It’s not unusual to hear politicians claiming to speak for God. Some discuss their religious beliefs as a sincere outpouring of their faith and others do it for political expediency—they think invoking God will help them win their arguments and convince voters or constituents to support their policies.
In recent months, Ohio Governor John Kasich has used his faith to swat down objections—from the Tea Party and others in his own party—to expanding Medicaid.
During his February State of the State address, Kasich suggested that failing to expand Medicaid (which will be paid for with money the federal government has to borrow) would be a failure of true Christian faith:
“My personal faith and the lessons I’ve learned from the Good Book, they’re, like run my life. I mean, I’m serious. They’re very important to me – not just on Sunday, but just about every day. And I’ve gotta tell ya, I can’t look at the disabled, I can’t look at the poor, I can’t look at the mentally ill, I can’t look at the addicted and think we oughta ignore them.”
Kasich added, “I respect the decision you’re all gonna make, I know it’s controversial, just please examine your conscience, keep an open mind, and I think we can work and get there—I sure hope so. We’re an administration that thinks no one should be left behind.”
In a recent interview Kasich implied that failure to expand Medicaid in Ohio could have eternal consequences:
“I’ll tell ya somethin’, I had a…I had a comment; I had a conversation with a — one of the leaders… wasn’t one of the leaders, but one of the members of the legislature the other day. I said, ‘I respect the fact that you believe in small government. I do too. I also happen to know that you’re a person of faith. Now, when you die and get to the, get to the, uh, to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not gonna ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he’s going to ask you what you did for the poor. Better have a good answer.’”
You can make up your own mind about whether Kasich’s social justice fare is a genuine outpouring of his faith or shameless political pandering. And people of faith will disagree on whether biblical mandates to help the poor include forcible collection of tax dollars to fund inefficient government programs that enable generational poverty as opposed to instructions about personal charity.
There is nothing inherently wrong with elected officials expressing their faith in public or citing the Bible as a personal reason for a policy position. Elected officials have done so since the beginning of our republic; the First Amendment protects their right to do so.
The problem is the lack of biblical knowledge and literacy among Americans. Unlike previous generations, who were routinely taught the Bible in schools and churches, Americans no longer have the ability to discern truth from error in modern political discourse. For at least the last two decades surveys have shown not only a decline in church attendance, but a decline in biblical knowledge.
David R. Nienhuis, professor of New Testament studies at Seattle Pacific University laments the biblical illiteracy he sees in his students. Though 95% of them profess to be Christians, the average score on a Bible literacy test he gives at the beginning of each semester is just over 50%, a failing grade.
Nienhuis said this trend began with the Second Great Awakening when there was a “shift from learning to feeling, as revivalists of the period emphasized a heartfelt and unmediated experience of Jesus himself over religious education.” Americans began to emphasize and value a relationship with Jesus—a culturally relevant American Jesus—over and above doctrinal matters as they shifted their priorities from theology to morality. He said that Christians schooled in this anti-intellectual approach turned to the seeker-sensitive model in the late twentieth century and that,
“increasing attendance by means of niche marketing led church leaders to frame the content of their sermons and liturgies according to the self-reported perceived needs of potential ‘seekers’ shaped by the logic of consumerism.”
Dr. Albert Mohler, in “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem,” lays some of the blame at the doorstep of churches that “marginalize biblical knowledge.” He notes that in many churches, rigorous biblical teaching has been replaced by fellowship, entertainment-focused youth ministries, and superficial Bible study leading to “many fronts of Christian compromise in this generation.”
The main issue is not Kasich (or any other politician) twisting scripture and taking verses out of context to coerce voters into agreeing with his policy positions (although, of course, it’s wrong and evil for politicians to do so). The main problem is ignorant Christians who hear Bible references and don’t know enough to discern truth from error. A candidate or lawmaker can sprinkle “Jesus” on top of his speeches and the gullible masses are duped into believing they are hearing truth directly from the mouth of God.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), a Southern Baptist whose faith is central to his life, said that politicians have a special responsibility to avoid using faith as a weapon:
“I think anyone in politics you’ve got a special obligation to avoid being a Pharisee, to avoid ostentatiously wrapping yourself in your faith,” Cruz said. “Because I think in politics, it’s too easy for that to become a crutch, for that to be politically useful.”
The lack of Bible knowledge can lead to savvy, unscrupulous politicians taking advantage of faithful (but uneducated) Christians who can quote their favorite pop star (or Glenn Beck) more readily than they quote their Bibles.
Mohler says that in order to reverse course, biblical teaching must begin in the home. “Parents are to be the first and most important educators of their own children, diligently teaching them the Word of God…God assigned parents this non-negotiable responsibility, and children must see their Christian parents as teachers and fellow students of God’s Word.”
And he says that churches must focus on the “urgency of biblical teaching and preaching.” If they don’t, churches will continue to “produce believers who simply do not know enough to be faithful disciples.” And, we might add, they won’t know enough to be responsible American citizens.
If we are to have a New Great Awakening in this country—a revival of Christian faith, it must have a foundation of truth and a renewed commitment to biblical teaching in homes and churches. Only then will we be able to discern what is good and right—by God’s standards—and work toward those ends in our government and our culture.