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On Electing a Shepherd of the National Soul

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Every national election cycle in the US affords fresh opportunities for speeches calculated to assure us that our president will not only be a capable executive and commander-in-chief but will be our philosopher-in-residence and faithful high priest of the civil religion. The President has become the shepherd of the national soul.

In the UK, the head of church and state (the monarch) is a different person from the head of government (the prime minister). However, in the US we combine these offices in one. Maybe that's one reason, historically, why we place so much weight on our presidents to embody our own spiritual aspirations and convictions. Yet since the Constitution distinguishes clearly between civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions (shaped by Madison's training under Princeton Presbyterian's John Witherspoon as well as American Baptists), that sacred trust cannot favor any particular confession. Hence the tightrope one must walk: required to steward a broad civil religion (basically, a morality grounded in a Supreme Being who has a special place for America in his plan), displaying some personal commitment to a particular Judeo-Christian community, while not giving preference to his own denomination in making policy.

Quite a number of past presidents would not have made it across that tightrope today. In terms of personal beliefs and commitments, George Washington seems to have been a more faithful Mason than a Christian. One thinks of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who quite publicly revealed their profound disagreement with orthodox Christian beliefs such as the Trinity and the deity of Christ. By the best accounts, Abraham Lincoln was a very nominal Baptist—probably Unitarian in his views—who nevertheless shared the public sense of belonging to a chosen nation, favored by Providence yet for that very reason subject to the judgment of Providence for failing to fulfill its sacred mandate.

Understandably, most conservative evangelicals today would identify the policies of Woodrow Wilson as part of the drift toward big government. Confessionally, however, he was a staunch "Princeton" Presbyterian. (B. B. Warfield nominated him to Princeton's presidency.) In modern British history, the Labor Party relied heavily on the intellectual capital and numerical strength of nonconformist Puritans and evangelicals. Westminster Chapel's famous pastor, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was personally committed to the labor movement—and the Labor Party. Why? Because he believed that humanity was created in God's image and therefore are "men, not pigs." Christians sharing the same theology have always disagreed about which policies are most consistent with it. Unlike the old covenant, the New Testament doesn't include a blueprint for a nation's foreign and domestic policy.

Although confessional distinctives have been largely downplayed in American evangelicalism in favor of the experience of being born again, theology has moved from the back page to headline news in recent weeks. Are Mormons Christians? Is President Obama truly born again or is he a liberal Protestant, agnostic—or even a secret Muslim? Is he driven by a theology that is different from the one that most Americans would espouse? In spite of several marriages, would Newt Gingrich's policies support family values? Is America the last bastion of good in the world and therefore the focus of Satan's attacks?

Meanwhile, striking a superior pose, secularists pretend that they are above all of this "abolute truth" business, even as they pronounce edicts of atheistic materialism that they have no scruples about imposing on the public for its own good. It's all about politics, they say, and playing the religion card is just another way of trying to win an election.

Secularists like to pitch themselves as tolerant caretakers of democracy, claiming that the quest for "abolute truth" (and the conviction that one possesses it) lies at the heart of the culture wars. Recently, one writer opined, "The essence of democracy is that we, the people, get to choose our values. We don't discover them inscribed in the cosmos. So everything must be open to question, to debate, to change. There can be no fixed truth except that everyone has the right to offer a new view. It's a process without end, whose outcome should never be predictable. A claim to absolute truth—any absolute truth—stops the process of democracy"

However, secularists are no less convinced that they are right—even about absolute truth. They just have different authorities and inhabit different communities that affirm their convictions. There are plenty of core convictions and values that are not "open to question, to debate, to change" on their side. And that's as it should be—must be, in fact. Whether in science or public policy or a religious community, you can't leave everything open or there is no shared consensus on anything and thus no community.

It is not that theology doesn't matter in the public square, or this election year in particular. President Obama does indeed draw deeply from his own worldview, and this worldview is laden with theological assumptions and beliefs—as every worldview is. There is no such thing as a "naked public square." We bring ourselves to every discussion and any religion or worldview that is merely private, with no relevance for how we live in the world, is about as publicly interesting as stamp collecting. Do I see a lot of contradictions between Mr. Obama's puplic profession of faith in Christ and his stands on various important issues? Yes, of course I do. I also see contradictions on the Republican side. I also see on both sides a tendency to claim more warrant from Jesus and the Bible for views that one would hold (in fact many non-Christians do hold) apart from it. Danger lurks not in favoring certain policies that can't claim explicit biblical warrant, but in claiming carte blanche divine authority for these views. Secularists are mistaken in thinking that God's ultimate authority doesn't matter; believers err when they fail to realize that their interpretation of Scripture and application of biblical teaching to specific policies are always shaped by a lot more than Scripture itself. Political liberals and conservatives seem to me often to over-interpret some passages and under-interpret others according to an ideology they would have regardless of their faith.

The real issue is whether the confusion of kingdoms (which can only lead to a bland civil religion) is creating an atmosphere that brings harm to the cause of Christ and the common good of our society. Recently, Franklin Graham has explained his personal test for candidates, which seems to be reducible to the validity of their personal testimony to having a personal relationship with Jesus. For Senator Santorum, it's a more objective test: a question of one's worldview and the theology undergirding it. Boston College's Stephen Prothero offered a sane analysis of Senator Rick Santorum's statement about President Obama's "phony theology."

To speak freely, I have serious questions about the theology of all of the candidates. Many Roman Catholics would parse their theology differently in relation to the environment than Senator Santorum. In terms of moral fitness, many bishops and priests would be more concerned about a candidate (Newt Gingrich) with multiple marriages being the standard-bearer for a platform of family values. I have lots of problems with Roman Catholic theology. Some of the candidates earlier in the race had close ties to extreme Pentecostals. Their rhetoric of "dominion" and claims to private revelation were more worrisome to me than the religious or irreligious beliefs of anybody in the field. This is even before we talk about Mormons or liberal Protestants! Where does the religious test stop?

We do not have access to the hearts or minds of others—not through their personal testimony or to their personal morality. We only have access to their public profession and to the policies that appear most directly to derive from it.

Secularists need to back off of their smug illusion of neutrality in religious and worldview matters. One's faith—and worldview—matter. Many in the media don't realize this because religious convictions and practices are not important to them personally. With little or no background or training in any particular religious tradition, they assume that the rest of us leave our deepest convictions at the door of the voting booth. Until they see the significance of ultimate convictions for the lives of millions of their fellow-Americans, they will miss the story behind the story again and again. There should be freedom to explain how it matters in shaping policies directed at the public good.

Yet believers also must stop expecting politicians to double as high priests of a false religion, an idolatrous religion, that substitutes real confessional communities for a generic moralism. Even where a candidate's confession differs from our own, we have to ask what we're looking for in our political leaders. Are we seeking an icon who will reassure us that even in a wildly pluralistic and relativistic society we are the ones in the right, safely ensconced in the walls of absolute truth? Or do we have the more modest goal of electing presidents who will eschew any messianic mantle and pursue policies that we believe are more likely to do more good than harm to the republic's common good and the Constitution that they swear to uphold?

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  • Guest - D. G. Geis

    I think you nailed it, Mike.

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  • I wish a candidate would give a speech like this, but that is highly unlikely! Instead they are juggling their rhetoric with all the reasons they will be the best shepherd of the American soul. Your last two paragraphs are a great challenge of us all. This is such a great illustration of why solid teaching on the two kingdoms would be so helpful for the average person.

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  • [...] Horse Inn Blog – On Electing a Shepherd of the National Soul – well stated, especially in the realm of describing “confusion of kingdoms” [...]

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  • Dr. Horton, I would be very interested in your critique of Rick Santorum's speech "Revive the Role of Faith in the Public Square." It is a critique of JFK's historic Houston speech in which he assured Americans that his presidency would not be subservient to the dictates of the papacy. Santorum points out that JFK not only pledges to not impose specifically Roman Catholic agendas in public policy, but pledged to so absolutize the "separation of church and state," that it provided the pattern that has been followed by the secularists who would eschew the influence of any religion-based morality on any public policy.

    My reading of his speech, and his frequent campaign appeals to "the laws of nature and of nature's God" seems to approximate the 2k emphasis on natural law arguments as the most theologically and constitutionally correct manner of applying moral law that is not only consistent with the moral law of any and all religions, but is discernible through natural reason.

    You can read his speech here:


    In what way am I mistaken about my take on Santorum's speech? I recognize he argues in more explicitly religious terms than you may recommend, but how is it that his basis differs from your approach?

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  • Guest - The Bruce

    I agree with Mr. Horton, all I want is for the President I vote for to be a Godly man or women, with honesty and integrity and not a "Man of God" I want a President not a Pastor

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  • Guest - The Bruce

    And we know that JFK did not impose the rule of the Papacy in fact it was the opposite, the most morally corrupt President, both JFK and also his sidekicks , hence the Godly man and not man of God request

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  • I stand somewhere between the Two Kingdoms and Transformationist views and hear that middle position being espoused here.

    I believe there is a role for Christians being salt and light to a culture, illuminating the law written on people's hearts, pointing to truth that is being repressed.

    I think "Distinction without separation" sums it up well.

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  • [...] Horton’s most recent post at Out of the Horse’s Mouth (The White Horse Inn Blog): On Electing a Shepherd of the National Soul [...]

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  • [...] I love Michael Horton. He writes articles so I dont have to (as if I could write as well as him). If youre at all interested in the question of what role the faith of a presidential candidate should play in our voting, I strongly encourage you to read Hortons post entitled On Electing a Shepherd of the National Soul. [...]

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  • Excellent post, Dr. Horton! You perfectly articulated what's been swirling wround in my cranium for months now.

    If you takr requests, I would love to hear you expand on your plea for secularists to realize that one's faith DOES matter (even in in the politcal arena), and can't simply be "turned off" at the voting booth. One's faith is much a part of their worldview as one's secularism. Both are held very enar to the heart. We must learn to accept this and coexist.

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