Living in the US for the past 4 years has been an eye opening and life changing experience for me. My views of the intersection between religion and politics have changed in many ways. Some previously held opinions have been reinforced while others have undergone a slower, more gradual evolution.
Prior to coming to the US in July 2004, my views of the religious right in the US – evangelical Christian who vote mostly for the Republican Party – have largely been shaped by their support for George Bush Junior’s successful presidential run in 2000. Bush came across, back then, as a man of sincere and deep religious convictions. He had a great story to tell, a story of a back sliding life that was turned around by his turning to Christ. It was a story which many Christians, not only in America but elsewhere in the world, could relate to. I would count myself as a believer then in Bush’s convictions and his story. Many Christians in America saw Bush as ‘one of them’, someone who could speak a language which they understood. Because of this, he was ‘anointed’ as the religiously correct choice among Christians in the 2000 presidential race.
Thou shall not criticize my president
The evangelical voters were still strongly behind Bush in his re-election campaign in 2004 even as signs of a badly prosecuted war in Iraq that was based on deceptions and a less than honest presentation of facts were emerging. Today, evangelicals are probably the only group left in America whose approval rating for the president is above 50%.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that one cannot strongly support a certain political leader. This is well within one’s democratic right, Christian or not. But what irked me – and this dawned on me only gradually – was the feeling that many evangelical Christians in the US thought you were almost insulting God if you said about bad about Bush. It almost seems as if he was above reproach. And I thought that this right was only reserved for those who are infallible.
Sometime in 2002, I attended a gathering of a group of Christian lawyers from all over the world who were meeting in KL for their annual conference. I came away pretty impressed by the solidarity shown by many of the lawyers over issues of commonality such as fighting for religious freedom. But later, a Malaysian Christian lawyer, whom I respect a great deal, told me that he had pulled out of this organization after he was berated by one of the organizers for criticizing Bush’s invasion of Iraq in an email circulated within the group. He was of course criticized by an American, one of the ‘higher-ups’ in the chain of command within this organization.
We could fight for religious freedom but the buck stops at criticizing our Christian and God chosen president of the US of A. How ironic. It was only after coming to the US that I realized how pervasive this sentiment was among evangelicals. I think it has subsided somewhat because of how unpopular Bush has become but it’s still something that is not ‘kosher’ for any Christian evangelical leader to do – criticize Bush that is – at least in public.
In lock step with the administration
It is not surprising that evangelical Christian leaders feel compelled to support Bush and his policies. Many of these high profile leaders including the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and the President of the National Evangelical Association are regular invitees to the White House for presidential ‘pow-wows’. When ‘one of your own’ is in the White House and you have regular access to him, the intoxicating lure of power might be too much even for Godly men.
To put it cynically, it is easy to ‘buy off’ prominent Christian leaders with political access and with symbolic policies (such as the much criticized Faith Based Initiative) who would then act as your surrogates to the larger Christian community.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that it should be the responsibility of Christian leaders and pastors to put forth their thoughts regularly on political issues. But I do think that it is a mistake for Christian leaders to be co-opted into supporting policies that are perhaps out of one’s ‘jurisdiction’, so to speak. This was certainly the case for the war in Iraq as many a Christian leader gave their stamp of approval that it fulfilled the conditions of being a ‘just war’. It is not hard to see why the same Christian leaders would find it hard to withdraw their support for such a war when it was later revealed that it was based on faulty intelligence. It is not hard to see why the same Christian leaders remained quiet when the gruesome photos of Abu Ghraib came to light. Being in lock step with the administration run by ‘one of our own’ presents its share of pitfalls for Christian leaders.
Abortion and gay marriage
Another realization that again, has only gradually dawned on me is that many evangelicals base their political support for a party or candidate on a couple of so called ‘hot button issues’, the most important of which is abortion and followed closely by gay marriage.
If one were to plunk a Martian in the middle of the US presidential elections in 2004 and ask ‘it’ to come up with an understanding of what Christianity is about, it would probably say something like this – ‘Christians are a group of people who do not want others to be able to abort babies or to allow couples of the same gender to marry one another’.
I would readily admit that I’m pretty conservative when it comes to social issues. I think that abortion is a terrible thing to do to one’s own body and one cannot underestimate the possible physical and more importantly, the emotional damage left after such a procedure. I also happen to think that marriage between two people of the same gender is unbiblical. But I’m much more libertarian when it comes to whether and where the government should draw the line on these two issues. I say this because I do not think that all my views on social matters should be translated into government policy. I think that in many instances, the church probably has more of a role to play in these kinds of issues.
Why not look within our own church communities to examine if our own daughters are getting pregnant and then wanting abortions or if our own sons have problems with their sexuality? Why do we need to look to government legislation under the false pretense that if we somehow make it harder to get an abortion or if we ban same sex marriage, these problems would somehow vanish from society or from within the church?
Furthermore, should Christians base their political support solely on these two issues? After all, the last time I checked, abortion and homosexuality do not figure prominently in the bible. No where does it say in the Great Commission that one should go forth and prevent abortions or same sex marriage from happening.
I had great respect for James Dobson while I was in Malaysia for his Focus on the Family ministry. But here in the US, I’ve been exposed to another side of him; the side which berates presidential candidates if they do not conform to his moral worldview based on his own reading of the bible. Partly because of the media soundbytes which we are exposed to here, but James Dobson is often relegated to ranting on just one issue – you guessed it, abortion.
What about the discussion of policies which encourage more responsibility in managing our God given environment or policies which aim to provide affordable health care to the poor or policies which crack down on corruption and the abuse of power and so on? Are these issues less ‘biblical’ than those to do with abortion and same sex marriage? I’d like to think that I believe in a God and in a faith which requires its followers to have a more expansive viewpoint of the world and of the role of government in it than just one or two ‘hot button’ issues.
Thankfully, some Christians leaders, most notably Rick Warren, are challenging Christians to get involved in issues such as preventing the spread of the HIV virus and are preaching responsible stewardship of the environment. But they are still most definitely in the minority.
What about Malaysia?
How then does this translate into my understanding of the intersection between religion and politics in Malaysia? And in regard to Christian involvement in and understanding of politics in Malaysia?
Firstly, it reinforces an already held opinion that we should not hold a leader, Christian or political, to a higher esteem than necessary. We should resist the temptation to support a politician just because he says that he is ‘one of us’. Many Christians in the US supported Bush on this very premise and in doing so, gave him a free pass on many other important matters.
While we don’t expect there to be a Christian PM in Malaysia anytime soon, there are some politicians who profess to be Christian. It is not in my place to judge the sincerity of their faith. But I would caution us to be wary of politicians who ask for our support just on the basis of their faith.
Of course, a Christian politician in the Malaysian context would be in a better position to understand the problems faced by Christians including the difficulty of building places of worship and the distribution of Christian literature. But I would want to evaluate my support for politicians more on just on the basis of their faith. (More on this later)
Secondly, it has been made clear to me that as voters and members of society, we should not base our voting decision on the basis of just one or two issues. Being a responsible member of society requires that we not just support the politician or party which can find us that building permit approval to expand our church premises or guarantee us another 5 years of economic growth, important though these issues may be.
We should weigh a number of factors in the process of determining our political support. We should consider the ruling party records on a whole host of issues including economic stewardship, respect for religious freedom and human rights, environmental stewardship, treatment of workers and laborers, crime and safety, integrity and honesty, and so on. We should evaluate the promises of the PM made at a previous election (or of his party) against his actual record. We should consider the performance of our individual MP and state assembly representative over the past years. At the same time, we should weigh the promises of the opposition parties and candidates to see if what they say matches up to what they can do and have done. It is a complicated process which cannot be reduced just to the faith of one candidate versus another.
Thirdly, my experience in the US has convinced me of the need to have rigorous competition in all segments of the political ‘marketplace’ including the religious marketplace. It would not be an outlandish statement to say that the Republican Party has a stranglehold on evangelical Christians. Regular church goers (at least once a week) vote overwhelmingly for the Republican Party. Of course, some of this has got to be blamed on the ineffectiveness of the Democrats to reach out to those who take religion seriously.
(Hopefully this will change in the upcoming Presidential elections since there are signs that a religious ‘left’ is banding together to support the Obama campaign)
To put this in the Malaysian context, think what would happen if most of the religious Muslims in Malaysia were to throw their support behind PAS because it can promise its followers and voters more ‘Islamic’ policies including the passing and implementation of Syariah laws, just to name one. I have many friends within PAS and I admire the honesty and integrity of many of their leaders but from a policy and political perspective, I am more than happy to see a vigorous contestation for the votes of the Malay community, which is not based solely on religious issues.
Fourthly, my experience has made me wary of those who say that it is more ‘Christian’ to vote for one side rather than the other. I don’t think that one can make a case that it is more Christian to vote for one side because it is the only side that can guarantee political and social stability (true as this may be) or that it is more Christian to vote for the other side because it is the side which fights for human rights (true as this may be). I think it is perfectly reasonable to make arguments in support of one side or the other – I have friends, many of them Christians, from both sides of the aisle – but I think that these claims should not be on the basis of one’s Christian faith.
Barring a regime which is so corrupt and so repressive – which I think Malaysia’s regime is not, even though many may disagree – I don’t think that one can confidently use biblical language or mandates to justify that it is more ‘Christian’ to vote for one side rather than the other.
Finally, I think that there should be institutional independence among Christian organizations and perhaps even Christian leaders, or at least those who are in active membership of a church or para-church organization. It is far too easy to be seduced by the lure of power on one side or by the prospects of political ‘martyrdom’ on the other, as unlikely as the latter option may sound.
The experience of evangelical leaders in the US has shown me the dangers of being too closely associated with the powers-that-be so much so that they were co-opted and accepted the views of the White House uncritically.
Thankfully, I don’t think any of the major Christian groups and organizations can be said to be in the back pocket of the government (or the opposition for that matter). This has enabled them to take principled stands when it came to matters of direct concern to Christians such as the use of the word ‘Allah’ either in the Iban bible (the Bup Kudus) or in the BM portion of the Catholic publication, the Herald.
I would probably say the same for most church leaders as well. Their responsibility, in my opinion, is to be a good shepherd to their respective churches and challenge them to be responsible citizens. It is certainly not wrong for them to engage with political leaders of various stripes or to guide those within their congregation who want to be politically active. But I would be more wary of those who want to hobnob with the powers-that-be to gain access and perhaps a possible Datukship or even Tan Sriship down the line.
There are times in a country’s history when the ruling regime becomes so corrupt, so repressive and so evil that it would be impossible for Christian leaders NOT to denounce the actions of the regime. A contemporary example would be Zimbabwe today which is ruled by a president, Robert Mugabe, who has failed to protect the livelihood and security of most of his citizens. Another well known example in history would be standing up against the Nazi regime which was what Dietrich Bonhoeffer did and for that he had to pay the ultimate price, death. Being a Christian leader or follower during such trying times takes tremendous courage and faith.
I do not think that the US is anywhere near requiring a universal denouncement of its president, disliked as he is by many within and without the country. I don’t think the current BN regime is also anywhere near a situation which requires Christian solidarity in standing up against it. Despite its track record of having a less than stellar human rights protection, corruption, abuse of power and so on, it has managed, over the past few decades, to deliver on economic growth and stability and has assured, to a large extent, religious freedom for the non-Muslims.
If there was any episode in recent memory which required the moral conviction of Christian leaders and followers to make their voices heard, it was the arrest, trial and conviction of Anwar Ibrahim in the late 1990s. (Some may point to the aftermath of Operasi Lallang in the late 1980s as another example but I was too young to remember that) Some Christian leaders did make their stand on the matter public, most notably Goh Keat Peng, who also dipped his toes into the political realm for a bit. Most kept noticeably quiet, even those who had previously wanted to be seen as ‘close’ to Anwar.
There might be a time in the near future, when the prospects of an imminent collapse in the BN government might prompt some sort of brutal measures from the incumbent regime against opposition politicians and activists that might make Operasi Lallang look like child’s play. I hope that this day won’t come. But if it does, then, I would be compelled to urge my fellow citizens, Christian and non-Christian to make their voices heard loud and clear. I would urge Christian leaders to do the same.
But until that day comes, we should remain engaged as politically and socially responsible citizens of our country, be driven by our convictions, be persuaded by a menu of issues (and not just a few) and ask our Christian leaders to be politically neutral and independent but at the same be engaged with their congregations and with politicians on issues of importance to the country.