In my lifetime, people have begun paying particular attention to the church going habits of American Presidents.
At age four, I was still too young to know about the debate that was taking place in 1960 regarding Senator Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism. Might his faith, some wondered aloud, lead him to place his allegiance to papal authority ahead of his allegiance to the constitution?
The first election where I was old enough to vote featured a Georgia Governor who was a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher and who described himself as “born again” (by the way, Happy 75th anniversary today to President and Mrs. Carter).
When the Governor of Arkansas ran for President in 1992, his long time attendance at Immanuel Baptist Church here in Little Rock was seen as a political asset, when compared to the formal, stiff Episcopalianism of his opponent.
Both Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and Barak Obama’s connection with Chicago Pastor Jeremiah Wright were campaign issues in 2012.
Jump ahead and we find the previous president, who created a stir when he stopped in at an evangelical church in Washington DC after a Sunday morning golf game and who famously posed for press photos holding a Bible outside a church near the White House.
There are two things that we’re told we don’t talk about in polite company. Religion is one of them. Politics is the other. Mix the two and the result can be combustible.
Through the years, if a candidate’s religious views have been perceived as a political asset (as it was in the case of President Carter in 1976), the candidate’s campaign has been careful to exploit those views for political gain. But more often, the opposing party has used an rival’s religious associations as an albatross (as was the case with both Romney’s Mormonism and Obama’s connection to Rev. Wright).
The President’s religious views are again in the news, as Roman Catholic Bishops are saying that the church should withhold serving Holy Communion to the current president because he promotes political positions that are at odds with the teaching of his church. While no doubt many of those Bishops hold the view they hold for theological or doctrinal reasons, more than a few are likely influenced they their own political convictions, hoping to throw some shade on the President to affect his standing in the polls. Bishops are, after all, human.
I found myself reflecting on all of this recently as I read a piece written by Andrew Sullivan, a social and political commentator who describes himself as a “Liberal Conservative.” Sullivan is himself a practicing Roman Catholic and is openly gay. In his piece called “Our Very Catholic President,” Sullivan noted that President Biden regularly attends Mass without a lot of pomp and circumstance. “His Catholicism is deep, even structural to his worldview,” Sullivan writes. “And, in my view, it helps explain a lot about him and his priorities — perhaps more acutely than any other lens.”
Sullivan sees what he calls the “compassionate center” of the Roman church as the essential element that animates President Biden’s policy choices. “This Catholic heart is Biden’s secret weapon,” Sullivan writes. “Not Catholic dogma; but the Catholic heart.”
Now we could have a lively discussion about whether the Democratic Party’s agenda is more anchored in compassion than the Republican Party’s agenda. But as I reflected on Sullivan’s comments about President Biden’s devotion to his church, I was struck by the notion that Sullivan (and so many others in our world today) point to compassion for your fellow man as the defining center of what it means to be a “true Christian.” What you believe about theological issues is today a secondary (and for many, completely inconsequential) aspect of our faith. Demonstrate compassion and kindness for your fellow man, and the particularities of your faith don’t really matter much to most people.
I think there’s a lot for us to think about here. First, the Bible teaches that compassion – a love for our fellow man, portrayed in the parable of the Good Samaritan – is commanded of us. Jesus identified it as one of the two pillars of the Judeo-Christian tradition. And to the extent that we fail to demonstrate love for our fellow man, we fall far short of what God expects.
But in our day, most people have made love for our fellow man the de facto “greatest commandment.” Loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, which Jesus identified as the greatest commandment, has slipped down a notch or two (or eight or ten).
Jesus saw love for our neighbor as something that necessarily follows love for God. To say we love God and to fail to love our neighbor falsifies our testimony. The Bible is clear. To say we love God, and at the same time to hate our brother, makes us a liar (1 John 4:20). At the same time, to love our neighbor apart from a whole hearted, devoted love for God is an exercise in self-righteousness, which is ultimate blasphemy.
I was reminded in a sermon I heard this week that we are to “put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). These should be the characteristics that mark us and identify us as followers of Jesus. But the presumption in the Bible is that we have first put on “the new self” – our union with Christ. We first pledge our allegiance to Him. Godly character is what then flows from our new identity.
To miss that sequence, that order, is to misunderstand the gospel.
Andrew Sullivan followed his piece with a note from someone who read his post on President Biden’s faith. The reader wrote “As a Catholic, it brought home for me the point that the compassion for all individuals exemplified by Jesus must form the core of the Catholic message — over and above any specific doctrines.” This is how most people in our world view faith today.
But it’s not the message of the Bible. Jesus Himself is identified in scripture as being “full of grace and truth.” The world is not particularly interested in biblical truth. And our culture has its own definition of grace. As followers of Jesus, we should be people who seek to follow His example, and to be full of grace and truth ourselves. To defend truth in our world today without an unflinching commitment to the grace, love, mercy and compassion of Jesus is a fool’s errand. At the same time, to disregard or downplay biblical truth and to make compassion for all mankind the central core of our faith is a misrepresentation of what the Bible teaches. To represent Jesus, the two must go hand in hand.
You’ve no doubt heard the adage that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. There’s a lot of truth to that. But if I read my Bible correctly, the caring must begin with love and devotion to Jesus. Caring for our fellow man comes as the overflow of God’s grace poured into you.
I hope you are praying for our President and for our country. The hope and future of who we are as a nation is more dependent on our prayers and divine providence than most of what is occupying the minds and hearts of people in our nation today. Let’s not forget to keep what Jesus called “the first commandment” first. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Fill yourself up with His love for you. And then let that love spill out on everyone you meet today.
Thank you. For your generosity.
Our playground has been ordered. We’re looking at 10-12 weeks before it will arrive and be installed.
And because of your giving, we’re also now beginning to look at some of the extras we were hoping we could include in this project – benches and shade and a play area for toddlers and fencing.
We surpassed our giving goal of $15,000 which means we are able to take full advantage of the matching gift that was offered to us. That extra $30,000 is what will enable the completion of the project by the end of the year.
On behalf of our kids and all the kids who will play on the playground for years to come, thank you!
We’ll be back in John’s Gospel this week, looking at Jesus’ conversation with Martha about the death of her brother Lazarus. What does Jesus mean when He declares Himself to be “the resurrection and the life?” That’s our focus as we return to John 11.
See you in church.
Soli Deo Gloria!