“I’m a Christian! Vote for Me!”

Posted on December 5, 2013 by

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U.S. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) is probably taking the first few steps of a political death march–and it shows.

With his election coming up in November 2014, why is Pryor doing this?

Arkansas, like much of the South, has transitioned from a bastion of Democrat dominance into a reliably red-state of Republicanism. In 2012, Arkansas went 60.6% for Mitt Romney, and has supported Republican presidents in 8 of the past 11 elections (two of the three exceptions were due to Bill Clinton’s favored son status in 1992 and 1996 and the third was Jimmy Carter in 1976). The other U.S. Senator from Arkansas is a Republican (John Boozman), the U.S. House delegation is fully Republican, and the G.O.P. controls the Arkansas House and Senate. In short, Pryor is a lonely Democrat.

Though Pryor’s desperation has political roots, he knows his audience. Arkansas is the fourth most evangelical state in the U.S., with nearly 40% of the adult population attending an evangelical church. Pryor hopes the electorate will identify him not through a partisan lens, for if it does he is deep-fried dead on a stick, but a theological one. He hopes his affiliation will mitigate his obvious weaknesses.

So, if we understand why Pryor has done this, how should we think about it? How should we as Christians consider Pryor?

To begin, do we support candidates based on their religious beliefs? For the devout, regardless of the religion, this is certainly true up to a point. I think most Christians would prefer, all things being equal, to vote for a fellow communicant, but in political races, things are not equal. Candidates are complex and not definable by any single characteristic. They are not merely a set of religious beliefs, but they are a tangle of character, personality, partisanship, experience, and political commitments. Pryor is asking voters to take one characteristic, that is likely quite important to Arkansans, and elevate it above others they would normally consider.

By downplaying his partisanship, and his political commitments, Pryor is asking too much. Pryor’s partisanship has serious political consequences. Pryor voted for the Affordable Care Act. Pryor voted to confirm Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. He caucuses with the Democrats, so no matter how moderate he is (and he is quite moderate) or religious, he votes for Harry Reid to be the Senate Majority Leader. He votes to organize the Senate’s committee structure around the Democrat majority. In this way, party affiliation matters in spite of Pryor’s religious beliefs or lack of them. Since Pryor empowers the Democrat party, he strengthens it and furthers its agenda. Christians who disagree with that agenda, particularly as it relates to social issues like abortion or gay marriage, must keep that in mind when they are asked to overlook partisanship for religious reasons.

Finally, what is most fascinating about the advertisement is not its audacity, which is considerable, but its vagueness. Pryor claims the Bible to be his “North Star,” as an authoritative guide, his “compass.” At the same time, he says nothing about what that actually means, only that it proves no party is completely right. There are many Christians who claim the Bible as authoritative in some way–Mike Huckabee, Jim Wallis, George W. Bush, Rick Santorum, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama all claim, to varying degrees, the Bible guides their political beliefs.

On balance, I want candidates who claim God as a source of authority and inspiration. At the same time, that claim has few obvious political consequences. The political beliefs inferred from Scripture appear to be wildly divergent based on those who claim it as a source of authority and the politics they then proclaim. I am convinced that Scripture has somewhat little to say about particular policy choices. Given this, it should not surprise us the Bible is used by Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, and Conservatives as a political justification, all too often improperly.

In this way, Christians should be leery of these sorts of broad religious claims within a political context. In and of themselves, they mean little apart from more political information. Pryor’s claims, in this sense, are meaningless apart from a political key to indicate how he understands Scripture. It is this political information that will doom Pryor in Arkansas and he knows it, which is why he is trying to obscure his politics with a religious fog.

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