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In the early stages of the long contest of the next election cycle, we are getting a hint of what may be an interesting feature of the conversation we have in store.

In a recent interview with Christianity Today, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was asked, “President Obama has cited Reinhold Niebuhr as one of his favorite thinkers and philosophers. Who do you look to for inspiration?”

She replied, “First of all, it would be to the teachings of Jesus Christ and also the Old Testament works by Moses. I also was influenced by Dr. Francis Schaeffer when I was in college. He was one of the greatest philosophers of the last century. But I also look to a number of different scholars. I like to read various other commentators. There are a number of people that I read.”

It is a delicate matter in public life to acknowledge one’s personal faith and to reflect on its influence.

We recall presidential candidate John Kennedy’s clarification of the role of his Catholic faith in his service in the nation’s highest office. We remember Jimmy Carter’s description of himself as a “born again” Christian, and Mitt Romney’s response to questions about his Mormon faith.

These illustrate the challenge of having one’s religious faith understood in the glaring light of media attention.

It is also significant when leaders identify important influences on their philosophical, religious and political thinking.

What might we infer from leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Carter and President Obama, who identify Reinhold Niebuhr as a prominent influence, and from other leaders like Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell, Randall Terry of Operation Rescue, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and now Michele Bachmann, who similarly point to Francis Schaeffer as an intellectual and theological mentor?

What might be the difference between these two prominent voices that would explain this flow of influence in such different directions?

Both Niebuhr and Schaeffer were deeply committed Christian theologians in roughly the same period of our history. Both were complex men toward whom simplified description would be a serious injustice.

Both were Christian activists with significant contributions to their credit. Both were prolific writers, and both claimed large followings among theological students of a generation ago.

Perhaps one clue to the difference can be seen in Schaeffer’s response to a presentation by Niebuhr at a conference in 1947, where he found the thinking of Niebuhr and others of the “progressive” neo-orthodox perspective drifting away from the core of Christian faith toward the increasing influence of socialism and secular humanism.

Another clue for me is the appeal of the two to students some 30 years ago when both were in the center of much religious conversation.

I remember noticing that Niebuhr had a clear appeal to students who identified with the more socially active expressions of theology – the “political theology” that grew out of the civil rights movement and the “liberating theologies” that addressed issues of oppression in various settings.

Students who tended to be more focused on personal salvation and concerned about protecting traditional ways of thinking and believing found a champion in Schaeffer, who was to them a defender of Christian truth and the Bible against the kind of analytical criticism and expanding theological horizons being encouraged in academic settings.

I’m inclined to think we are seeing a similar pattern of appeal today, which happens to have connected with these champions of a generation ago.

If Niebuhr is claimed as an influence on one’s engagement in public life, that influence seems to lead to an effort to understand and grapple with the complex problems, perhaps in ways that open new avenues for thinking and working. That was the way it was in the theological conversation “back then.”

If Schaeffer is claimed as one’s significant influence, that seems to lead to a defense and application of time-honored “right” answers.

There is probably little really new here: Are we not seeing the difference between the priestly maintainers of the security of a status quo and the prophetic challengers of its flaws, or of the Sadducees’ defense of the literal Torah and the Pharisees’ emphasis on interpreting it for new generations?

The question then becomes whether our society is more likely to be helped in a creative and redemptive transformation more by those who understand the problems and are willing to grapple with them, or by those who already know the answers and make a persuasive case for applying them.

My math teacher son and daughter tell me that an ongoing challenge in their work is to encourage students to focus more on the difficult task of understanding and working problems than on simply getting the right answers.

Having the answers to textbook problems in the back of the book is not a substitute for the competence mathematical thinking seeks to develop. It probably isn’t what we need in our public life, either.

The theological voices we listen to and, more important, the way we use them to influence how we think, does seem to matter to what we do and on whose behalf we do it.

Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.

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