American Politics and a ‘Call from God’
On June 1st the Washington Post posted a discussion thread on its “On Faith” blog that asked its contributors to comment on the relationship between political candidates and their decision to run or not run for office and the allegation that God has either called or not called a particular candidate to that mission. This strikes me as a particularly timely discussion given the ramping-up of political campaigns in anticipation of the 2012 Presidential election. Additionally, more and more potential candidates (particularly those affiliated with the GOP) are talking about God in their speeches. Here is the way the discussion was started:
Several of America’s most prominent potential Republican presidential candidates have recently said that they received divine guidance on the decision of whether or not to run for the nation’s highest office. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee announced that he will not run for president, calling his decision “a spiritual one.” Huckabee said, “Being president is a job that takes one to the limit of his or her human capacity. For me, to do it apart from the inner confidence that I was undertaking it without God’s full blessing is simply unthinkable.” On the other hand, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R), told Iowa Public Television that she, too, has prayed about the decision and received an answer:”Yes, I’ve had that calling and that tugging on my heart that [running for president] is the right thing to do.” Does God endorse candidates? Is politics a religious vocation?
Now there are already several responses posted online by a variety of Washington Post commentators (to view the discussion go here). Here I will offer some initial responses to the two questions posed by the “On Faith” blog editors, namely “Does God endorse candidates?” and “Is politics a religious vocation?”
I believe that these two questions need to be asked in opposite order, for the question of one’s vocation — the mission, purpose, exercise of divine-given gifts, etc. — must be addressed prior to discussing whether or not God “ordains” (literally sets apart or selects) this or that candidate for political office. So the first thing that must be asked is what is meant by religious vocation.
To ask whether or not political office is a “religious vocation” seems to presume a certain definition (not explicitly identified in the initial discussion thread) about what a “vocation” is and whether or not there are “non-religious vocations” as indicated by the presence of the qualifier “religious.” From my perspective each person has a vocation, by which I mean the invitation to live a certain way in response to the call (the latin: vocare, the etymological source of “vocation”) from God found as the coextensive feature of one’s “True Self.”
Now, some people will certainly critique my use of “True Self” as if I subscribed to a form of quasi-platonism that identified an ideal to which an imperfect iteration of that ideal (namely the “false self”) could aspire. But the notion of True Self I speak of here has to do with the Scotist principle of individuation, popularly called haecceitas, that is radically unique and incommunicable. It is “who we really are” and it is coextensive or really identical with our very existence. It is absolutely unrepeatable. It is who God intended “me” or “you” or “that other person” to be and it is not universal.
I believe that every iteration, then, of vocation is de facto “religious,” because what it means to speak about vocation — at least from a Franciscan perspective — has little to do with what one does and more to do with how one does it. If you live out your life as you are in God’s eyes, you are living out your vocation and certainly there are some who have the gifts, skills, patience, leadership, and so forth to be a political figure. How one exercises that office is a reflection of who that person is as living his or her vocation more than the office (the what) itself.
So to the first question, “does God endorse candidates?” I think the answer is yes.
Now, that will likely upset some people, but we see in Scripture a clear description of which sort of people — politicians, leaders, etc. — God “endorses” (although the word “endorse” is not entirely helpful). God always takes the side of those who work for justice, who speak out for the poor, abused, marginalized and voiceless. God is the one who empowers people to bring good news (literally, the Gospel) to the afflicted and supports the people who speak Truth to power. We call these folks prophets.
There are very few prophets, I would wager, in the American political system. It is not often that we see those who gain the “endorsement” of God. People like Huckabee, Bachmann, Pawlenty, Romney and others who claim divine support for their particular agendas have not exhibited those qualities that we understand to be representative of those who have “God on their side.” Instead, God is invoked to garner the support of the naïve believers who desire only to hear the evocation of their religious tradition (usually some form of Christianity), even of the most vacuous sort.
Do I believe that there are politicians that are “called by God” to serve the world and society? Sure. But I have not seen any yet. And these folks who so easily let the name of God slip into their political rhetoric are in that sense charlatans of the highest order, because a real prophet could never be elected by Republicans (or Democrats for that matter); the real prophet, like so many before, would likely be stoned or crucified instead.