Can the President Follow the Christian Faith?
A Dialogue with a Friend

by Thomas Katsampes

April 9, 2008

Thomas: okay, so tell me why one can't be a faithful Christian and be president (other than the mechanics, i.e. one doesn't have the time to attend church etc.)

Friend: for all the reasons you say that Christian virtue is a personal requirement. If you are in fact correct, then the decisions that the president makes are inherently un-Christian.

Thomas: such as? Let's just take the obvious one - the decision to go to war.

Friend: ok

Thomas: So you believe that war is, in general, un-Christian?

Friend: if one bases Christian virtue on the Gospels, yes. For example: How can one be a Christian and president [of the United States] and follow Matthew 5:38-48? Doesn't that preclude [Christians from] being President?

Thomas: But God did not condemn King David when it was said of him, "Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands." Nathan the prophet visited David not because of the thousands slain in his battles, but because David sinned against the LORD with Bathsheba. In all other respects, King David was accounted a righteous man by Jesus Christ (i.e. God). So how is it then, that a president in taking a nation to war, is considered unchristian?

Friend: that all fine, but the basis of Christianity *must* be the Gospels. The OT is read in light of what Jesus commands us to do. Not the other way around. So what does Jesus tell us we must do? Love our enemies and pray for them.

Thomas: The problem is resolved if you believe that the Lord was speaking about our interpersonal relationships with others (micro-level) in these passages, not about how presidents and kings are to govern nations (macro-level). I fully acknowledge that for a president or king what we perceive to be Christian values may *appear* to be quite un-christian (such as the decision to go to war), but a president or king cannot govern a country by the Sermon on the Mount. "Turn the other cheek" is beautiful in one's personal life; it is suicidal when used as a doctrine to govern nations. And you still did not answer about King David. The God of the NT is the same God as the God of the OT. You have to account for this.

Friend: if that is the case, our Christian calling is a farce. How can I follow the command of Christ to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me and yet then say that *killing* them is ok? It makes mockery of Christian faith since it's meaningless to love only your enemies that are really dangerous. Again, that is why I think that reader is on to something: I don't think its possible to be a faithful Christian and be President. That doesn't mean one *can't* be both, just the office of President requires actions that are antithetical to Christianity.

Thomas: but where is the prohibition against killing? The command is thou shalt not murder.

Friend: One can make an argument that killing in war is a type of murder

Thomas: Well then what about King David? What about Joshua? Were they mass murderers?

Friend: In a word: yes. Thomas: Who commanded Joshua to destroy the nations in the promised land? That's an easy one. God. So now God is guilty of mass murder? Killing on the battlefield is just that, killing. Taking a POW and putting a bullet through his head, that is murder. Do you see the difference?

Friend: ah, indeed. And this is where I'm going to have to punt since my OT exegesis is so awful I really can't argue on this point. My only defense is that Christ was incarnated to show us a different way than endless war and violence. I do see the difference and I don't have a good answer for your question, but if I was a Jew, then I wouldn't have this problem. But I'm not Jewish; I'm Christian. I know what Jesus has ask me to do to be his disciple.

Thomas: (Hence my remark that if I were not Christian I would be Jewish). But if you accept that Christ's commands are to our personal life, and are not directed to presidents and kings in the governing of nations, then I see no conflict. It's not a matter of your OT exegesis. What I cited were all very well-known passages out of the OT. We read about King David as kids. It's not that you need a PhD in OT. [The problem is that] So MUCH moral confusion has been wrought by the mistranslation out of the Hebrew of the sixth commandment, thou shalt not murder.

Friend: I don't have *moral* confusion so much as Christian *virtue* confusion. To be a faithful Christian is to follow Jesus. Period. There is no other norm for the Christian life. And to live this Christ-like life means to follow not only the words of Jesus, but his actions as well. This means that if I'm to be a disciple of Jesus, there are certain jobs I can't hold. One of those would be President of the United States. This doesn't mean I can't be engaged in politics, it just means that I have to be engaged in politics that are in congruence with the commands of Jesus of Nazareth as told to me in the Gospels. And I don't think that is possible in our governmental system.

Friend: That Christ's commands are to our personal life, and are not directed to presidents and kings in the governing of nations?" Yes, I'm starting to think you are correct. That is why one can't be president and a faithful disciple of Christ. Being president is antithetical to being a Christian.

Thomas: what about saying that the president can't be a saint but he can still be a Christian? Or is the Christian faith an all-or-nothing proposition? I have another question for you. If we claim that going to war is somehow "unchristian," then to be consistent we have to say that the liberation of people from tyrannies, whether they be the tyranny of Hitler or Saddam or any other tyrant, is unchristian as well. So do you agree that it is unchristian to go to war to liberate oppressed people? And how do you account for the fact that God struck down the firstborn of Egypt and then delivered the people of Israel with a mighty hand by drowning Pharaoh's army? Is that unchristian as well? And this God is the same God, Jesus Christ, yesterday, today, and forever.

Friend: right, I acknowledge the contradiction, but what did Jesus say? See, this is where being a disciple of Jesus gets hard. And these arguments were, I'm certain, the same arguments that the ancient scribes and pharisees had regarding a man who they considers beyond the pale. But time and again Jesus asks us to go beyond that notion of religion. I don't have any definitive answers just questions.

--
I think a lot of these misunderstandings are caused by conflating Jesus' command to "love your enemies" to mean that we allow evil to go on when done to others. Christ certainly commands that we resist not evil when that evil is done to us. But where does He command that we should allow evil to go on towards others? That was Dennis' point, and I think he's right. Christ never said, resist not the evil that is done to your neighbor. In fact, part of "love your neighbor" is to defend your neighbor. In the macro it means liberating the oppressed. Now I know we can't liberate everyone - I wish we could - where and how that decision is made is a presidential one.

But I do not believe for an instant that we are called by Christ to allow evil to go on against others. Whether in our personal lives e.g. standing by and doing nothing while another person gets beat up and robbed, or at the macro-level e.g. allowing tyrants like Saddam and Hitler to threaten the free world and innocent people in it while they terrorize their own citizens, allowing evil to prevail is not a manifestation of the love for one's neighbor Jesus commanded.

So that is why I think a president can be a faithful Christian and a great president at the same time. But let me add one important thing here. I'm more concerned that the president understands and follows the values I've espoused here regarding not allowing evil to go on against others, than his theology. If a candidate's spiritual beliefs consisted in that the earth rests on a giant turtle and that turtle rests on a giant turtle and so on ad infinitum, but the president wholeheartedly believed in advancing goodness in the world and confronting the world's great evils, I would support him without a second thought over another candidate who believed in the Nicene Creed but did not believe in advancing goodness and confronting the world's evils. It is the values and the actions of the president which matter much more so than his theology.

An astute reader of my blog commented:
Reader's Comment: As a Christian you have to understand grace. Don't think I'm saying that God will forgive murderers and that solves the problem, you have to take the whole Bible in context. Your friend here seems to be caught up in the New Testament, which is where a Christian should focus, but the New Testament only makes sense in the context of the Old Testament. Basically God set up the rules for how to live with the 10 commandments. The law was designed to make it clear that we were incapable of fulfilling the law. Jesus made this very clear when he said that even our thoughts would be judged. In fact our motives are much more important to God than our actions. Jesus came to fulfill the law, that is: since we cannot meet the standard of perfection a substitution was needed to atone for our sins. What I'm driving at here is that while Jesus said love your enemies, the same Jesus who is the Word, as well as Jehovah, who called the nation of Israel to war. God is the one who gets to decide who is just and who is unjust, who is worthy of death, and who is worthy of life. We cannot decide that. But as a president you would be called to make those sorts of decisions. You have both the old and new testaments to draw on, as well as God's special revelation, to determine how to confront the world's situation. I think your friend is getting the definition of Christian a bit confused. Christianity is not rules and regulations, it is a loving relationship with the One who has poured out grace into your life. This causes obedience, out of gratitude for salvation. The Bible lists rules and these are a good starting point for living like Christ, but ultimately the mature Christian will develop a relationship with Christ and know His voice so well, that the convictions of the Holy Spirit guide his life, not simple rules like do not murder. And on that point God calls the nation of Israel to war many times David's great men were great because they had killed many, some hundreds (2 Samuel 23:8-39). Obviously God permits Killing, but condemns Murder. To say that a Christian cannot be President and stay true to his principles is to mis the point of Christianity. John 15:13 Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends. To go to war to protect others (your fellow countrymen, or those who are oppressed) is the greatest act a Christian can do. Now don't get confused here by thinking that the President isn't actually fighting the war or laying down his life. If the President goes to war he is putting a big target on his head (as if the President doesn't already have one.) You must understand that in order to liberate others you must risk your life, that does not guarantee that you will sacrifice it, but that you are willing to. If everyone laid down their life, then no one would be left to win the fight. The point here is that your premise is exactly backward. Now that doesn't mean that this justifies war, the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc. were all mistakes, wrong. We were never called to spread the faith by the sword, that's Islam. My final point here is that the President can fulfill the duties of his office and still remain true to the values of his faith. That does not guarantee that he will, just that he can. To summarize and bring this back to the original premise of Matthew 5:38-48: v38-42 Allow yourself to be persecuted and be generous to those who abuse you. v43-48 Loving your enemies will be your Christian witness. This may mean that you (as president) explain what specific evils you are confronting and why. For Example: Saddam, he would not let the US president have a trial by jury if captured. but we allow him that justice. When we have toppled the regime we set about helping the Iraqi people. When we take POW's we should not abuse them, torture them, or kill them, except as necessary to help others and by due process. As a Christian president you have the opportunity to show the world that virtue in war is important, even if your enemies don't afford you the same. The US armed forces are exemplary in that they will risk their own lives in order to prevent collateral damage. Even if it puts them in greater danger we try to not let others be harmed. The Islamic forces use their women and children as shields because they know that we don't want to kill innocent people, and if they can force us into it then they can win in the politically correct press. A Christian can be faithful, presidential, and a light unto the world, if he has the courage to say not to what people want if it conflicts with the Scriptures and if he is willing to say yes, even if it costs him personally. The Christian life is not free or easy, but anyone can do any (legal) job and still be an exemplary Christian.

Home