Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Santorum Gets Wrong

When I decided some months ago to start blogging again, I intended to avoid politics; I was just going to write responses to the lectionary.

However, when the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination feels that it's appropriate to criticize President Obama for a "phony theology" that is "not based on the Bible," I can't help myself.

When Republicans in Congress can summon an all male panel of clergy to complain that their rights are threatened by insurance coverage for women's healthcare (and simultaneously deny an opportunity to speak to a woman who was prepared to speak to how the laws impact her), something has gone off the rails.

When I say "what Santorum gets wrong," I don't plan to do a point-by-point rebuttal of his various statements and claims. The last thing the world needs is more Christians pointing fingers at each other and saying, "I'm right, you're wrong."

Today, however, is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. While there is a heightened focus on sin and all our various collective and individual failures, there is also necessarily an emphasis on forgiveness and salvation. What Santorum and people like him appear to have not understood - perhaps conceptually, intellectually, but clearly not in their hearts - is that salvation isn't up to us.

Oh, we can have a long argument about salvation by faith versus salvation by works, but that misses the point, too. It's not up to us. It's salvation by God.

The writers of the New Testament reached a pretty clear consensus that grace is a gift, freely given. We don't earn it, and in fact, we can't earn it. There is no person so good, so pure, so virtuous that they can enter into eternal life by their own efforts. No one deserves to go to Heaven. The astonished disciples asked Jesus, "Well, then who can get into Heaven?" He said, simply, "For mortals, it is impossible." Remember, this is the guy who also said, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell a mountain to uproot itself and fall into the ocean." But Heaven? "For mortals, it is impossible."

And then he says, "For God, all things are possible."

A lot of people - hopefully most people - concede this, even if they maybe don't really believe it. The most self-righteously pious, judgmental blowhard televangelist will also probably be the first person to say he's a sinner, but he's also a lot like that pharisee in the classic parable, pointing at the tax collector and saying to God, "I may not be perfect, but at least I don't sin as much or as badly as that guy." That's really where we find ourselves. "I may not be perfect, but at least I do not have sex outside of marriage/I do not use birth control/I have not had an abortion/[fill in the vice of your choice]." That's basically Rick Santorum: I assume he wouldn't dare say (and doesn't believe) that he's not a sinner, but at least his theology is "based on the Bible," not like that other guy's. It is a classic case of "holier than thou," in the most pathetic and literal (if illiterate) sense.

So it begs the question: if no one is perfect, then just how imperfect can we be, and still get into Heaven? And if that sounds like we're framing the question too much in a "works-based" theology, then let's rephrase: no one fully understands God or gets everything right, wrong can we be and still be "right enough"?

But there again we fail to remember it's not up to us.

The Bible, which is sometimes described as a record of the history of salvation, is not a book full of inspiring, feel-good stories about virtous people, or, at the very least, that would be a grotesque oversimplification. It's a book full of troubling - but ultimately inspiring - stories about a whole lot of very real human beings who say and do all kinds of dumb, mean, fearful, selfish things. What we're meant to take away is that people are complicated, and that God can work with us and through us even though we screw up in ways big and small, all the time. Our brokenness is not an obstacle for God. Paul strenuously insisted that nothing can separate us from God's love, one of many verses the literalists prefer to pretend come with an asterisk.

And so, even laying aside the incredibly sad state of affairs that a self-professed defender of the Constitution does not understand why it's irrelevant, inappropriate and offensive to comment on whether the president's "theology" is sufficiently orthodox for the office, Santorum's own biggest mistake is failing to understand that no one's theology is sufficient.

You just can't legislate people into heaven, Rick.