Faith-based Candidates

NO SHORTAGE IN OHIO

A recent article in an Ohio newspaper asked provocatively: Has the holy war begun? The answer to that question is yes. The battle, though, will not take place in Jerusalem, or on the West Bank. Nor will it take place in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iran. This time, the battle-ground will be in the American Midwest. Who knew?

In what promises to be one of the most-watched gubernatorial races this year, two formidable politicians will square off-and faith will matter. The Ohio race for governor will pit the fiery evangelical conservative and current Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, AKA the Preacher, against Ted Strickland, AKA the Pastor. Strickland is a moderate Democrat who is serving his sixth term in Congress representing Ohio’s 6th District. He also happens to be an ordained Methodist minister. It is a race with identifiable types, to be sure. But it is also a race that defies conventional wisdom. Why?

Leave aside the fact that Blackwell, an African American from the housing projects of Cincinnati, is a die-hard Reagan Republican and touted friend and supporter of President George W. Bush. Leave aside that he has managed to claim exceptionally large numbers of African-American votes despite his party affiliation, while simultaneously maintaining a passionate base of white evangelical voters with his message of smaller government, lower taxes, and strong social conservatism (he spearheaded Ohio’s recent marriage amendment to the state constitution, and promised he would sign legislation banning abortion in all cases without exception). Leave aside that Strickland is a Democrat who has flourished in a highly Republican district that was redrawn almost completely by Ohio’s Republicans after the 2000 census, and who has consistently been endorsed by the NRA. What makes this race unique beyond all those variables and more is the unprecedented degree to which religion and personal faith have become part of the public debate. As a result, not only will traditional Midwestern politeness be severely challenged, so will its Bible literacy.

While the Constitution bans religious tests for office, it has little power over the rationales or facts that individual voters use to make electoral decisions. For his part, Blackwell relies on Ephesians 6:10-18 as his cornerstone text:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground....In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

Strickland, who often appears at public events with a Bible in his hand, has a plaque in his congressional office that is etched with the words from Micah 6:8: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

For those who know the candidates and have watched them perform in public, there is little doubt that the two textual choices reveal much about the ideological and political orientations of each. It is no coincidence that Strickland’s passage is the same one that John Winthrop, the first governor of Boston and a minister in his own right, quoted in his famous prayer on the flagship Arabella in 1630. Winthrop spoke of the “shipwreck” that would beset the Pilgrims’ fledgling community if they failed to heed that advice and its implications. For Winthrop, those demands included that the people of the new city be “knit together as one” in their work, and that they make the burdens of their brothers their own if they were to achieve that bright and shining “city on the hill” they were seeking. Strickland, like Winthrop, understands that politics, morality, and social justice are intimately entwined. Like Winthrop, Strickland sees the eventual success of the political community as ultimately tied to its conception of and dedication to the common good. This leads Strickland-a PhD in counseling psychology and a former social-service provider-to a community-building orientation that sees the development of lasting relationships of mutual respect and care as the foundation for a politics of solidarity. Strickland, the son of a steel worker, co-authored the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), his most important legislative accomplishment. That legislation now provides millions of children from poor, working-class, and lower-middle-class families throughout the United States with health insurance and access to health care that they would not have otherwise. If elected governor, Strickland promises he’ll work on what he calls “kitchen table” issues. For Ohio families, that means jobs and education.

Strickland’s focus on making it easier for people to live, work, raise their families, and get along in a messy world belies a pastoral sensibility. This orientation challenges without provocation, counsels without chiding, directs without dictating. The strengths of his approach are the strengths of a good family-members of the polity are cared for, nurtured, tolerated, and expected to contribute reciprocally to the good of the unit and to protect the other members from harm. Its weaknesses are, of course, its strengths taken to excess. Care, nurturing, and tolerance can lead to self-indulgence, sloth, and the lack of moral judgment needed to ensure justice. The commitment to the good of the unit can lead to regimentation, to the suffocation of individual excellence in the name of “getting along.”

Blackwell’s focus is more prophetic, even Manichean. His is the God of righteous anger and judgment whose terms are absolute and decidedly more literal than they are for the typical Methodist. For the Evangelical Blackwell, each Christian must ultimately stand alone before God and give an accounting of his or her personal fidelity to God’s commands. To wit, each one must become a warrior for Christ, a Christian soldier at war with the ever-expanding darkness encouraged by secularists and those liberals and Democrats who, as Blackwell put it in a recent speech, “believe that government is God, and God is not.” In his introduction at an event honoring Blackwell for his public service, Rev. Russell Johnson, an influential minister and founder of the Ohio Restoration Project, put their shared agenda this way: “We’re on the beaches of Normandy, and we can see the pillbox entrenchments of academic and media liberalism. We’ll take back our country for Christ.” Far from demurring, Blackwell relishes such language and refuses to back away from it or the positions to which it leads him. Whether pushing the moral agenda of the religious Right-on homosexuality, abortion, taxing and spending, especially social spending-Blackwell’s message is consistent, austere, and unrepentant. Eschewing the language of victimology, Blackwell calls on all to pull themselves up, to do their jobs, and to enlist in the Lord’s army. In his own words, he is Jesse Jackson’s worst nightmare. To be sure, Jesse is not alone. Indeed, his own party is as nervous as anyone-a fact that Blackwell seems to relish.

The strengths of Blackwell’s approach are the strengths of good platoons. They are unified and their goals are typically clear and well defined. Loyalty is absolute, and the “enemy” is easy to distinguish. The weaknesses of his approach in a pluralistic democracy are obvious, but no one should underestimate the appeal of Blackwell’s moral and political clarity in this day and age.

In response to the remark about government and God, Ted Strickland quickly issued a theocentric retort urging Blackwell to embrace the teachings of Isaiah where the prophet claimed, “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” For this, the Blackwell campaign accused Strickland of using religion as a political weapon. Irony is neither camp’s strong suit.

Whatever else is true about faith and politics these days, one thing is certain: Ohio’s public square will be anything but “naked” in the coming election. With proof texts at the ready and personal fidelity front and center, the campaign for governor in this battleground state will not only be about jobs, education, and the requisite social issues, but also about the “kind of God” we believe in. It is both the byproduct of recent high-profile elections and possibly an important harbinger of national elections to come. There will be “preachers” and “pastors,” but the agnostic need not apply. Christianity must play a public role if it is indeed to be Christianity, yet there will be many who rightfully say, “Be careful what you ask for.” Noted.

As for my own contribution to the “debate,” I ask candidates like those in Ohio to read and read again the first two Commandments. Never forget that no state, political party, or politician should ever be worshiped, and that God’s name should not be taken in vain to front for any of the above. Failing to remember this warning has given faith a bad name in the public square, and the Bible itself repeatedly underscores the price we pay for failing to heed its warnings.

Published in the 2006-09-22 issue: 

Christopher M. Duncan is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of political science at Saint Louis University.

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