about the candidates and their claims."

Taking a slightly more cynical approach, M. A. Muqtedar Khan, an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, expressed his concern that "when a candidate wears his religion on his lapel, like the mandatory U.S. flag, he is not committing to principles, but is making a partisan pledge." He refers specifically to Mitt Romney, who he says "emphasizes his 'Christianity' in the hope that it will distract from his liberal tendencies . . . In religion and politics, the political context is more revealing than the religious text itself."

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, cited a number of survey findings on the subject of religion and politics. "It is important to recognize," he said, "that strong correlation between religiosity and political preference is often not a direct one, but rather reflects the linkage between religion and other factors, like ideology and ethnicity."

Several of the commentors noted important issues that they felt needed to be addressed by candidates in order to secure Christian votes. For Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners, a magazine that identifies itself as "progressive Christian commentary on faith, politics and culture," that issue was "America's growing economic disparity." For Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the key issues are America's military might, commitment to Israel's safety and defense and commitment to defending human rights and religious freedom around the world. Colleen Carroll Campbell, a newspaper columnist and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, cited abortion, embryonic cell research, legally assisted suicide, support for the Defense of Marriage Act and freedom of religious conscience as her key Christian issues. And for Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, it's all about immigration reform.

Adam Brown, an assistant professor of political science at BYU, urged Christian voters to follow the example of Jesus Christ in political matters.

"When the Savior was asked to take a stance on a controversial taxation policy, he responded by pointing out Caesar's face on the coins: 'Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's,'" Brown wrote. "The Savior was wise enough not to classify Caesar's economic policy as Christian or not. We would be wise to follow his example today."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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