John Wesley on Voting (and American Politics)

To state the obvious, American politics are polarized. That polarization has cultivated a lack of civility. That incivility has resulted in both sides demonizing the other and, at times, engaging in acts of violence. When citizens begin engaging in violence against political opponents, their society is in danger. A republic cannot be maintained without debate marked by civility and charity.

How to Vote

The temptation to speak evil of those with whom we disagree politically is not new. John Wesley was concerned about it in the 18th century. And he had some wisdom for the people called Methodists as they considered the candidates for whom they would vote. As we head into the midterm elections next week, we would do well to follow his advice. Wesley had three points to keep in mind, which he recorded in his journal from October 6, 1774. He wrote: “I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them,

  1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:
  2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And,
  3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.

Don’t sell your vote. Don’t speak evil of your opponents. Keep a generous spirit toward those who disagree with you. Three essential elements of healthy and constructive political engagement.

Can the Church lead?

What is perhaps most tragic is that the demonization of political opponents has been perpetuated by many in the Church. And this is true on both sides of the aisle. Christians on the left and Christians on the right have both participated in less than charitable tactics and speech in the effort to advance their political views and agendas.  Rather than leading the way in robust political discourse, the Church has sadly participated in the degradation of healthy debate.

Love your (political) enemies

Wesley’s three points are only an application of Jesus’ command to “love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44). It is absolutely impossible to obey our Lord’s command to love your enemies and, at the same time, speak evil and sharpen your spirit against political opponents. That is not to suggest we avoid political debate. Rather, it is to avoid unhealthy shouting matches in order to make space for rigorous, yet charitable, political debate. Detest is not synonymous with debate. To the contrary, it’s actually quite difficult to debate people we detest. What we need is political discourse that is thoughtful, clear, and  charitable, all the while taking the points on which we diverge with the utmost seriousness.

My prayer is that we have not gone too far down the path of incivility. Perhaps we can repent and return to political debate that honors God and one another. Perhaps the people of God can even lead the way.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

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Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century

I’m grateful to the folks at The Institute on Religion and Democracy for sending me a review copy of Mark Tooley’s new book Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Bristol House, 2011). As the title indicates, this volume is about the socio-political witness and activity of the people called Methodists over the course of the last 100 years. The book has a journalistic feel, and (contrary to my expectations) offers a limited amount of commentary. The detailed discussion reflects thorough and well-informed research. Anyone interested in the role of religion in American political history will find this study informative and illuminating.
The major theme of the story of Methodism in the 20th century, as Tooley recounts it, might be summarized in terms of a movement from a fairly influential and unified social and political witness to one much less so. Methodists were apparently a political force to be reckoned with in the early decades of the 1900’s, though that could hardly be said to be true now. Some of the major issues treated by Tooley are prohibition (which Methodists strongly supported), the increasing intensity of the just war/pacifism debate, and civil rights. I was a bit surprised to discover how furiously Methodists battled for prohibition and grateful for the increased calls for peace.
As president of the IRD, Tooley is no stranger to the intersection of politics and religion, and with this book, he has provided a very helpful resource for a narrow topic within that larger field of inquiry. This book fills a gap in the study of Methodist history; indeed, I don’t know of another book that tackles this subject. The extensive end notes provide plenty of material for interested readers to track down further detail, and there is a helpful timeline of “Major Events in the Methodist Political History in the Twentieth Century” (xiv-xvii). Tooley’s hope is that Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century will be instructive as Methodists work to discern the future of our social witness both in the United States and the rest of the world. As to whether his hopes will be fulfilled, only time will tell.

Evangelicals Favor Nukes?

The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) has issued a critique of a document released by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) expressing concerns about nuclear armament and proliferation. The critique laments the loss of insight and the so-called leftward slide of the NAE not only because it has denounced things like alleged systematic torture but now also appears to be increasingly in favor of reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. The subject line of the IRD e-mail linking to this critique read: “Evangelicals for Nuclear Disarmament?” The question mark at the end suggests that the IRD finds it a strange curiosity that evangelicals would find nuclear disarmament desirable, an odd and curious suggestion from my point of view.
As with so many issues, the IRD once again seems to think evangelical Christianity has basically the same values as conservative American politics, but this matter of nuclear proliferation seems to illustrate the problem with that presupposition more clearly than some other issues. Evangelicals are typically identified by having a high Christology that affirms the full deity and full humanity of Jesus, believing in the full trustworthiness of scripture, and emphasizing the cruciality of the gospel in conversion. What is it about these basic tenets of evangelicalism that necessitates an affirmation of the value and necessity of nuclear weapons and a rejection of favoring nuclear disarmament? One wonders what the Prince of Peace thinks of the presupposition that his gospel commits his people to affirming the value of weapons capable of ending the lives of myriads of people and destroying the lives of countless others, of whom all are not only made in his image but objects of his sacrificial love.
I am reminded of the time that the sons of thunder thought it might be a good idea to call down fire from heaven to consume some Samaritans who would not receive Jesus (Luke 9:54). Their Lord and ours rebuked them indicating that, in his kingdom, we don’t do things that way.

For the Poor and the Alien: An Evangelical-Wesleyan Approach to Immigration

Immigration is a hot-button topic in American politics these days, and it is a topic over which Christians disagree. Recent and stringent laws in Arizona and Alabama have kept the issue at the forefront of national attention, and church leaders have spoken to both sides of the issue. To this point I’ve held off writing about immigration, because I wanted to take time to think through the issues and reflect on a way forward. I’ve been tempted to draw a line in the sand, but have thought better of it. Instead, I want to offer some biblical and theological reflections on this polarizing issue.
Let me begin by saying that the following reflections arise out of my evangelical and Wesleyan commitments. I say that up front because it often seems to me that those who identify themselves as evangelical tend to favor strict immigration laws. I will contend, though, that an evangelical approach calls us to remember that God has welcomed us when we were not only strangers but enemies. When I combine this with my Wesleyan commitment that the people of God are to reflect the holy character of God, I find it leads me to believe that if we are to reflect the holy character of the God who lavishes his abundance on the stranger and the alien, then we must find ways to welcome and bear witness to the holiness of God with the strangers and aliens among us.
At the heart of this reflection is Leviticus 19:2, 9-10:
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God (NRSV).”
God spoke these words through Moses to Israel on the heels of their deliverance from slavery under the Egyptians. They were strangers in a land not their own; they had no rights, no status, no privilege, no honor, and no opportunity for social mobility. They were poor and alien, strangers and slaves with no land to call their own. And in their impoverished state, God came to them and in his extravagant grace delivered them from bondage and slavery. He called them to be his people who would represent him to the nations (Ex. 19-3-6). They would learn his holy ways; they would share his holy character.
And sharing his character did not include unusual or wild commands (though they might seem that way to us at times); sharing his character meant regarding others the way God regarded them. And in this passage in Leviticus 19 that means showing kindness to the stranger and the alien, because God had shown them kindness when they were strangers in another land. One of the many ways that they were to show the world that their God was the God was by leaving some of their crops, some of their bounty, for the poor and the stranger among them. The foreigner was to be treated with hospitality not contempt; kindness not disdain. Why? Because that is what God is like.
But that is not all. The reflection does not stop with Leviticus, because Leviticus points forward to Christ. When we ourselves were in bondage and slavery to those dual evil masters of sin and death, God came in search of us. We were not merely estranged from him; we were wretched. There was enmity and strife between us and him. And yet he offered himself to us in Christ so that we could be reconciled to him and share his bounty. We had no status, no rights, deserved no favor, and still he demonstrated his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). When we were nothing, he gave us everything. And he calls us now to make known to the world the riches of his kindness in Christ Jesus. The question is whether we will live into our calling to make his holy love known to the nations not only abroad but across the street. The Holy One has come to care for the poor and the alien, and they are we. Will we share his holy character? I, for one, am deeply grateful that, when I was a stranger to God, I was not turned away but welcomed with open arms into the bounty of his mercy.
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At Least they Get It

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a cross on San Diego’s Mount Soledad is unconstitutional and must be removed, reports the Washington Times.  Proponents of keeping this cross in place have called it a “war memorial.”  The Times article cites the court’s decision saying:
“The use of such a distinctively Christian symbol to honor all veterans sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion,” said the court in its decision. “It suggests that the government is so connected to a particular religion that it treats the religion’s symbolism as its own, as universal. To many non-Christian veterans, this claim of universality is alienating.”
Aside from the curious notion that the main symbol of the reign of the Prince of Peace, not to mention reconciliation between God and man, should be used as a war memorial, let me say that I’m a fan of seeing crosses up all over the place, and the reason for that is the same reason the courts want crosses to come down.  The cross is distinctly Christian; the cross says that Jesus of Nazareth uniquely propitiates the just wrath of God against human sin; the cross says that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is true and all others false.  That is, the cross is exclusive.  I’m a fan of seeing crosses displayed in public precisely because they announce the universal and exclusive rule and authority the Lord Jesus Christ.  The courts want to tear the cross down for exactly the same reason.  At least they get it. 

HT: Methodist Thinker

Education Vouchers and So-called Private Schools: What’s at Stake and What’s the Solution?

New Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott is catching some heat for his suggestion that all Florida children receive vouchers which can be redeemed at public or private schools.  The plan is controversial because a mass exodus from public schools is feared were the government to give vouchers for students to attend schools of their parents choice, be they public or private.  The vouchers are expected to be worth $5,500 dollars, which is the amount it costs to educate a pupil in the state education system.   
At issue here is whether private schools ought to honor government vouchers.  I champion the view that they should not.  “Why?” you ask.  Good question.  Once private schools begin to accept government funding in any form, even vouchers, then they are basically ceasing to be private schools.  Seldom does the government pass out cash with no strings attached.  The recent government bailout of General Motors and the subsequent executive branch canning of that company’s CEO make that point with clarity.  It’s not hard to imagine the government putting educational and ideological stipulations on which so-called private schools can receive funding in the form of school vouchers.  Imagine this scenario:  Let’s say a private school begins honoring government vouchers.  A couple of years later and after some law suits over the use of public funds to pay for private education, the government implements stipulations about what curriculum can be used in private schools if they want to keep the cash flow coming in the form of vouchers.  By this time, the school has increased its enrollment and hired on a lot of new teachers.  What do they do?  Decrease enrollment and lay off a bunch of teachers when they can’t afford to pay them because they don’t have the government funds?  Or just keep on taking the cash and adjust the curriculum (and eventually everything else) in line with government regulations?  Obviously, most will keep taking the cash.  And now the government is calling the shots in the private schools.  And the private schools aren’t really private any more.  So, should private schools accept government vouchers?  Not if they want to stay private. 
What is the solution then?  I propose that instead of vouchers, states that truly desire to grant to parents the freedom to choose the way their children are educated should allow a tax credit to those families who elect to use private education.  This tax credit could be set to the tune of what it costs to educate a child in whatever state is in question, $5,500 in Florida.  This would free up money for children to attend private schools and avoid the problem of government checks being written to private schools.  Of course, the problem with this plan in Florida is that there are no state income taxes.  In this case, the government could just cut families who opt out of public education the $5,500 check.  I certainly don’t expect to see this plan in legislation any time soon.  It’s way too conservative; way too small government; way too hands-off my kids and their education.  It would, however, provide for a truly free parental choice in the education of their children, which is what Governor-elect Scott claims to advocating.  It would also guarantee that private schools stay private, which is very important. 

To Pay or Not to Pay: Christians, Universal Healthcare, and Taxes

There have been a number of interesting posts, as of late, by Evangelical bloggers on the a Christian response to the recent passage of healthcare legislation and its effect on government funding for abortions and whether or not Christians ought to pay taxes which are excessive, oppressive, and used to fund government programs antagonistic to biblical teaching.

The above links are not explicitly written in response to one another.  Each makes some interesting points.  What do you think?