Salt-and-Pepper Politics

Choosing between candidates whose consciences are too clean.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, October 2004 (vol. 48 no. 10), page 108.

Some things were meant to be together. At least, that’s what I learned somewhere along the way about table manners. Even if you just want the salt, etiquette requires that you ask for the salt and pepper. In the words of Miss Manners, “they get lonely if separated.”

Ancient Israelites, as far as I know, didn’t even have a word for pepper, but they did have the twin words mishpat and tsedaqah, which most English Bibles translate as justice and righteousness. “Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness” (Ps. 72:1)—justice and righteousness go together just like king and royal son.

Just as salt and pepper belong together on a well-set table, justice and righteousness belong together in a nation.

“The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” (Ps. 103:6), and the Messiah “will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness” (Isa. 9:7). Prophets and psalmists thought in twos: throne and kingdom, establishing and upholding, justice and righteousness. Mishpat and tsedaqah. Two great tastes, to quote the commercial of my childhood, that taste great together.

Just as salt and pepper belong together on a well-set table, justice and righteousness belong together in a nation. Mishpat and tsedaqah show up together more than 30 times in the Hebrew Bible, nearly always in a political context. Because justice and righteousness are the foundation of God’s throne (Ps. 89:14), they are also the “measuring line” and the “plumb line” (Isa. 28:17) of earthly thrones.

Which brings us to Democrats and Republicans, and to why I will be voting this November with, well, fear and trembling.

Justice, in biblical terms, is more than equal treatment under the law—it involves putting power at the service of the powerless and wealth at the service of the poor. My friends who care about justice argue that Democrats have spent 50 years advocating for the vulnerable: the poor, the sick, the youngest, the oldest. And though the party of the powerless also has a curiously strong appeal among the elites of Hollywood and Manhattan, on the whole my friends are probably right.

Righteousness, meanwhile, is more than honesty and fair dealings—it requires the alignment of our lives with God’s original good intentions for creation. Like justice, righteousness in a nation especially benefits the poor and powerless, who cannot insulate themselves from the effects of sin. My friends who care about righteousness argue that Republicans have held the line against values that come straight from the maw (or the mall) of individualistic consumerism, where pleasure and preference reign. And while the party of moral character raises lots of money from people whose only interest is making the world safe for consumerism, I can’t argue with these friends either.

To make matters worse, each presidential candidate has blind spots even in his area of putative strength. John Kerry declines to see that abortion is not a matter of private morality but of public justice for utterly vulnerable human beings. (Bizarrely, he justifies his position by saying that government must keep out of people’s bedrooms. Abortions do not generally happen in bedrooms.) Any public official who professes Catholic faith and is as enthusiastically pro-choice as Kerry does not have, in the words of the Catholic bishops, “a well-formed conscience.”

Yet our President’s conscience also seems too clear to be true. Asked a simple and predictable question at an April 2004 press conference—to name his greatest mistake since September 11, 2001—he couldn’t answer, saying, “I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t—you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.” Is it too much to ask that the most devout President in recent history have a more concrete response to a question about his own limitations?

Such is the state of our presidential politics: an evangelical President flummoxed at any suggestion of his own fallibility, and a Catholic candidate who sidesteps his church’s teaching authority. And in both our political parties, concern for justice often serves as cover for self-justification; righteousness curdles all too quickly into self-righteousness.

So I’ve decided that my own vote will be less about endorsing a platform or person than discerning the potential for change—in biblical terms, for repentance. Is it more likely that the party of justice can repent of its indifference to righteousness, or that the party of righteousness can repent of its deafness to justice? I have to choose one, but I will pray for both. Some things aren’t meant to be separated.