Both President Obama and Governor Romney recently granted an interview on faith to the magazine of National Cathedral in Washington. Both candidates named favorite passages of scripture, with the choices revealing a fascinating difference in emphasis. One candidate's chosen passage focuses on charity, and specifically on helping the needy with their physical needs. The other candidate's passage discusses God's power over the world, and to provide protection for human beings who trust Him.
If you think you know which favorite scriptural inspiration belongs to which candidate, think twice.
It was Pres. Obama who cited Isaiah 40:31—"But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (NIV)—and Psalm 46. And it was Gov. Romney who cited Matthew 25:35-6—"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me" (KJV).
What, if anything, can we learn from this seeming inversion of what we might expect the two candidates' theologies to emphasize? Why does the President, whose politics insist we are all collectively responsible as a human society to tend to the physical needs of the needy, emphasize God's sovereignty and ability to provide protection? Why does his conservative opponent emphasize handouts of food, hospitality and clothing? If the candidates chose these passages with an eye toward political traction, perhaps the inversion is a deliberate attempt to reassure religious swing voters that they are not the caricature the other side would paint. Pres. Obama is attacked as a secret Muslim and/or godless Communist, so his biblical passages imply his Christian faith is rock solid. Gov. Romney, on the other hand, knows that conservatism is often attacked as heartless, and one of his gaffes was a declaration that he was "not concerned about the very poor". So his biblical passage implies that he cares deeply about the needy, and his desire to cut government programs doesn't mean he doesn't value charity on a private basis. Both choices can be read as damage control.
(You could argue that a New Testament passage might have made the Christian point for Pres. Obama more clearly than two Old Testament passages, but nobody is attacking him for being a secret Jew... Wait, scratch that, people in the Middle East probably are attacking him for being a secret Jew. But no significant voting bloc in America is doing so... Could the Old Testament choices have been aimed at shoring up the Jewish vote? Quite unlikely.)
What, if anything, can we make of Gov. Romney's decision to truncate verse 36? In the interview, the Governor didn't only mention the verses by name, he quoted them as above. But the complete verse 36 continues further than he quoted. The part of the verse Gov. Romney left out is in bold: "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (KJV).
Drawing conclusions from this is awfully tempting. Is visiting prisoners not tough enough on crime for the Republican candidate to include in his favorite quotation? Did Gov. Romney stop where he stopped so as not to bring up the issue of health care, and the similarity of his Massachusetts plan to the President's national version? Or was the truncation simply a forgetful mistake? (And if he did forget the verse's conclusion, what (if anything) can we make of that?)
On all counts, the answer should be that there's nothing we can make of this at all. In a reasonably sane world, I'd be the first one to criticize a blog post like this one and say, "Are you crazy? Have some respect. Don't assume the candidates chose these passages cynically. Why not give these two leaders the benefit of the doubt and assume they both made their choices solely out of a genuine affinity for these verses, and not read political calculations into their choices?"
That's what I'd think in a sane world... Meanwhile, in this world: so vitriolic has this election been—so divisive and rhetorically dishonest—that the kind of cynical speculations in which I've just indulged (and I have indulged in them, I will say, not without a small hint of guilt) don't feel very much out of place. Both campaigns have at various times advanced such blatantly unfair arguments against the other side that I have a hard time imagining that either of these two candidates could let an opportunity to score even the tiniest political point go by, and simply choose their favorite passages without running it by a pollster.