On Tuesday, most American voters will ignore a pile of minor-party candidates and select either Joe Biden or Donald Trump to be president for the next four years. Because of the pandemic, of course, millions, including me, already have made their choice.
What difference does -- and should -- any of that make?
That's the question that the author of this article in First Things asks and attempts to answer. He is Carl R. Trueman, a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
Trueman grew up in England and brings some of that background to bear on what he has to say about Trump and Biden, neither of whom he admires because he thinks both of them are, in effect, religious phonies.
"Trump’s posing with a Bible outside an Episcopal church and Biden’s profession of devout Catholicism," he writes, "are both, in different ways, implausible and manipulative."
Trueman seems quite confident that he knows the kind of Christianity both Trump and Biden should but don't follow -- his kind. And, of course, he's free to assert that and make his arguments.
But in Trueman's version of the faith, I find a lot of reliance on dogma over heart, left brain over right brain, rules over spirit.
"I would like to make a radical suggestion," Trueman writes. "In the future, could American politicians please keep religion out of their platforms and propaganda? I ask this not for their sakes, nor for the sake of the nation, but for the sake of the church, her people and her leadership. When politicians make phony or manipulative religious claims, they expose the corruption of an American Christianity — whether that of the evangelical masses or of the Catholic ecclesiastical elites — that does not seem to take its professed faith seriously."
The problem, of course, is what Trueman means by "its professed faith." For century after century, the church universal, including "American Christianity," has sought to reduce its ideas and teachings about God to written statements of faith, sometimes called confessions. Think of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have our Book of Confessions, which includes about a dozen of these creedal statements written at various times in church history.
Each one is a sincere effort to describe religious belief and some of the obligations that flow from that belief. But one of the factors that limits their usefulness is that each one of them is made up of words. And every word is a metaphor, given that each points to a reality beyond itself. Every metaphor is open to both misunderstanding and deeper understanding.
So Trueman may think he knows exactly what American Christianity teaches when he talks about "its professed faith," but, in fact, the church and its members have been arguing about all of that from the start.
None of this is to say that it's impossible to put into words the essence of what the church wants to say to the world. The various confessions actually are good places to start that discussion. But as people of faith do that -- and this holds for any faith tradition -- it's important to recognize that "its professed faith" means different things to different people and different denominations. It's why, in fact, the church experienced the Great Schism of 1054 into East and West and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century and the hundreds and thousands of schisms within Protestantism since then.
There can, in fact, be such a thing in religion as orthodoxy, but it's helpful to remember that over time orthodoxy tends to take on different shapes and shades, which is what theologian Brian D. McLaren sought to suggest in the title of one of his books, A Generous Orthodoxy. It's also helpful, at times, to have strict constructionists like Trueman blowing their referee's whistle, even if at times it seems like an annoying distraction.
In any case, if you haven't already done so, vote on Tuesday. Just decide first which candidate offers you the "phony or manipulative religious claims," as Trueman put it, that most closely match yours.
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DIAL 9-1-1- FOR A RABBI ON TUESDAY?
As Election Day approaches, it's interesting to see how various groups are preparing to respond to possible disruptions and even violence. This RNS story describes a group of rabbis being trained to respond, all the while hoping that won't be necessary. Come on, voters. On Tuesday let's act like the kind of family whose members love one another.