Politics, Theology, and Donuts

Anna Speckhard: If leaders want to claim God’s support for their policies, they need to do what Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast…not what he did.


If a person wants theological precision, he should probably steer clear of National Prayer Breakfasts. Politicians are rarely theologians, and when they attempt to hold forth on religious topics the results are often muddled. At this year’s prayer breakfast, President Obama actually made some welcome calls for restraint in political theologizing. But in that very speech he succumbed to the temptation to provide theological rationale for his policies. One justification was such a poor use of theology, however, that it served only to prove his overarching point that these exercises are usually a bad idea.

He did make some good points. Throughout the speech, Obama called for humility, particularly among Christians in politics. He quoted C. S. Lewis, saying that the Bible does not have a detailed political program, and Christians shouldn’t pretend it does. He told his audience, “Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us.”

Obama pointed out that this kind of humility is especially important in a pluralistic society. He went on to say that religion and faith do have roles to play in our political process, to motivate and inspire citizens to work for the betterment of society.

The trouble occurred when Obama gave specific examples of how his faith motivates his political work. One example involved tax cuts and Luke 12:48. He said, “If I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’”

This statement is problematic for three reasons. The first is that it is not clear what he is talking about. Is he volunteering to send the federal government an unsolicited check because of his personal religious beliefs? That would be very generous, but it seems doubtful. More likely, he is referring to a plan to reduce the tax breaks of rich people across the board, and explaining why the Christians among them can take heart that their loss coincides with Jesus’s teaching.

If this is the case, then the second problem is that he is calling his policy biblical, and thereby doing exactly what he is telling other people not to do elsewhere in the speech. The third is that it is not at all clear from the passage he quoted that Christians should be relieved that their tax breaks are being taken away.

Further investigation is required. Luke 12:48 says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (NIV). It is easy to see how tempting it is to take this idea and make it support a progressive tax structure. But in context, Jesus is commanding his disciples to be good and faithful stewards until Jesus returns, because they will be held accountable by God. He is not talking to people who aren’t his disciples, and he most definitely is not encouraging governments to forcibly apply this principle to everyone.

For Obama to appeal to this passage, he had to take words that Jesus said, rip them out of context, fill them with his own content, and apply them to his own situation. This is a terrible way to do theology. Based on this method of scriptural interpretation, I could derive an equally compelling tax policy from Luke 19:26, another teaching of Jesus: “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (NIV).

Obama is, of course, free to hold whatever religious beliefs he pleases and be motivated by them in whatever way he thinks best. But what Jesus said and did is a matter of the public record. A politician is not allowed, as a matter of basic academic integrity, to claim that Gandhi would support his new imperialization project, or that Margaret Thatcher would back his initiative to socialize large swathes of industry. Just as making claims about historical figures requires historical research, appealing to Scripture requires theological research.

Since this is the case, it would be better for Obama to promote his tax policy on the basis of its “economic sense” alone. If politicians are interested in how Christian theology might apply to their policies, they need to study in depth and present their ideas with the humility that Obama called for in this speech. Unless they are willing to make their theological statements thoughtful, it would probably be best if they spent the next National Prayer Breakfast focusing on prayer and breakfast.

Anna Speckhard is a graduate student at Westminster Theological Seminary – California.

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