The Politics of Salvation: Will the Election Be Decided by Works or by Faith?

Article excerpt

"It's the economy, stupid!" Or is it?

This slogan from the 1992 Clinton campaign no doubt seems more relevant than ever after the financial meltdown. And there is, of course, a sense in which the dynamics of the global economy are fundamental to the current presidential race. But if economics is changing the political map, the competing narratives of the presidential candidates are being written at quite a different level, one with theological resonances Iam not referring here to the role of social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, which remain important to many voters, or to the comments of Barack Obama's long-time pastor, which became so controversial earlier this year. Those are all political issues on which various religious communities have taken positions, not theological questions proper.

I am speaking, rather, of the debate about soteriology that has been taking place just below the surface through at least the last three election cycles, and that gained renewed impetus with the nomination of Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate for vice president. Soteriology is the part of theology that deals with the question of how one is saved. As such, it was the principal locus of debate between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, with the Reformers arguing that justification is by faith alone and Catholics claiming that faith opens us up to the emergence of new "supernatural" capacities we must cultivate if we are to come to know God and become capable of authentic beatitude. Protestantism is unusual in regarding salvation as a free gift. Among the world's spiritual traditions only a few forms of Mahayana Buddhism (certain Pure Land schools) and of Hindu bhakti devotionalism argue anything even comparable. The rest of us, while gratefully acknowledging the assistance of God, usually regard spiritual excellence as something that depends on our own actions. Some Protestants call this "works righteousness."

What does this have to do with the election ? Both presidential candidates are after all protestants (though vicepresidential candidate Joe Biden is Catholic), and as much as the candidates have been "talking religion," they certainly haven't been debating soteriology. Still, the Republicans have chosen a vice-presidential candidate who is not merely a fundamentalist but someone whose achievements and personal "merits" (to use an Evangelical term) are very much open to question and who presents a public face not of conquering virtue but of brokenness and struggle. Equally intriguing, John McCain's acceptance speech at the Republican convention emphasized not his heroism as a prisoner of war, but rather that the North Vietnamese broke him. Indeed, McCain actually called attention to the fact that prior to his capture by the North Vietnamese, he had been living a less than serious life, and claimed he was "saved" by his country.

In the political argot of the current electoral cycle, elitism is a substitute for "works righteousness" and brokenness for Evangelical piety. Think of it this way: In the present period, the sharpest political contradiction in the United States has been between cosmopolitan urban centers, which are linked more strongly to the global market, and the hinterlands, where many people feel they are being "left behind." In the past two general elections, location in a major city was the best predictor of a Democratic voting pattern, location in a rural area of a Republican voting pattern. I would argue that living with a reasonable degree of affluence and security in a major city means that one has succeeded in the global market--or in some other civilization-building arena. This success, in turn, creates the basis in experience for a spirituality of self-cultivation. It is a spirituality that is confident of humanity's ability to find rational meaning in the world as well as in our capacity for excellence, both secular and religious. …