Someone commented that backing Alabama Judge Roy Moore in his Senate race has finally crossed a line for evangelical Christians seeking to identify a “Christian” candidate in elections. I would suggest it is too late. That line was crossed with Donald Trump.
Someone else has commented that the political involvement of evangelicals has essentially destroyed any hope of real evangelism in America for at least a generation. Their point is that the identification of evangelical leaders as the accepted and exclusive spokespeople for Christianity in the U.S. and their unwavering commitment to the right wing of the Republican Party has made it impossible for the general population to hear the good news of Jesus Christ our Savior, instead of the core political issues of the so-called Christian Right.
It is easy to identify how good intentions and Christian morality started in the right place, but have been caught in mission drift. The passing of time seems to have brought increasingly more difficult challenges to the job of finding the “Christian” choice in an election.
The rise of the Pro-Life movement has gradually focused Christian political action on the single issue of abortion. It seems almost as if each election cycle increasingly challenged Christians with: “Will you endorse a candidate who says he/she is Pro-Life even if they also have viewpoints or a background record quite different from Christian standards?” Thus, evangelicals were told to vote for Ronald Reagan instead of Jimmy Carter. Carter is a committed evangelical Christian, who still leads a Bible study in his home church, and actively expresses his faith in both word and deed. Reagan had only a vague connection to religion at all, but signed on to the Pro-Life movement. Over the next thirty years, the drift continued, sometimes more obvious than others.
But the presidential election of 2016 made an ultimate test. Here were two candidates with no discernible reason why a Christian should endorse either. The Roman Catholic bishops, staunch allies in the Pro-Life movement, ducked for cover. Yet many (not all, thankfully) of Christian evangelical leaders still endorsed a candidate with a disgusting gutter morality, no interest in nor understanding of Christianity and a wrecking bar approach to God’s earth. But he made the appropriate Pro-Life noises, even while seeming to have little interest in the subject, and that sufficed. White evangelicals voted for him in overwhelming numbers.
A half century of political involvement has led me to another position, stated best by the Psalmist; “Put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man, for there is no help in them” (Ps.146:2). Whether talking of Democratic princes or Republican ones, the advice remains valid. Earthly rulers, even the best, cannot save us. There is no earthly utopia free from sin. God created order and a good government can maintain it, with a merciful arm. That is the best we can ever expect from politics. But our ultimate loyalty is to another Kingdom.
Still, I understand that responsible Christians can’t simply walk away from earthly governance. We are called to be stewards, managers, of the earth which is the Lord’s. That requires involvement in the messy business of running the earth according to God’s will as best we can. It may even mean co-operation with well-intentioned people who don’t share our faith but do share a commitment to the Creation. It will not be done perfectly, because we are not perfect. But hopefully, it will be a conscious effort to apply Christian belief and ethics to achieve a balanced nurturing of the Lord’s wonderful earth and the creatures in it, human and otherwise.
There are two nightmare scenarios for evangelicals trying to achieve a better society through politics. The first is a candidate in the usual space occupied by a conservative Christian candidate, but who is in fact demonstrably nowhere near Christian values. That happened in 2016 with Donald Trump. The second nightmare is a candidate who strongly identifies with the evangelical movement, a “Christian insider,” if you will, but whose life is found to be dramatically hypocritical. This is the sort made famous by Sinclair Lewis’ fictional Elmer Gantry. The non-fictional version is Judge Roy Moore.
This means the time has come when it can no longer be business as usual. Evangelicals need to understand that simply trying to power through in these circumstances not only will damage their political power, but will create as collateral damage a large number of Americans who will be cynical about the Gospel message because of the messengers compromised situation. It is the moment to switch to a better approach.
It is always tempting to think that gaining power will allow evangelicals to institute moral improvements, using the methodology similar to the Iranian clerics. However, without a significant shift in attitude, the American electorate seems unlikely to be supportive of this policy. That lack of support is, quite simply, why legal abortion has not changed much since Roe vs Wade. Even if the Christian Right could somehow muscle its way to power, the lesson of Iran is worth noting. Despite much greater popular support than the Christian Right could hope to have, the Iranian government has only achieved a surface compliance, but with widespread covert and hypocritical non-compliance.
What if there were a whole paradigm shift? Suppose Christians forgot about achieving power and imposing morality on unwilling subjects? Instead, could we focus on offering the earth to the Lord? Since God already owns everything, “we give thee but thine own whatever the gift may be,” as the offering hymn puts it. Nevertheless, there are three effective ways to do this:
- We can freely offer our praise and thanksgiving; “Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service….” (Collect, 13th.Sunday after Trinity). This is the unique offering which we can make that is not just giving God his own.
- We can fast, not by giving up but by giving to others. If we gave as enthusiastically to the “least of these” (see Matthew 25) as we can march for legislative prohibitions, if we saw not only the fetus but the pregnant anxious and desperate teen, the child of the single parent in poverty, the underfunded school in a poor neighborhood, the DACA young adult seeking only the opportunity to offer to his or her country, the bright but poor kid who can’t afford college, the family who can’t afford health care….there is no shortage of needs. To live a life in service to the least of suffering humans and suffering creatures is a Gospel message of love with far more power than the law.
- We can offer God “thine own of thine own” (St. John Chrysostom) instead of trying to rob him of the earth’s resources and bounty for selfish use. The world is presently in travail because a tiny handful of people are grieviously wounding it out of greed and not being stewards, and many serve this handful blindly because they do not understand our mandate to be wise stewards of the earth. That the United States is currently the only nation in the world not signed on to some restraint to avoid the damage caused to the earth by human mismanagement is a shameful failure of Christian attention to the stewardship prophecy required. It is always more comfortable to repeat what we are familiar with, even when it isn’t working. However, God does not mandate our comfort, but our stewardship.