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Steve Patterson: A Christian Democrat Speaks

christian democrat Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Viscount de Tocqueville was a French diplomat, political scientist and historian. He was the author of "Democracy in America."


If America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

–Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America”


It came out of nowhere, like a stealth bomber dropping its payload on my unsuspecting self. “Hello, Mr. Patterson how are you?” she said as I stood in a Jackson book store trying to recollect who she was and where I had met her. “I’ve been reading your columns,” she added, as I struggled to remember. Then the bomb exploded, “I really enjoyed them. But you seem like such a nice man, I had no idea you were a Democrat,” she continued. As I politely laughed in an effort to buy more time to figure out who this young lady was, she delivered the knock out shock wave, “I had figured you to be a Christian?”

Steve Patterson, at his home in Como, MS.

Providentially, her husband approached, and it all came rushing back to me. I had stood in line with them at the funeral of a mutual friend a week earlier. Thankfully, her husband’s arrival led to our exchanging a few pleasantries and soon going our separate ways. Luckily, it allowed me no time to respond to her obtuse and infuriating comments.

The temerity of her flippant comments haunted me for the remainder of the day, and on into the evening, becoming an obsession for the next several days. I simply could not shake it. The more I thought about, it the more infuriated I became.

How can you be a Christian and a Democrat? The clueless sweet young lady had not posed it as a question, but as a perfectly acceptable conversational fact. She was not good-naturedly teasing, nor was she being impolite. Rather, she was merely stating what she understood to be fact. Perhaps that’s what troubled me most. The whole proposition is not even debate-worthy in her innocent mind. For her it’s simply an uncontested fact: one cannot be both a Christian and a Democrat!

The last few years I have heard these sentiments expressed with alarming frequency. The hypothesis is simple; Christians must be Republican in their political views, otherwise they are not truly Christian. What nonsensical rubbish is this? Such beliefs border on idolatry, don’t you think?

Furthermore, this proposition suggests that the Democratic Party is somehow anti-Christian.

Some folks are attracted to absurdity, I suppose, and we can be certain that this absurdity will find its defenders!

Had the question, ‘How can you be a Christian and a Democrat?’ been posed to me a few years ago, my quick, overly passionate response would have no doubt been to reply with an equally absurd retort — how can you call yourself a Christian and not be a Democrat? In my more youthful days my passions would not have allowed me to turn the other cheek in the manner I am able to do today.

Upon reflection, however, perhaps my youthful reply would not have been so absurd after all. Please allow me to make my case for the Christian Democrat.

First and foremost, I am a follower of Christ, a Christian. Secondly, I am a parent and grandparent. Next, I am an American and a proud Mississippian. Finally, I am a lifelong Democrat, in the same fashion of the recently deceased Rev. Dr. Billy Graham. (Dr. Graham revealed his Party affiliation only months before his death).

Yes, I am a Democrat. I am also a sinner saved by the atoning blood of Christ. I struggle daily to live life in accordance with Jesus’ teachings. I also believe it’s vital that Christians involve themselves in the political process. In fact I think that Christian faith requires political involvement. Religious faith and politics are inextricably linked.

Now, before you get all bent out of shape and get your panties in a wad, let me explain. I believe that the word of God intersects with all areas of life – that’s right ALL areas of life, from before birth to after death and all aspects in between. While we all may be “just passing through” on our earthly journey, we are nonetheless called to advance and cultivate God’s earthly Kingdom.

Governments organize society and also impact every aspect of life. Let’s not forget that America was settled by the Puritans who had a vision of establishing God’s kingdom here on earth. Politics is and has always been important to Christians.

We tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity … in fact our movement is Christian.        –Adolph Hitler, October 27,1928 speech in Passau
Not too very long ago there was a country where Christians refused to talk about politics, with disastrous results. That country was Germany from 1933 to 1945. German Christians were swept up in the rhetoric of German nationalism and intimidated into silence. The Fascist Nazi Party came to power and eventually was viewed by the German public as the party of God.

The German clergy was timid and didn’t dare challenge the prevailing ideologies of the day, silently allowing fascism and its evils to flourish. A majority of Christian pastors, Protestant and Catholic, thought that mentioning any political party other that the Nazi Party was out of bounds and should not be dared. Politics was too messy, too controversial, too earthly, to concern them. They praised Jesus in church while their government systematically slaughtered and imprisoned over 15 million Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, cripples, gypsies, and blacks all across Europe. They preached of a “heavenly kingdom,” but were intimidated into not dealing with God’s kingdom here on earth. In other words they were, as that old song my good friend Billy Joe Shaver sings, “Heavenly minded but no earthly good.”

The part of the Lord’s Prayer that says “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” was either conveniently ignored or the Nazi vision of God’s earthly Kingdom was accepted.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945

Eventually, a powerful move of the Holy Spirit intervened and a small, courageous group of pastors began to challenge the orthodoxy of the day. Among the leaders of this small band of rebels was the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who happens to be my personal favorite twentieth century theologian. The movement these brave saints started was known as “the confessing church.” The activities of this small band of believers powerfully demonstrate the necessity of people of faith to stand firm when unambiguous evil ascends to power. Bonhoeffer was ultimately hung by the Nazi regime for his alleged involvement in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Praise God for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

It is an edifying exercise to study the historical accounts of the “ confessing church “ and I urge all people of faith to especially pay attention to the lessons of that history. Faith and politics are indeed inexorably connected! As Plato wisely said, “He who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself.”

In my view, “politics” is not a dirty word that we believers should avoid. Rather, it is a sublime word that should bring joy to our very souls! For it is through politics that crippled children walk, the mentally ill get care, schools, roads and courthouses get built, health care is provided, children are taught and lives are saved and made more comfortable.

Among other things we ask our government: to provide for the national defense; foster a better business climate; protect worker rights; support needy children; save us from hazardous waste and deadly poisons; ensure that our water is safe to drink, our air is safe to breath, and our food is safe to eat; to prevent and punish crime; to promote good health and prevent epidemics; and defend our constitutional rights to free speech, assembly, and worship. I submit that in each of these areas of national concern the Democratic Party has an unrivaled record of success!

Where does today’s lunacy that argues that one cannot be a Democrat and a Christian originate?

The answer of course is simple: Abortion rights. Nothing more nothing less!

I don’t agree with my party’s position on abortion. I’m like most other southern Democrats, pro-life. In fact, each time I sought public office I received the active vocal endorsement and support of every pro-life group in Mississippi, running as a Democrat.  It may come as a surprise to those reading this column that there are, in fact, a growing number of pro-life Democrats, just as there are a growing number of pro-choice Republicans.

I part ways with most of my Republican friends on this issue in one critical way. I believe that babies should not only be protected in the womb, but that it is our responsibility as Christians to ensure that they are fed, educated, protected and loved once they are born! Government, of necessity, must play this vital role. All, —yes All —the government programs with this task in mind came from Democrats! Namely, those great Democrats that only need initials to be identified: FDR, JFK, and LBJ!

I think there is general agreement that one of the characteristics of God is his love of life. In the New Testament, Jesus identifies himself as “the Bread of Life” (John 6:35) and “the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25). In the Old Testament, God speaks through Moses and commands us to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Many folks think only of abortion when contemplating these commands. They cry out for laws to protect the unborn no matter what the circumstances. However, some faithful believers, myself included, may abhor abortions, but do not want government taking away decision making from innocent victims and their pastors and doctors in cases of rape, incest, or when a woman’s life is threatened by the pregnancy.

I know of no Democrat, or for that matter anyone, who will not acknowledge that every abortion is a tragedy. But many do make a compelling case for the unintended consequences of criminalization. The images of back alley butchers are indeed haunting!

Some Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, see life as a “seamless” garment and oppose both abortion and the death penalty. They advocate what they rightly call “a consistent pro-life ethic.” I’m with my Catholic brethren on this one; I’m opposed to taking life, whether it be in the womb or in prison. Some people no doubt deserve to die, but I don’t deserve to be the one that kills them.

As Christian citizens we must realize that life issues are not about abortion alone. Public safety, primary health care, organ transplants, crime, guns, domestic violence, even seat belts are also issues of critical importance in the protection and love of life. I would challenge everyone to research the policy positions on each of those issues before mindlessly hurling the anti-Christian barbs at the Democrats.

One of my longtime political cohorts from the hills of East Tennessee, who happens to also be a Methodist preacher, recently said to me, “You know, I’m not too troubled by the biblical scriptures that I don’t completely understand. But I’m terrified by the ones that I do understand, and I understand every word of the of the 25th chapter of Matthew. And that’s why I’ve always been a Democrat.”

That of course is the chapter that uses three parables to instruct us on discipleship, judgment and the preparations required to enter heaven, verses 31-46 read as follows:
“ ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, you are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. Then they will also answer “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison. And did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them,  ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I wonder how our nation will fare if judged by these standards. Now, honestly Judge which of our two major political parties would fare better? This is how the lord Jesus himself says that we will be judged. Jesus’ standards are unambiguous, and few of us measure up by those explicit instructions.

One of the primary reasons as a Christian I identify with the Democratic Party is that there are over 2000 verses of scripture that deal with the needs of the poor. I sincerely believe historical evidence is compelling that it’s the Democrat party that has shown far more compassion toward “the least of these.”

My theology is conservative. I believe the scriptures are the inerrant words of God. I believe every word of the apostles’ and Nicean creeds. My faith tradition is from the reformed perspective and I’ve been studying and committing to memory the Westminster confession of faith my entire life. But theological conservatism and political conservatism are two entirely different positions. In fact I could make a compelling case that my conservative theological views form the basis of my more progressive political positions.

Consider the conservative Republican positions on poverty, hunger, welfare, unjust labor practices, and health care. Their view is it’s not the appropriate role of government to address these issues. They are partially right, but only partially. Scripture clearly advises that governments are appointed “to do justice.” Surely justice involves much more than the punishment of lawbreakers. Justice is a much broader concept than that. Justice requires collective action. Justice requires protecting the weak from the powerful. Justice requires equal opportunities. Justice requires a helping hand for the weak and downtrodden.

Sure, our churches should help the poor and protect the “least of these.” But realistically, only a God ordained civil government can make even a dent in the social ills that plague every country on earth. One recent study estimates that every church congregation of all faiths on earth would have to expend almost 700,000 dollars annually to approximate one quarter of what is currently being accomplished by governments.

Oh, but the scriptures teach that “the poor shall always be with us.” That’s true, but that in no way exempts us from the other 2000 passages about those marginalized and forgotten, for whatever reason, by the society we created. Christ calls us to action for all his family.

My baby son is named John Calvin Patterson. I gave him that name. John Calvin was, of course, a renowned reformation scholar and gospel preacher. Calvin presided over what was basically a theocracy in Geneva, Switzerland. Calvin advocated public loans for the poor and refugees from other lands, universal healthcare, state ownership of some industries, price controls on commodities, and severe penalties for those profiting on the backs of the poor through high interest loans. So much social legislation was passed at the urging of Calvin that modern day scholars refer to that period and his governmental rule as “Christian socialism.”

John Calvin, 1509-1564

Read Calvin’s commentary in “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” and you will find many views of the scriptures that are antithetical to today’s prevailing evangelical perspectives. Today’s Republicans would no doubt claim Calvin heretical if they truly understood his positions on many things!

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman was nominated by the Democratic convention to be its nominee for President of the United States. Upon the floor vote that named him as the party’s nominee, Truman, who was a huge underdog for reelection, vowed to take the fight to the Republicans and proclaimed the 5th, 6th and 7th chapters of the Book of Matthew to be his political platform! What better way to seek the presidency than to stand on the principles of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? Of course, President Truman went on to surprise the entire world and win that election.

Four years later, and one year after my birth, the keynote speaker for the 1952 convention was my political hero, speaker of the US House of Representatives, Mr. Sam Rayburn, of Texas. What follows is part of what he said:
“I do not say that the Democratic Party is all wise. I do not say that it is all knowing. I do not say that it is all-holy. For this would not only be untrue, but it would be to attribute to men what is of God alone. Yet, I do say that the Democratic Party is merciful, it is humane, and it is compassionate. If it should ever cease to possess these qualities, it would cease to be the Democratic Party, and ought to be condemned to oblivion.”

Then Mr. Sam went on to compare men and political parties:
“As ever. Man is the sum total of his inheritance, environment and experience, so are political parties. Some men will instinctively oppose injustice whether or not it directly concerns them. Some men are selfless and some are selfish. And in every case, when the chips are down, they will behave according to their inner natures.

All this is a matter of the heart. The Democratic Party may not have always been wise, but it has always had a good heart. And when a man or a political party has a good heart, you know that he or it will never let you down.”

I agree with Mr. Rayburn. The Democratic Party has always had a good heart. Christ looks at our hearts. We may not always be wise, but “if my people who are called by my name, will humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sins and heal their land.”

God is not a Democrat and he’s certainly not a Republican. I think it’s safe to say that God is not greatly impressed with either Republicans or Democrats. God is not on the side of any political party, but on the side of justice, compassion, mercy, freedom and life!

When political passions and religious fervor join forces to do battle in the cultural wars of any age, there is enough hypocrisy on both the left and the right of the political spectrum to overflow the Grand Canyon! We’ve all seen it! Passions overflow and overcome Godly wisdom. Before you know it, attitudes that are not very Christ-like take hold. Ultimately, the original righteous goal becomes subservient to crass political maneuvering for raw power. Neither of America’s political parties has a monopoly on righteousness, ambition or hypocrisy.

Alexis de Tocqueville, 1805-1859

In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville published the first volume of his classic work “Democracy in America.” A French diplomat and politician, de Tocqueville wrote what many consider the first and most thoughtful political science treatise on the relatively new American republic. One passage from that authoritative work has special relevance for today and is especially pertinent to the topic at hand:
“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and ample rivers and it was not there…. in her boundless forest and it was not there…. in her rich mines and her vast world commerce and it was not there …. In her Democratic congress and her matchless constitution and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

Today we hear a lot of talk about making America great again. We should follow de Tocqueville’s admonition and first make sure we are good. Our pulpits must once again be “aflame with righteousness.” America needs far less partisanship and much more true patriotism, less enmity and more comity, less yelling at or about the other party and more listening to and learning from the other party.

Our pulpits today, especially those on television, are filled with charlatans. I fear if we were to set out to establish a faith that was the polar opposite of the message found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, it would closely resemble the pop culture hucksters messages that have taken over the airways of America! Too many of our pulpits are aflame with make-a-buck nonsense!

Oh. And one more thing, don’t ever question my faith because of my political views. That would be a violation of the ninth commandment and that’s a sin-not a sin against me, but against the God we all serve. I, of course, will pay you the same respect. I will, however, reserve the right to question your political judgment.

Let us together, make America Good again!

To see Steve Patterson’s previous article: 

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1 Comment on Steve Patterson: A Christian Democrat Speaks

  1. Steve Patterson: A Christian Democrat Speaks
    by nanewsweb
    If America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.–Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America”

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