With this article, we introduce a new regular feature we call the Spectrum Roundtable. In it, we invite participants with differing viewpoints to address the same topic or question. In this first edition of the Roundtable, Tom Gessel and Michael Peabody discuss the political outgrowths of their Adventist faith. -Editor
Without doubt, a large percentage of Seventh-day Adventists are Republicans. However, there is also a large percentage who are Democrats. I believe those Adventists who choose to align with a political party should align with the Democrats. I am not asserting that Democratic policies are perfect. For example, I believe the Democratic policies should provide even greater support for the middle class and the poor. But, in my view, Democratic policies and Adventist beliefs are relatively compatible, while Republican policies conflict with Adventist beliefs on many important subjects.
In this article, I address Sunday laws, abortion, same-sex marriage, taxes, social programs, and Republican tactics. There are a number of other subjects that could be addressed, but I think the mentioned subjects are probably the most important to Adventists for determinations regarding alignment with the Republicans or the Democrats.
For more than 100 years, Adventists have warned about the breakdown of the doctrine of separation of church and state and the consequent enactment of Sunday laws. The warnings have been based on Daniel and Revelation and the writings of Ellen White who is identified in Adventism's 28 Fundamental Beliefs as a prophet who through her writings gives the Adventist Church “a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction.”
Consistent with the Adventist Church’s beliefs regarding Biblical prophecy, Ellen White in the following words made plain that in the very last days Sunday laws will be front and center and that Adventists have a duty to work diligently to oppose their enactment:
A time is coming when the law of God is, in a special sense, to be made void in our land. The rulers of our nation will, by legislative enactments, enforce the Sunday law, and thus God's people be brought into great peril. When our nation, in its legislative councils, shall enact laws to bind the consciences of men in regard to their religious privileges, enforcing Sunday observance, and bringing oppressive power to bear against those who keep the seventh-day Sabbath, the law of God will, to all intents and purposes, be made void in our land; and national apostasy will be followed by national ruin. We see that those who are now keeping the commandments of God need to bestir themselves, that they may obtain the special help which God alone can give them. They should work more earnestly to delay as long as possible the threatened calamity [The Review and Herald, December 18, 1888, par. 6].
There are rumblings in the Republican Party that should cause Adventists to have some concern about Sunday laws.
As Kevin Phillips explains in “American Theocracy," religious groups, including evangelical protestants and conservative Catholics, have become a force in the Republican Party. Further, in my view, the following examples indicate that leaders of these groups are taking positions that would encourage the establishment of a wide range of “Christian” laws that just might include Sunday laws. Republican David Barton, founder of WallBuilders and author of “The Jefferson Lies,” has become a sort of folk hero to millions of Republicans for advocating that the U.S. Constitution does not require the separation of church and state. Louie Gohmert, a Republican U.S. Congressman from Texas, on the House floor berated President Obama for failing to design U.S. foreign policy regarding Israel to further the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. Tom DeLay, a former Republican U.S. House Majority Leader from Texas, in support of Christian laws, asserted that God wrote the U.S. Constitution. Republican Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas asserted that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit a state from establishing a state church.
There are no reasons to suggest that Democrats are involved in any movement that raises the threat of Sunday laws. However, it seems to me that Adventists who align with the Republicans are playing with fire.
Abortion and Same-sex Marriage
Not counting Sunday laws, the “hot button” subjects in political discussions between Adventist Republicans and Adventist Democrats are abortion and same-sex marriage. It is probably fair to conclude that most Republicans are pro-life and oppose same-sex marriage and that most Democrats are pro-choice and support same-sex marriage.
All ought to agree that outside the civil laws arena, Adventists should not have any hesitancy about advocating for positions regarding abortion or same-sex marriage based on “the Bible says.” However, supporting or opposing civil laws based on “the Bible says” is a different matter and an understanding of the Adventist Church’s beliefs regarding the relationship among civil laws, “the Bible says,” and civil morals concepts is critical for determining whether an Adventist should align with the Republicans or the Democrats on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Ellen White not only had strong words to say about Sunday laws, but as the following indicates, she also had strong words to say about “any” civil laws based on “the Bible says”:
The founders of the nation wisely sought to guard against the employment of secular power on the part of the church, with its inevitable result--intolerance and persecution. The Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," and that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Only in flagrant violation of these safeguards to the nation's liberty, can any religious observance be enforced by civil authority. [The Great Controversy p. 442]
In other words, Ellen White concluded that civil laws based on the “the Bible says” come with the “inevitable” consequences of “intolerance and persecution.” She could not have more clearly asserted that “the Bible says” is not to be upheld as a rationale for supporting or opposing civil laws period.
Ellen White’s counsel is consistent with Christ’s example for us. In this regard, Ellen White wrote: “The government under which Jesus lived was corrupt and oppressive; on every hand were crying abuses—extortion, intolerance, and grinding cruelty. Yet the Saviour attempted no civil reforms. … He who was our example kept aloof from earthly governments.” [Counsels for the Church p. 314.]
While excluding “the Bible says” as a rationale, Adventists could still use any available civil morals reasons to support or oppose civil laws that concern a subject that is covered by a Biblical principle. As an illustration, consider stealing. Adventists should support civil laws to prohibit stealing, not based on “the Bible says,” but based on valid civil morals reasons, in this case a thief’s unfair gain and an owner’s unfair loss. Ellen White supported this approach in practice. As explained in an Adventist Review article: “It was the judicious use of moral philosophy that allowed Ellen White and other pioneers to advocate for social moral issues such as abolition of slavery, temperance reform, and the prohibition of alcohol. They could do this while still upholding the separation of church and state because they distinguished between spiritual and civil morals.” (See “Religious Freedom In America”)
Upon application of the Adventist “civil laws-Bible says” principle, it is clear that Adventists should not align with the Republican Party regarding abortion or same-sex marriage. Powerful religious groups within the Republican Party are working hard to establish or repeal civil laws as necessary to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage and, instead of upholding their actions based solely on civil morals concepts, they are unapologetic in upholding their actions based on “the Bible says.” In essence, the Texas Republican Party platform is clearly in step with the Republican Party by acknowledging that Republican opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage in the civil laws arena is based on “the Bible says” (“We believe in: … The sanctity of human life, created in the image of God, which should be protected from fertilization to natural death.” “We support the definition of marriage as a God-ordained, legal and moral commitment only between a natural man and a natural woman.”). I would guess that most Adventists who align with the Republican Party probably have not given sufficient thought to Ellen White’s counsel or Christ’s example because when asked why they align with the Republican efforts to support or oppose civil laws regarding abortion or same-sex marriage, they invariably respond with “the Bible says.”
The Adventist “civil laws-Bible says” principle would have no effect on Adventist alignment with the Democrats because the Democratic Party does not use “the Bible says” to support civil laws.
If pro-life Adventists should not support the Republicans regarding abortion, should they support the Democrats on this issue? In my view, the answer is yes.
Pro-life Adventists, while excluding “the Bible says” as a rationale, could advocate against abortion based on a civil morals assertion that abortion is murder. However, under current circumstances, they would do well to support the Democrats. They might be surprised to find that the Democrats are more successful in lowering abortion rates than the Republicans. Since 1980 there has been a downward trend in the rate of abortions in our country. The steepest declines have occurred during the Democratic administrations, and under the Obama administration the abortion rate has reached its lowest level since 1973.
If Adventists should not support the Republicans regarding same-sex marriage, should they support the Democrats on this issue? Again, in my view, the answer is yes.
In addition to “the Bible says” argument, Republicans assert, among other things, that same-sex marriage has a harmful effect on heterosexual marriage and young family members. But, Republicans have been unable to produce evidence to support these or any other civil morals claims and the courts have increasingly ruled against them on Constitutional grounds because their only argument left standing after the dust settles is “the Bible says.” Without valid civil morals arguments, Adventists could support civil laws prohibiting same-sex marriage or oppose civil laws allowing same-sex marriage only by relying on “the Bible says” in violation of the Adventist “civil laws-Bible says” principle, and, consequently, in my view, Adventists should accept the Democratic position, even if reluctantly.
Taxes and Social Programs
The policies of Republicans and Democrats are at odds regarding taxes and maintenance of our social programs, including Social Security, Medicare, Affordable Care Act (ACA), Pell grants, food stamps, unemployment benefits, etc. Consistent with the Republican-approved Ryan budget, Republicans advocate for tax breaks for the rich and big business and for far less funding for social programs. Although the Democrats might be willing to make some tweaks, they advocate for maintaining the social programs and for taxing as necessary to do so.
It is clear that the current Republican policies, which are essentially a continuation of the Bush II policies, haven’t worked as advertised. Many remember that Republicans wrongly argued that the Bush II tax breaks for the rich would create lots of new jobs. More recently, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback led a totally Republican-controlled Kansas government to adopt the “Kansas experiment” with the promise of great prosperity. Under Brownback, the Kansas government, among other things, gave tax breaks to the rich and big business and took from the middle class and the poor. As a result, Kansas is now virtually bankrupt.
Republicans not only support policies that favor the rich and big business, but without hesitation they ridicule policies that favor the middle class and the poor by calling them "redistribution of wealth." This is misleading. For one thing, Republicans unfairly ignore the “redistribution of wealth” that they previously supported for the rich. During Republican President Ronald Reagan’s first year in office (1981) the top marginal Federal income tax rate was 70% and during Reagan’s last year in office (1989) the top marginal Federal income tax rate was 28%. Since then, the tax rates on the rich have fluctuated depending on the party in power. With the expiration of the Bush II tax breaks, the top marginal Federal income tax rate is now 39.6%. Although tax rates do not take into account what some might call “loopholes” that can make huge dents in the amount of earned income to be taxed, the changes in the tax rates clearly created a massive “redistribution of wealth” in favor of the rich.
Republicans argue that the rich still pay too much in taxes. In my view, Republicans rely way too much on ideology and not nearly enough on the “effects” of implementation of their ideology. In our country, the richest 20% now have more than 93% of the wealth and the richest 400 families have more wealth than the bottom 50% combined (more than 150 million people).
Moreover, we finally have a “smoking gun” showing that the rich and big business have taken control in our country by creating a new type of non-democratic government. A new study by two prominent political scientists, Martin Gilens Ph.D., a professor at Princeton University and Benjamin Page Ph.D., a professor at Northwestern University, shows that our country has become an oligarchy. The study has been widely reported in the media, and deserves much follow-up media coverage. The study was even reported by the political right as evidenced by a Washington Times article.
Consistent with other reporting across our country, the Times reported that the study shows that our country "has taken a turn down elitist lane and become a country led by a small dominant class comprised of powerful members who exert total control over the general population — an oligarchy.” The researchers involved in the study “compared 1,800 different U.S. policies that were put in place by politicians between 1981 and 2002 to the type of policies preferred by the average and wealthy American, or special interest groups.” The study revealed that “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose." The study has now been published in “Perspectives on Politics,” a prestigious peer-reviewed academic journal.
As noted, the study covered policies established between 1981 and 2002. Since then, Republican appointees on the Supreme Court have likely propelled us much deeper into an oligarchy. In a Northwestern University press release, Dr. Page concluded “The Supreme Court’s recent decisions, which have removed most legal limits on big financial contributions to politics, are likely to increase the political clout of wealthy individuals and leave average citizens with even less influence than they have now.”
It is obvious that adoption of the current Republican efforts to give additional tax breaks to the rich and big business at the expense of social programs would push us even deeper into an oligarchy.
Even though Republicans claim that they are the “party of Christian values,” it is clear upon consideration of their tax and social program policies, that, contrary to Biblical principles, they have an unhealthy support for the rich and big business and very little concern for the middle class and the poor. The Democratic policies are far more helpful to the middle class and the poor, even though I believe the Democratic policies should provide even greater support for those groups. All told, in my view, Adventists should favor the Democratic policies regarding taxes and social programs based on civil morals concepts regarding fairness and democratic values.
Adventists should condemn Republicans for their tactics. Among many other things, Republicans have refused to work with President Obama to address our country’s needs, have made up conspiracy theories and other falsehoods to attack the President’s eligibility and fitness for office, and have enacted laws to keep Democrats from voting.
With our divided government, to enact a bill into law there must be a majority vote in the House, a majority vote in the Senate, and a presidential signature. Under such circumstances, our government can address our country’s needs only if the Republicans and Democrats work together through compromise. That is not happening. The prologue in the book “Do Not Ask What Good We Do” by Robert Draper, describes a dinner meeting that occurred on the very day that President Obama was being sworn in as a first-term president, at which a Republican group that included thirteen current and former members of the House and Senate decided that the Republicans should work to oppose all of the President’s economic initiatives. The Republican Party adopted this strategy.
By means of the filibuster in the Senate and by means of opposition from the Republican-controlled House since 2010, Republicans have gone to great lengths to block Obama initiatives. They have even opposed their own bills once the President indicated he would support them. The President has tried to negotiate with Republicans but the Republicans won't negotiate. In fact, Richard Mourdock, failed Republican Senate candidate from Indiana, spoke for the Republican Party when he said "Compromise means that Democrats will have to come around to the right's way of thinking." Moreover, Tea Party Republicans threaten other Republicans with a Tea Party “primary” opponent if they show any interest in negotiating with the President. In sum, Republicans simply refuse to work with our President to address our country’s needs.
With respect to conspiracy theories, the Republicans have created so many that even a Republican die-hard conspiracy theorist may not have heard of all of them. The "birthers" support what is probably the best known Republican conspiracy theory. They argue that government officials conspired to authenticate fake Obama birth documents. However, most “birthers” ignore the fact that two Honolulu newspapers included Obama birth announcements a few days after his birth. I guess those who lead the “birther” charge understand that the believability factor becomes exponentially lessened when it takes one conspiracy theory piled on another to con the public on a single issue.
Republicans often propagate falsehoods about President Obama. For example, many Republican politicians constantly say that the President is a socialist. That is simply not true. Based on dictionary definitions, socialism occurs when the government owns the means of production and hires and pays workers. Obviously, the President has not advocated socialist policies. As another example, a significant number of Republican politicians argue that the President lied about the coverage under the ACA when he said that individuals could keep their insurance and their physicians if they wanted to do so. The President admitted that he made such statements and he also admitted that in some cases his statements did not turn out to be correct. This does not prove that he lied. The ACA has grandfather provisions designed to allow individuals to keep policies that do not meet all of the ACA standards. He said he relied on those provisions. However, insurance companies cancelled policies instead of maintaining them as allowed under the ACA. Republicans simply failed to provide all of the relevant facts.
Republicans have made a really big show of love for the democratic values of our founding fathers. However, in addition to advocating for economic policies that would push us deeper into an oligarchy, their outward show is certainly undercut by voter laws they recently enacted in red states. Not only have Republicans failed to establish a need for the voter laws, a number of Republican officials have now admitted that the voter laws were designed to keep students, blacks, and other minorities from voting.
Despite the fact that the Democratic Party supports policies that are relatively compatible with Adventist beliefs, there is a large percentage of Adventists who support the Republican Party even though, in conflict with Adventist beliefs, it is working hard to make civil law changes based on “the Bible says,” unduly supports the rich and big business, and uses unprincipled tactics. Adventist support for the Republican Party makes no sense to me.
Read Michael Peabody's Roundtable essay, "I'm an Adventist and I'm a Republican."
Thomas O. Gessel, J.D., is a former Director of the Office of Regulatory Law in the Office of General Counsel at the Department of Veterans Affairs.