Obama and Romney offer differing views of God

People always ask, “What would Jesus do?,” but in America today, it’s impossible to know. And that’s because there are … Continued

People always ask, “What would Jesus do?,” but in America today, it’s impossible to know. And that’s because there are (at least) two prevailing views of God at work in our public and political conversation. It would not be an exaggeration to say that when you pull the lever this November, you will not just be voting for president. You will be saying what you believe about God.

Do you believe in a God who protects the individual’s freedoms against the encroachments of the state? Who answers personal prayers and who intervenes, as he did for Paul on the Road to Damascus, to make believers out of skeptics and heretics? This God rewards his favorite sons and daughters with prosperity, and he bestows blessings, to paraphrase the aphorism, on those who help themselves.

Or do you believe in a God whose first priority is to care for the weak and the helpless, who teaches people to do unto others as they would have others do unto them? This is the collectivist God of the Hebrew Bible, who sees humanity organized into tribes and families of “brothers and sisters” who must work together to discern and follow his will.

With their rhetoric, Mitt Romney and President Obama are forcing voters to consider this choice. And as Occupy movement activists prepare to protest income inequality, among other issues, at the Group of 8 summit in Camp David, Md., and the NATO gathering in Chicago this weekend, the dilemma is far from academic.

Romney stands for the individualistic version of American success; Obama for the collectivist. “It’s the classic American dilemma — it’s liberty versus community — and it’s always there,” says my friend, the Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero, who in 2004 published a book called “American Jesus.”

In his speech last weekend at Liberty University, Romney pushed all the right buttons, hoping to inspire evangelical Christians, who believe that faith is about a personal encounter with Jesus, to vote for him. “Someone once observed that the great drama of Christianity is not a crowd shot, following the movements of collectives or even nations. The drama is always personal, individual, unfolding in one’s own life. We’re not alone in sensing this. Men and women of every faith, and good people with none at all, sincerely strive to do right and lead a purpose-driven life.”

Romney’s religious values, he says, are rooted in his belief that God gave individual Americans the ability to conquer and withstand difficulty. What’s implied here is that the state doesn’t need to impose higher taxes on the wealthy or to curb executive pay to ameliorate the effects of the economic crisis. With hard work, personal responsibility, “devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the preeminence of the family,” Americans will prevail.

Obama is saying something else entirely. Over and over, in every recent speech, he reminds Americans that we’re all in this together, that everyone must make sacrifices — including tax hikes for the rich — and that the failure of one means the failure of all. He said it most distinctly when he expressed approval of gay marriage: at the heart of his decision, he said, was “the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.”

And when he appeared this week on “The View,” Obama described a shared destiny for all Americans. “What’s going to determine the election is the economy and whether everybody — gay, straight, black, white, Hispanic, Latino, Native American, disabled, you name it — whether people feel as if America continues to be this extraordinary land of opportunity.” And he said it especially strongly when he gave the commencement address at Barnard College. “We know that our challenges are eminently solvable,” he said. “The question is whether together, we can muster the will — in our own lives, in our common institutions, in our politics — to bring about the changes we need.”

The earliest Christians weren’t thinking much about retirement savings or college bills, their personal happiness or the cost of filling their gas tank. But they may have been torn between their identity as “we,” that of Jesus and the Hebrew Bible and their identity of “I,” that of Paul and the Greeks. Fast-forward 2,000 years and the dilemma is the same. Romney is promoting the God of “I”: individual accomplishment and personal success. Obama is promoting the God of “we,” in which the fates of all are intertwined.

About

  • saulpaulus

    The dichotomy made between Jesus and the Hebrews and Paul and the Greeks is a false one as to collectivism. Repeatedly Paul concerns himself with raising money among the gentile Greeks to help the (Jewish) church in Jerusalem. One of the first mentions of gentile Greeks occurs in Acts 6 where Stephen and other Greek believers complain that the needs of their fellow Greeks are not being cared for. They are then appointed to minister to those needs. The entire focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was on meeting the needs of people. He healed the sick, lame and blind, fed the multitudes and showed the mercy and compassion that had been lacking from the ministries of the Pharisees. Yes, I am an evangelical and I am supporting my President.

  • InisMagrath

    I thought Jesus provided tax cuts for the wealthy. I must have a different version of the bible… my version is printed by Grover Norquist.

  • Whitemellon

    I have the GN version also. If you go to Koch 33:36 it specificlly states, “hoardeth thy gold for it is good.”

Read More Articles

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

noplaceonearth
An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

shutterstock_148333673
Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

shutterstock_53190298
Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.