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Values of a Public Faith

Saturday, 17 August 2013  | Miroslav Volf

During our election season, I sought to summarize the key values that guide me as I decide for whom to cast my vote. There are three basic elements of choosing a candidate for public office responsibly:

  1. Values we hope the candidate will stand for and the order of priority among them (which requires of us knowledge of faith as a whole, rather than just a few favorite topics, and knowledge of how faith applies to contemporary life)
  2. Ways in which and means by which these values are best implemented in any given situation (which requires of us a great deal of knowledge about how the world actually functions and what policies lead to what outcomes—for instance, whether it would be an economically wise decision to try to reintroduce the gold standard)
  3. Capacity—ability and determination—to contribute to the implementation of these values (which requires of us knowledge of the track record of the candidate)

Most important are the values. As I identify each value, I will (1) name the basic content of the value, (2) give a basic rationale for holding it, (3) suggest some parameters of legitimate debate about it, and (4) identify a key question for the candidate.

I write as a Christian theologian, from the perspective of my own understanding of the Christian faith. Whole books have been written on each of these values, explicating and adjudicating complex debates. In providing a rationale for a given value, I only take one or two verses from the Bible to back up my position, more to flag the direction in which a rationale would need to go than, in fact, to strictly offer such a rationale.

Christ as the Measure of All Values
Value: The ultimate allegiance of a Christian is to Jesus Christ, the creative Word (become flesh), who enlightens everyone, and the redeeming Lamb of God, who bears the sin of the whole world. A Christian ought not embrace any practice, no matter how prudent it may seem from the standpoint of national security or national competitive advantage, which conflicts with her or his allegiance to Christ.

Rationale: “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11)

Debate: For Christians, the debate should not be whether one’s allegiance to Christ trumps one’s allegiance to the nation. The debate should be what key values for national life follow from allegiance to Jesus Christ and what the proper relation is between the universal claims of Christ and the particular claims of the nation.

Question to Ask: To what extent is the candidate merely seeking to serve the “goddess nation” and to what extent is what he stands for compatible with the Christian conviction that Christ is the key to human flourishing? 

1. Freedom of Religion (and Irreligion) 
Value: All people are responsible for their own life, and they have the right to embrace a faith or way of life they deem meaningful and abandon the one with which they no longer identify without suffering discrimination.

Rationale: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). "When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ . . . Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’” (John 6:60, 66–67).

Debate: The debatable issue should not be whether people should be free to choose and exercise their religion (or irreligion) without discrimination; that’s a given. Public debate should be about which way of life, including its public dimensions or implications, is more salutary, and whether there are ways of life so inimical to human flourishing and common life that their exclusion doesn’t represent an act of discrimination but is a condition of humane social life. We should also debate the moral foundation of a state that is “neutral” with regard to distinct faiths and secular interpretations of life as well as the precise nature of political arrangements required to keep the state “neutral.”  

Questions to Ask: Does the candidate respect the right of all—Christians and Muslims, fundamentalists and secularists, conservatives and progressives, to name a few groups often at odds with one another—to take personal responsibility for their lives and to lead them as they see fit? Does the candidate think of America as a Christian nation (so that, in one way or another, all others have to fit into a Christian mold) or as a pluralistic nation (in which a way of life is not imposed on anyone without his or her endorsement)?

2. Education 
Value: It is important for all citizens to understand the world in which they live, to learn to reflect critically on what makes life worth living, and to acquire qualifications for jobs which increasingly require complex skills. We should strive for excellent and affordable education for all citizens.

Rationale: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (Gen. 1:26). "To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it. . . . Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her" (Prov. 8:4–5, 10–11).

Debate: The debate should be about what families and government must do to improve the educational system, what exactly improvements in education look like, and what proportion of the budget should be allotted for educational purposes (as compared to, for instance, defense). The debate should not be about whether we should have an educational system that is both excellent and affordable for all.

Question to Ask: What will the candidate do to ensure that all citizens—the poor no less than the wealthy—are taught to make intelligent judgments about what makes life worth living, acquire skills necessary for functioning in modern societies, and have an adequate understanding of the world?

3. Economic Growth
Value: Economic growth is not a value in its own right because increasing wealth and money are not values in their own right. They are means—indispensable means, but only means—to human flourishing, which consists more in righteousness than in possessions.

Rationale: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:24, 33).

Debate: We can abandon the old debate about whether efficient wealth creation or just wealth distribution is more important; both are important, for we cannot distribute what we don’t have, and we should not possess what is given to us to pass on to others. Instead, we should debate (1) what are morally irresponsible (Wall Street gambling), inhumane (child labor), and unsustainable (deforestation) ways of creating wealth and how to create wealth in humanly and ecologically sustainable ways; (2) what kind of wealth contributes to human flourishing; and (3) how to make wealth serve us instead of us serving wealth.

Question to Ask: Which candidate is reminding us that we diminish ourselves when we turn into money-making and consumption-obsessed creatures and that we flourish when we pursue truth, goodness, and beauty, that we are truly ourselves when we reach to others in solidarity and enjoy one another in love?

4. Work and Employment
Value: Every person should have meaningful and, if employed for pay, adequately remunerated work. All able citizens should work to take care of their needs and to contribute to the wellbeing of others and the planet.

Rationale: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). The prophet Isaiah envisions a time when all God’s people “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21). Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Debate: The debate should be about what the required economic, cultural, and political conditions are for people to have meaningful work, and who is mainly responsible to create and maintain these conditions. How can we best fight unemployment and underemployment? Given the present state of economy and future economic developments, how can we stimulate the creation of jobs that pay adequate wages?

Questions to Ask: What policies does the candidate propose to help encourage meaningful employment and adequate pay for all people? What will the candidate do to encourage people to work not just for personal gain but for the common good?

5. Debt
Value: As individuals and as a nation, we should live within our means and not borrow beyond what we can reasonably expect to return; we shouldn’t offload onto others, whether our contemporaries or future generations, the price of our overreaching or risk-taking; instead, we should save so as to be able to give to others who are less fortunate then we.

Rationale: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy” (Eph. 4:28).

Debate: We should debate what responsible levels of debt are for households, businesses, or a nation; what constitutes predatory lending practices and how to prevent them; to what degree, if at all, spending on consumer goods should be promoted as cure for a faltering economy; and what the public significance of contentment might be.

Questions to Ask: What will a candidate do to bring and keep national debt under control? What will the candidate do to encourage individual saving and living within one’s means?

6. The Poor 
Value: The poor—above all those without adequate food or shelter—deserve our special concern. (“The moral test of government is how it treats people in the dawn of life, the children, in the twilight of life, the aged, and in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped” [Hubert Humphrey].)

Rationale: “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 leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 23:22). “There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession to occupy” (Deut. 15:4).

Debate: There should be no debate whether fighting extreme poverty is a top priority of the government. That’s a given. We should debate the following: How should we generate a sense of solidarity with the poor among all citizens? In poverty alleviation, what is the proper role of governments and of individuals, religious communities, and civic organizations? What macroeconomic conditions most favor lifting people out of poverty? What should the minimum wage be?

Questions to Ask: Is overcoming extreme poverty (rather than fostering the wellbeing of the middle class) a priority for the candidate? For what poverty-reducing policies is the candidate prepared to fight?

7. The Elderly
Value: Those who are frail on account of their advanced age deserve our special help. They need adequate medical assistance, social interaction, and meaningful activities. (The humanity of a society is measured perhaps especially by how it treats those no longer capable of doing “useful” work.)

Rationale: “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Ps. 68:5). (In today’s world, the “elderly,” arguably, belong to the categories of the “poor” and “widows”.)

Debate: The debate here is about the extent of the responsibility for the wellbeing of the elderly. What resources should a society set aside for the care of elderly, and what are the best ways to manage those resources?

Question to Ask: What will the candidate do to help honor the elderly and attend to their specific needs?

8. Unborn
Value: Unborn human life, just like fully developed human life, deserves our respect, protection, and nurture.

Rationale: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13). “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13).

Debate: There is a legitimate debate about the point at which life that can plausibly be deemed human begins and whether the best way to reduce abortions is to criminalize abortion or to improve the living conditions of the poor (for instance, through fighting poverty in inner cities, providing education for women, making available affordable childcare).

Question to Ask: Is the candidate firmly committed to reducing the number of abortions performed, to make it not just safe when it is legal, but also rare?

9. Healthcare
Value: All people—poor or rich—should have access to affordable basic healthcare, just as all are responsible for living in a way conducive to physical and mental health.

Rationale: “Jesus went through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness” (Matt. 9:35).

Debate: There is a legitimate debate as to how best to ensure that all people have access to affordable healthcare—but not as to whether the destitute should or should not be left to fend for themselves when faced with serious or chronic illness. We roughly know what it takes to lead a healthy lifestyle (exercise, minimal intake of sugar, no substance abuse, etc.), but we can and ought to debate most effective ways to help people lead such a lifestyle (for instance, how heavily the food industry should be regulated).

Questions to Ask: Which candidate is more likely to give the destitute effective access to healthcare? Which candidate is more likely to reduce the number of people who need to seek medical help?

10. Care for Creation
Value: We are part of God’s creation, and we must seek to preserve the integrity of God’s creation as an interdependent ecosystem and, if possible, to pass it on to the future generations improved. Above all, we should not damage creation by leading  lifestyles marked by acquisitiveness and wastefulness.

Rationale: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

Debate: The debate here should be about the extent of present ecological damage (for instance, whether or not we are barreling toward a climate apocalypse) and about the appropriate means and sacrifices necessary to preserve God’s creation.

Question to Ask: Which candidate shows a better understanding of the ecological health of the planet and has a better track record in preventing the devastation of what God has created and pronounced good?

11. Death Penalty
Value: Death should never be punishment for a crime. Since out of love Christ died for every human being (“the world”), no one should rob a human being of a chance to be transformed by God’s love, and no one should put to death a human being who has been transformed by God’s love.

Rationale: “Jesus straightened up and said to her [the woman caught in adultery, an act for which the Old Testament prescribes the death penalty], ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again’” (John 8:10–11). “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Debate: Notwithstanding the Old Testament endorsement of death penalty, for Christians, there is no debate on this one.

Question to Ask: Will the candidate push to abolish capital punishment, and if so, how hard?

12. Criminal Offenders
Value: Mere retributive punishment is an inadequate and mistaken way of dealing with offenders. We need to find creative ways to reconcile offenders to their victims and reintegrate them into the society.

Rationale: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:14).

Debate: We should debate viable alternatives to incarceration and how best to achieve the reintegration of offenders into the society. We should also debate the extent to which ethnic and racial prejudices are influencing our practices—more specifically why it is that Hispanics and African-Americans make up the largest proportion of the prison population—as well as the effect of the privatization of prisons on the increase of the prison population (the U.S. has the highest per capita prison population of any country in the world!).

Question to Ask: What does the candidate propose to do to reduce the number of incarcerated people in the U.S.?

13. World Hunger
Value: Given the world’s resources, no human being should go hungry; as individuals and a nation we should be committed to complete eradication of hunger.

Rationale: “[The Lord] executes justice for the oppressed [and] gives food to the hungry” (Ps. 146:7). “Then he [the Son of Man] will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink” (Matt. 25:41–42).

Debate: The debate should not be whether the eradication of world hunger ought to be one of our top priorities but rather what the most effective ways are to achieve that goal, including how best to fight corruption in countries in which hunger is widespread.

Questions to Ask: Is the candidate committed to the eradication of world hunger, and if so, what means will he use toward that goal? Is the candidate prepared to set aside a percentage of the Gross National Product for the eradication of hunger?

14. Equality of Nations
Value: No nation represents an exception to the requirements of justice that should govern relations between nations. America should exert its unique international power by doing what is just and should pursue its own interests in concert with other nations of the world.

Rationale: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12).

Debate: The debate should not be whether America is somehow exceptional (and therefore permitted to do what other nations are not—for instance, carrying out raids on foreign soil in search of terrorists). The debate should, rather, be about what it means for the one remaining superpower to act responsibly in the community of nations.

Question to Ask: At the international level, would the candidate renounce a double moral standard: one for the U.S. and its allies and another for the rest of the world? Even when the candidate considers an American perspective morally superior, will he seek to persuade other nations of the moral rightness of these values rather than imposing them on other nations?

15. War
Value: War is almost never justifiable, and every successful justification has to show how a particular war is an instance of loving one’s neighbors and loving one’s enemies.

Rationale: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matt. 5:43–46).

Debate: There is a legitimate debate about whether acts of war can ever be a form of love of neighbor and of enemy and, if they can, about what causes justify war (rule of a tyrant?) and what constitutes just conduct of war (drones?).

Questions to Ask: Has the candidate supported or advocated ending unjust wars in the past? Has the candidate condemned significant forms of unjust conduct of war?

16. Torture
Value: We should never torture. It dehumanizes both the detainee and the interrogator by violating the dignity of the one and degrading the integrity of the other, [1] and it erodes the moral character of the nation approving it. (For a definition of torture, see http://www.hrweb.org/legal/cat.html.)

Rationale: “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44). “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

Debate: There is no debate on this one—at least not a debate that, from my reading of Christian moral obligations, is legitimate. Even if torture were effective (which, according to most knowledgeable sources, it is not), it would be morally unacceptable.

Question to Ask: Has the candidate unequivocally condemned the use of torture?

17. Honoring Everyone
Value: We should honor every human being and respect all faiths (without necessarily affirming them as true). As citizens, we have the right to mock another religion, but as followers of Christ, we have a moral obligation not to.

Rationale: “Honor everyone” (1 Pet. 2:17).

Debate: The debate about one’s relation to other religions should not be whether we have the right to mock what others hold to be holy; we do have that right. At the same time, the debate should not be about whether we have a moral obligation not to make use of that right; we ought not mock what other people hold to be holy. Instead, the debate should be about what the authentic teachings and practices of individual religions are, to what extent the claims of their teachings are true (or false), and in what ways each religion fosters (or hinders) human flourishing.

Question to Ask: Will the candidate promote respect for all religions, including Islam, while at the same time affirming the need for honest debate about how true and salutary they are?

18. Public Role of Religion
Value: Every citizen, religious or not, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, has the right to bring his or her own perspectives on human flourishing and on the common good to bear on public life and to do so on equal terms with everyone else.

Rationale: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12).

Debate: The debate should not be whether religious voices should be excluded. It should be about what kind of political arrangements will ensure the equal access of all to participation in the political process on equal terms and what might be the limits to legitimate pluralism.

Questions to Ask: Does the candidate support the participation of every person in public life, encouraging them to do so on the basis of their own specific motivations and reasons? Does the candidate seek to protect the voices of ordinary people from being drowned out by powerful interest groups (like lobbies and Super PACs)?

19. Truthfulness
Value: Those seeking public office should forswear spin and contempt, being truthful with the public and civil to one another. You can “advertise” but not fabricate; you can criticize but not disrespect.

Rationale: We should all “[speak] the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) and seek to “honor everyone” (1 Pet. 2:17).

Debate: While the line between advertising and spinning is not always clear, the main debate should be about effective means to diminish the spin and contempt that have become part of our democratic system of elections.

Questions to Ask: Do the facts about the candidate’s own performance as well as those of their opponent match with the candidates’ words? Is the candidate attempting to correct rather than benefit from the spin that others, without his direct endorsement, do on his behalf?

20. Character
Value: Competence (technical expertise, including emotional intelligence), though essential, matters less than character because knowledge, though crucial, matters less than love.

Rationale: “If I . . . understand all mysteries and all knowledge . . . but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).

Debate: The debate should be about what dimensions of character matter most and what blend of virtues and competencies is most needed at this time.

Questions to Ask: Whom does the candidate strive to be like? Whom does he most resemble in character? Will the fear of losing power corrupt him?


[1] See Jennifer S. Bryson, “My Guantanamo Experience: Support Interrogation, Reject Torture,” (http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/09/3934/).













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