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Faith and Works in American Politics

by Benedicta Cipolla

When Hillary Clinton, a Methodist, discusses her faith, she almost always quotes her favorite passage from the Book of James: “faith without works is dead.”

In 2004, John Kerry, a Catholic, also invoked the New Testament epistle on the presidential campaign trail, citing the same chapter as Clinton (James 2: 14-26) during appearances in churches and in his final debate with George W. Bush: “There’s a great passage of the Bible that says what does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead. And I think everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith….That’s why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith.”

And when Al Gore, a Baptist, speaking at the annual NAACP convention in 2000, wanted to drive home his accusation that Bush’s interest in black voters was merely a shallow political maneuver, he, too, turned to James: “Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.”

St. James
St. James

The repeated references to James highlight an often overlooked and controversial book of the Bible. For centuries its supposed conflict with Paul’s letters and the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone relegated it to the sidelines of biblical scholarship, and only recently has it enjoyed more attention.

“‘Faith without works is dead’ translates politically into ‘rhetoric without action is dead,’” said Kevin Coe, coauthor of THE GOD STRATEGY: HOW RELIGION BECAME A POLITICAL WEAPON IN AMERICA (Oxford University Press, 2007).

James stresses the theme of faith in action perhaps more than any other single book of the New Testament. Unlike other New Testament letters, many of them attributed to Paul, James plays down dogma in favor of practical ethical guidelines that center on loving one’s neighbor and, in particular, serving the poor.

In 2004, said Coe, “Republicans were really battering Democrats with religious rhetoric. The response offered by Kerry and others was to say, we might not be able to compete with the religious eloquence the Republicans have a handle on, but we can on policies more consistent with the New Testament, like uplifting the poor and fighting disease in Third World countries.”

Over the past several years, Democrats have succeeded in marshaling the religious left and have built a bigger audience attuned to biblical language. With its calls to serve society’s marginalized (“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”) and its critique of wealth (“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you”), James represents a good fit for the party’s perspective.

“It’s a book that the left is likely to have a better chance of using effectively,” said Coe. “Traditionally, Democrats have served the lower classes.”

Which isn’t to say Republicans never cite James: Asked in a 2006 profile in ROLLING STONE what drove his work to combat malaria, poverty, and hunger in Africa, Sam Brownback, the Republican senator from Kansas and a Catholic convert from Methodism who now co-chairs Catholics for McCain, responded, “Widows and orphans.”

“It’s a reference to the New Testament Epistle of James,” the magazine reporter explained, citing James 1:27: “Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

One of seven “catholic epistles,” so named because they address the general faithful rather than a particular community or individual, James is characteristic of wisdom literature, offering instructions on how to live a moral life. Some attribute its authorship to James, the brother of Jesus, a prominent leader of the early church in Jerusalem. There was debate about the letter’s authority, but it was adopted into the New Testament canon by the end of the third century.

At times, the prominence given to demonstrable works — at the expense, some have argued, of belief — has plagued the letter. In the preface to his 1522 New Testament, Martin Luther famously dubbed it an “epistle of straw” for its apparent contradiction of his principle of justification by faith alone (“sola fide”), which he traced to Paul. Other Protestant leaders, however, like the equally reform-minded John Calvin, saw “no just cause for rejecting it” and declared it consistent with the doctrine of free justification.

“It’s not the case that Paul is arguing for faith versus works, as he is sometimes portrayed,” said Thomas C. Oden, professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Drew University and the author of THE GOOD WORKS READER (Eerdmans, 2007) and THE JUSTIFICATION READER (Eerdmans, 2002), “and James is not arguing for works as if they were opposed to faith, but rather a complement to faith.”

Clinton, who mentions James most often among politicians, never divorces the two. When she quotes from the book, she usually continues by inverting the “faith without works is dead” slogan. At a Wisconsin diner in February she told voters, “I also believe my own personal theology — that works without faith is too hard.”

Some have observed that “faith without works is dead” appeals particularly to a carnal, concrete Catholic sensibility and is more popular with Catholics than Protestants. But its popularity with public figures like Clinton, who embraces the Protestant spirit of reform in America, suggests otherwise.

John Wesley
John Wesley

Clinton’s admiration for James is rooted in her Methodist background and its tradition of social outreach. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, used the epistles of James and 1 John in particular to correct the notion that Paul had advocated a sterile faith without a corresponding service aspect, said Robert Wall, professor of scripture and Wesleyan studies at Seattle Pacific University and the author of COMMUNITY OF THE WISE: THE LETTER OF JAMES (Trinity Press International, 1997).

During the first half of the nineteenth century, James’s passionate language on poverty and economic injustice resonated more among Methodists in the United States than in Wesley’s native Britain, said Wall, “because American Methodism worked out on the frontiers and was much more of a working-class and pioneering movement.” While Methodists across the Atlantic were no less committed to social reform causes like the abolition of slavery and implementation of labor laws, their American counterparts on the whole represented a more populist movement.

“Maybe in part it was a reflection of our emerging democracy, the language of freedom and of equality, a central mythology to the shaping of our culture. This robust sense of equality was very much a piece of American Methodism, and any kind of injustice toward the poor would have resounded much more keenly,” said Wall.

In his speeches and writings, nineteenth-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass used James in his calls for justice for emancipated slaves. “I love that religion that makes it the duty of its disciples to visit the fatherless and widow in their affliction” (James 1:27) he said, responding to the charge that he was undermining religion with his arguments against slavery. According to Margaret Aymer, assistant professor of New Testament at the Interdenominational Theological Center and the author of FIRST PURE, THEN PEACEABLE: FREDERICK DOUGLASS READS JAMES (T. & T. Clark, 2007), Douglass found in the Letter of James “the most extensive definition of [his] own religion.”

As the Social Gospel movement spread among Protestant churches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, James’s “faith without works is dead” theme dovetailed with the movement’s emphasis on community betterment and improvements in education, health care, and labor conditions.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

Clinton’s own religious background centers on moral engagement with the world. Faith that is not lived, she was taught, is indeed dead. With her youth minister she read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, discussed art and literature, saw Martin Luther King speak, and organized babysitting services for the children of local migrant workers.

Reading James, “you can imagine someone who’s trying to exhort a community, saying the contributions to the local food pantry are off, or people aren’t showing up to help with the Salvation Army kitchen, or any of the other things churches do,” said Pheme Perkins, a professor of New Testament at Boston College who has written biblical commentary on James. “If you have faith but you’re not reaching out to the poor, then you’re missing part of the point.”

James’s exhortations, according to Luke Timothy Johnson, professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and a former Benedictine monk, seem to imply an audience that avoids even the minimum expression of faith in deeds that is required by its profession of faith in Jesus. They emphasize communitarian ethics along with “group solidarity, egalitarianism, and moral rigor,” Johnson has written in his commentary on James.

Liberation theologians have drawn heavily on the text because they see in it themes that illuminate their view of the Bible as pointing to a preferential option for the poor.

“This book is still very pertinent, not only because of oppression but because the challenge of poverty is growing, and James challenges us to respond to this situation,” said Elsa Tamez, professor of theology at the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica.

In THE SCANDALOUS MESSAGE OF JAMES (Crossroad, 1990), Tamez argued that the accumulation of wealth always comes at the expense of the poor, whom she equated with the oppressed of contemporary Central America. The epistle writer admonished his addressees: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you?”

James, Tamez wrote, called the oppressed not only to prayer and patience in the face of suffering, but to action. “Faith cannot be sentimental, ‘Jesus is my friend.’ You must show it in your acts and your practice, your way of being,” she said.

One of Clinton’s overarching campaign criticisms of Barack Obama was that he’s all talk and no action — a barb that sounds a lot like her favorite epistle. “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22) is another passage she tends to cite.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

When she implored voters to pick a “president who relies not just on words but on work,” Clinton wasn’t speaking in religious terms. But her phrasing echoed her references to James, and it may have resonated with people of faith, even if they lack scriptural fluency, who feel driven to engage their beliefs with society at large.

As a rejoinder to Clinton’s claim, Obama’s campaign mailed fliers to voters in states like Kentucky that said, “My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I go out and do the Lord’s work.” While Obama didn’t quote James, the sentiment perfectly matched the epistle’s thrust.

Citing James and its “faith in action” catchphrase may also signal an attempt to reach voters outside the demarcations of the candidates’ own faith traditions. While Methodists and other Christians can appreciate references to James, the letter’s practical rather than doctrinal emphasis likely also appeals to others who can appreciate the idea of living life according to a set of deeply held values.

“I think people from the Jewish faith could read the book without any difficulties, and the same with Islam. It offers a theological perspective rather than christological,” said the Rev. Patrick Hartin, professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University and the author of JAMES (Liturgical Press, 2003), a translation and commentary.

Hartin points out that while James mentions Jesus only twice, “God” appears 16 times, “Lord” eight, and “Father” three. Although James resembles nothing so much as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, to the casual reader not intimately familiar with the Bible the letter’s moral exhortations don’t come across as particularly Christ-centered.

On the other hand, said Karen Jobes, professor of New Testament Greek and exegesis at Wheaton College, “the point James is making is for Christians. It’s not enough to say I believe in Christ but do nothing to help my neighbor. It’s not saying that if you love your neighbor that somehow puts you right with God. Living ethically, apart from Jesus Christ, is never enough.”

In that sense, James is a perfect book for politicians to use: its scriptural authority speaks to Christians, but its emphasis on ethical action speaks to everyone.

“When James is talking about the law, he’s saying that if you want to belong to this group, these are the things that identify us. I would say the same thing about a country. For example, one has a constitution, and these are the values that we consider to be vital and give identity to a group of people and inspire us to act,” said Hartin. “In some ways Christianity can be domesticated too much, in the sense that it becomes a very private, individual religion. One tends to forget its community aspect, and James is vital for that.”

Benedicta Cipolla is a writer in New York City. She has written recently for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Political Moment” and “Healing the Wounds of War.”