The values and mores of America’s faith traditions have long influenced our political and policy discourse. Faith leaders from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X to Jerry Falwell and James Dobson have helped to frame the debate on issues of the day. Particularly in presidential election cycles, candidates have frequently invoked their faith as the source of their political orientations and as a guide for their policy positions and the official actions they would undertake if elected. This year is no different. Thus, it is crucial to examine more deeply the implications of candidates’ stated faith-based positions, keeping in mind the Constitution’s prohibition against religious tests in government. With this year’s candidates professing primarily Judeo-Christian traditions, we at the Opportunity Agenda believe it’s important to lift up the foundational social justice values, ideals, and policy principles of those traditions to ascertain how consistent the candidates’ stated positions are with the faiths they espouse.
We offer the following questions for community leaders, journalists, and everyday Americans seeking to explore the candidates’ commitment to the universal tenets of justice, dignity, and human rights for all.
1. PROMOTING JUSTICE
Justice is the most frequently occurring term in the Bible. It reflects the recognition that every person is of equal worth and that every person has an equal right to the good things in life. The term appears more than 400 times, including in ways that make clear that those in positions of authority have a special responsibility to act justly. For example, the book of Leviticus commands, “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (19:15). The traits of the ideal ruler are described in this inaugural psalm: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people in righteousness, your poor with justice…. May he defend the cause of the poor among the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:1-2, 4).
As president, what kinds of policies will you pursue to promote justice?
2. CONCERN FOR THOSE LIVING IN POVERTY
Concern for the plight of the poor permeates the Bible, with pointed declarations such as, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29:7). In the four gospels, Jesus speaks about poverty more often than any subject but God. Moreover, when Jesus states the reasons for his earthly ministry in what the Gospel of Luke presents as his initial sermon, the first among those reasons concerns the suffering of poor people: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…” (Luke 4:18).
Indeed, every religious faith commands concern for the poor in our midst.
With more than 45 million Americans living in poverty today, including 17 million children, what will you do to both ease the difficulties that poor people face, and to move toward ending poverty in the richest and most powerful nation in the world?
3. MAKING CHANGE TO END POVERTY
The phrase, “to bring good news to the poor,” is understood to mean meeting the material needs of individuals or groups of individuals. However, the phrase should also be understood as connoting social change, in that structural societal change is the only lasting way to transform the laws, policies, and structures that cause poverty and maintain it. The moral imperative for just structural change is reflected in the pronouncement of Isaiah, one of the most important prophets in the Bible: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people…” (10:1).
It is in the tradition of the biblical prophets that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. issued his call for a “reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values” to increase economic security and shared prosperity for all Americans.
As president, what structural changes would you propose to bring an end to poverty in America?
4. REFORMING THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus also declared people languishing in prison to be a core concern for him: “the spirit of the Lord … has sent me to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18). Imprisonment in Jesus’ day included many inequities and injustices—brutal treatment, long and arbitrary sentences, struggling peasants imprisoned for defaulting on loans from rich and often unscrupulous lenders. And with little due process, especially for the poorest, innocence was at best an unreliable defense.
Today, we see modern parallels of many of these injustices: police brutality and discrimination against poor people and people of color; minor indiscretions punished with lengthy sentences; poor people jailed for inability to discharge debts; inadequate indigent defense, leading to innocent people being convicted and, in several proven instances, executed for crimes they did not commit.
As president, what reforms would you institute to address these problems and bring our criminal justice system in line with the values of fairness, equality, and respect for the dignity of every person?
5. THE TREATMENT OF IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES
Throughout the Bible, and particularly in the Old Testament, hospitality and just treatment of immigrants (variously called “sojourners,” “foreigners,” and “strangers” in traditional translations) are stressed as basic tenets of biblical faith. For example, calling immigrants “strangers,” the book of Leviticus commands, “…when a stranger resides with you in your land, do not oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
In even stronger terms, Deuteronomy warns against xenophobia and injustice toward newcomers in our policies and behavior: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the stranger… of justice” (Deuteronomy 27:19). Right now, our nation is faced with the tragic humanitarian crisis of frightened and dispossessed refugees seeking safety on our shores from the horrors of war.
In light of these biblical values, as president how would your policies treat the immigrant and refugee sojourners in our midst?
6. CARING FOR THE HEALTH OF ALL
Attending to the healing needs of every person afflicted with disease and ill health who requested his help—regardless of means or status—was a defining feature of the ministry of Jesus. He is portrayed in the gospels as never turning away anyone in need of care and healing, no matter how poor or destitute, no matter their nationality. Indeed, some of his most dramatic miraculous deeds involved bringing the sick back to good health.
The Affordable Care Act has significantly increased the availability of healthcare across our nation, yet there remain some 33 million Americans who still lack basic healthcare coverage, including 5 million children.
What would you do as president to ensure that adequate healthcare is available to everyone in our country?
7. RACIAL JUSTICE
The book of Leviticus commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus quotes that verse as one of the two greatest commandments (Mark 12:30-31). Yet, in America, racial exclusion and violence continue to divide and bedevil our society. Moreover, new activism and new technology have combined for greater awareness of police bias and violence in communities of color, and students are forcing universities to confront and address past and present racism in their midst.
As president, how do you plan to work for racial reconciliation, justice, and equal opportunity in America? And do you feel that #BlackLivesMatter and other social activists are contributing something important to our national discourse?
8. BUDGETING WITH VALUES IN MIND
In addition to their functions of financial planning, projection, and oversight, government budgets can also be understood as moral documents because, in the final analysis, every budget reflects the values of those who craft them.
How, if at all, would your budget proposals embody the biblical values of lifting people out of poverty, ensuring a fair criminal justice system, and treating all people as you would like to be treated?
9. PROTECTING THE CLIMATE
The Bible’s predominant view is that humanity has a responsibility to protect the environment from harmful exploitation and abuse. It tells us, for example, “You shall not defile the land in which you live” (Numbers 35:33-34). And it admonishes those who elevate greed and waste over careful stewardship for the earth: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?” (Ezekiel 34:18). And in Genesis we hear that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). In its use of the Hebrew terms abad, “till” (literally “to work or serve”), and shamar, “keep” (literally “to exercise great care over; to guard or watch over”), the Bible charges humanity with the responsibility to serve, preserve, and care for the earth.
As president, what measures would you take to protect the earth from pollution, climate change, and other environmental harms?
10. RESPECT FOR ALL FAITHS
Again, the Bible charges each one of us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Our neighbors must include those of different nationalities and faiths.
What will you do as president to stem the dangerous demonizing of Muslim Americans? How will your presidency reflect the values of love and mutual caring that all faiths require?