Joe Biden came the closest, when he said "Christ's warning of the Pharisees." If you understand the reference, it actually is a subtle way to imply that religion should not be used publicly for the purpose of achieving worldly goals. It's good to remind religious people -- especially religious people who crave more religion in their politics -- that Jesus set his religion apart from politics and gives Christians a religious basis for the separation of church and state.
In last night's debate thread here on the blog, there was some talk about how no one recited John 3:16. Religion for the purpose of politics must be drained of the intensely religious material. And so the candidates cited "the Golden Rule" (Hillary Clinton) or, generically, "The Sermon on the Mount" (Obama and, following Obama, Richardson). This is religion as ethics, and to answer this way speaks of the theory that religion gives rise to values that infuse political opinions and actions that are not themselves religious. There's little doubt that this is the safest position for an American presidential candidate to take.
John Edwards did the best here, reciting "What you do unto the least of those, you do unto me." What's so good about this is that it's specific. He gives a particular Biblical verse, which shows deeper familiarity with the Bible, and he has a verse that expresses special concern for the poor, which is his campaign theme.
Edwards doesn't get the line exactly right (even considering the many translations). It's from Matthew 25. Here it is -- boldfaced -- in context:
(31) "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. (32) All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (33) He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.Now, I must say that it would be disastrous to have political leaders who took that absolutely seriously. This is a description of who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell, and the standard would appear to require all out devotion to the needs of the poor, the sick, and the immigrants. ("...I was a stranger and you invited me in.") Try to picture America, run by that standard. Utterly unrecognizable! But I'm not saying Edwards goes that far. He only cited that last line, which gently says that whatever you do for the dispossessed counts as something that you did for Christ.
(34) "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. (35) For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, (36) I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
(37) "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? (38) When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? (39) When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
(40) "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
But I got to thinking this morning about all the rest of the Bible. All the things they might have cited, both apt and horribly inapt. I made myself laugh, here, alone at the breakfast table, picturing one of the candidates doing his Bible-quoting like this:
Surely, the Bible is full of lines that would be utterly bizarre for a presidential candidate to say. Help me think of some. I was going to start us off with "Vengeance is mine!" Can't you just picture Gravel summoning up all his strength and waving a clenched fist and going "Vengeance is mine!" But "Vengeance is mine" in context is actually about human beings refraining from taking vengeance: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'" (Romans 12:19-21.)
And yet, we wouldn't want a President who said that either, would we?