Rick Perry and a different religious test for candidates

Should Christians be racing to support Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who led a prayer rally earlier this week in Houston and is poised to announce his presidential campaign?

In a July post on ThinkChristian, Michelle Kirtley argued that the faith of political candidates matters, writing, “Faith informs our view of human dignity, of justice, of integrity and ethics and cannot be separated from both the political and the policy decisions elected officials make everyday.” Perhaps a more important observation comes in the next sentence, though: “Simply choosing a candidate that claims to follow our own religious tradition will not guarantee a thoughtful application of faith to public policy and will lead to politicians giving lip-service to faith.”

Because I agree that faith should play an important role in both shaping our opinions and driving our actions, and because I fear that too many politicians understand the value of appearing faithful, I propose a different kind of “religious test.”

More important to me than the faith of the politician is whether his or her policy positions match up to both the faith he or she professes and my own. The problem, though, is figuring out how we can make that determination, as politicians are notorious for their rhetorical ability. In short, the problem is how we sift through the garbage and really get to know a candidate. Personally, I follow a three-step process that I think could be useful for everyone, one that appears simple but can be surprisingly difficult. In the end, though, the work is rewarding, both practically and philosophically.

First, take some time to boil down the essence of Christianity into three or four single words. I always end up with words like “compassion,” “mercy” and “love,” but I suppose that you could come up with something different. Next, think about those issues that are most important to you and determine what positions most accurately reflect those Christian “characteristics.” Finally, examine each candidate’s record on those issues, determining how closely his/her actions live up to his/her words and how closely his/her positions match up with those you’ve identified as Christian. The right candidate, then, is one whose policy positions and record align most closely with your own conception of the soul of Christianity.

This is all abstract, so I’ll give you an example of how I apply the process.

For me, one of the core values of Christianity is compassion. As people of faith, I believe we must not only be thankful for what we have but also acutely sensitive to the needs of others (as Jesus most certainly was). Two issues that reflect the need for compassion most clearly to me are health care and education. As such, I ask myself what positions in regards to those issues I consider most compassionate. What I answer - universal, free health care for at least everyone under the age of 25; a system of funding education not tied to property values - gives me a kind of road map to finding the right candidate, one whose positions and actions align with my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. All that is required then is a bit of legwork to research each candidate’s record. Just as important as figuring out who to vote for, though, is that finding a candidate in this way results in greater awareness of both our own faith and the ways in which we can act faithfully in even the most worldly of arenas.

Ultimately, my method encourages me to look past professions of faith and search for God in policy. The logical extension of this thinking, however, leads me into conflict with many Christians, for Christ-like policy can be (and often is!) both championed and implemented by non-Christians. Some might find this a weakness, although I hold quite the opposite. Indeed, we limit the power of God when we disqualify from public service those who do not practice the same religion as we do. If we truly believe in an all-powerful God, then we must allow that He sometimes works through the least likely of people, including Muslims, Hindus, religious Jews and even atheists. I encourage Christians, then, to take a broader view of the relationship between faith and politics, one that focuses on policy rather than rhetoric, one that cares less for religious affiliation and more for Christ-like actions.

All of which means Rick Perry will have to do more than hold a prayer rally to get my vote.

As a Graduate Assistant at Northern Illinois University and an Adjunct Professor of English at Trinity Christian College, Timothy Hendrickson understands the power of language to both reflect and distort God's truth. He currently lives with his wife and two children in Homewood, Ill., though he'll always be a New Yorker at heart.

(Photo courtesy of the Texas Office of the Governor.)

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You are very much correct that the coherence of those policies supported by candidates with our own faith commitments ought be one of the primary criteria by which we evaluate a candidate and that such a process might lead us to vote for candidates that do not share our religious convictions—-that is right and a cornerstone of what allows a modern, just, pluralistic state to function.  I’d caution you though, that there is often much complexity in translating the character of Jesus in the interpersonal realm into the desired characteristics of the State.  Folks far more intelligent than I (e.g., Augustine and Aquinas) have struggled with that question, and the Church continues to do so.  A simple process for working this out, such as you propose, seems desirable but might, for example, lead us to believe that the State, like Jesus in his interpersonal relationships, should recognize and call out sin in individuals while forgiving and calling offenders to a new way of life.  That seems to me to be overreach that does not respect the pluriform nature of creation and applies, in this case, the norms of the Church to the State.


Christianity=compassion, compassion=universal healthcare therefore Christians shouldn’t support Perry since he doesn’t fit the odd way Christianity and compassion have been contrived in this formula. I’ll use different criteria, thanks.

Why is universal health care for those under 25 the distillation of compassion?  Are you using the idea of mandating health care (meaning that others pay for it) as a cover for your lack of compassionate action?  Compassion is an individual action.  We are called individually to be compassionate, but how compassionate is it to mandate a government program that bankrupts our government and encourages the deterioration of individual responsibility?  Your points are good but you have to be careful that you don’t use them to just validate a political position that you hold.

@Jeff, I encourage you (and others) to insert your own values into the formula I propose. Compassion is only what I come up with, and I in no way expect people to universally agree with me. You may not view compassion as a core value of Christianity, or you may not equate socially progressive policies with compassion (which is just fine with me). What I mean to suggest here is that the decision to support a candidate should be an individual one based on careful consideration of whether that candidate’s positions reflect what YOU consider to be Christian values, not simply a result of someone saying they go to church. I am perfectly aware that my sensibilities are not yours, and I celebrate that diversity as proof of God’s creative power.


Might we use a different criterion—like, say, justice? Because I would suggest that it is unjust that in our society, if a rich child and a poor child get cancer, the rich child will get treatment for that cancer while the poor child won’t. It’s unjust that a kid who goes to DC public schools will be in a run-down classroom with 35 other kids, while a kid who goes to Montgomery County public schools just outside DC will be in a state-of-the-art facility with a class size of 20-25. If a candidate took Biblical notions of justice seriously, what do you think he or she would have to say about the massive gap between rich and poor in this country and how to fix it?

Or perhaps our criterion is Matthew 25, in which Jesus tells us that He will reject those who do not feed the hungry, aid the sick, and in general act to ensure that those who are oppressed by our economic condition are empowered and brought out of oppression—because when we ignore those who are oppressed and downtrodden, we ignore Jesus Himself. If a candidate took that seriously, what would he or she say about our health care system, food stamps, or WIC assistance?

Or perhaps our criterion might be the Biblical principle that God, not any human, is the true Owner of all wealth and resources—and that those who are their stewards on this earth are made stewards for the purposes of serving all of God’s children, not just themselves, with the resources with which they’ve been entrusted. One wonders what a candidate who takes that principle seriously would have to say about the wealthy sitting on historically unprecedented amounts of wealth while so many Americans are jobless, homeless, or hungry.

Or maybe our criterion is the principles of the Old Testament Law, including the part that expressly forbids usury and the exploitation of the poor, and proclaims that every seven years all debts must be forgiven and every fifty years the land must be redistributed. I wonder what a candidate who took that principle seriously would have to say about our banking system, which is based entirely on usury, the so-called “right” to private property, and the notion that debt is perpetual.

It is easy to be seen as a “Good Christian” when leading prayer at the front of a church, more difficult when the test comes where “being as Christ to others” could cause embarrassment or cost a person their career for an unpopular choice. 

I have met many people who labeled themselves Atheists for lack of confirmed faith in God, who in action and daily life were better Christians than some of the self labelled Christians I have also met. 

God knows our hearts. He made us all in all our wonderful variations.

I’m disappointed with this article for 2 reasons.

First, there is absolutely no mention of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe it goes without saying that He should very much be involved in our choices for both policy and candidates.

Secondly, while I understand there was an attempt not to guilt others here by stating your idea of what compassion in policy looks like, I believe, as the post below me suggests, that you didn’t accomplish this. For instance, as a Libertarian, I find that compassion is best communicated at local, not federal, levels. You may disagree, but to include that contrarian point in your article would have done much to communicate what you were actually trying to say in the article.

The emphasis at the end, on trusting God is something I always appreciate. An important component to any discussion who believes the “sky is falling” whenever a certain candidate or issue wins out.


Yes. My invocation of compassion is both personal and meant as an example of how I would apply the process. Justice, mercy, love, and more varied criteria make sense; indeed, my “formula” encourages individuality of understanding in this regard, noting the value of diverse over monolithic thought. Thanks for commenting.


I’d root an argument for universal health care for those under 25—and we can certainly quibble about the high end of the age range here—not in terms of compassion but in terms of justice.

I think a person can make the case—though I don’t agree with it, given the rapaciousness of the for-profit health insurance industry—that adults should take “individual responsibility” for providing for their own health care, and if an adult doesn’t want to work or makes life-choices that lead to the kind of employment where they don’t have employer-based health insurance or the money to buy an individual plan, we shouldn’t provide health care for them. The argument can be made—though, again, I don’t agree with it—that it is just that an able-bodied, able-minded adult without the means to get health insurance doesn’t have it, because he or she has presumably had opportunities to make different choices that could have led to his or her having it.

But I think that argument breaks down when we’re talking about people who can’t control their economic situation. We generally acknowledge this already in the case of those who are physically or mentally disabled to the point where they’re unable to find productive employment; I think most of us would agree that it wouldn’t be just for us to demand that they do something that’s impossible for them, in order to have their basic human needs met. We generally agree that it’s just for society to provide for their needs, acknowledging that circumstances outside their control make them unable to provide for themselves or be held to the same “individual responsibility” standard to which we’d hold an able-bodied and/or able-minded adult. 

My argument for universal health care for the young would be that they fall under that category as well. A cancer-stricken 5-year-old boy doesn’t have any control over the matter if his parents aren’t willing to go out and get a job; while I can see the argument that it would be just for the adults in the situation to be unable to get medical care, I don’t think there’s a moral argument to be made that it would be just to deny this 5-year-old the cancer treatment he needs because of his parents’ circumstances. I think we can say that as a society, just as we do for adults who aren’t able for whatever reason to provide for themselves, we’re not going to punish children for circumstances that they’re powerless to change. We will ensure that their needs are met, because it’s absurd to demand that a 5-year-old exercise “individual responsibility” in providing for himself.

That’s why we have public schools that are open to all children; we don’t believe that only children who are born to parents who can afford tuition at a school deserve to be educated, and we acknowledge that an educated populace is a public good. If this is so, then how much more is a healthy populace a public good? Those who argue against universal health care for the young should, by the same token, be arguing against the existence of any governmental support for education; there is no reasonable argument for supporting the latter while not supporting the former.

[Jesus said:] “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” —Matthew 6:5-6

Your comment, combined with that picture of Rick Perry, made me think of that verse…

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