Evangelicals need to change the way they engage with politics
The 2016 election is the first one I’ve engaged with from a place of any kind of political maturity. I’ve been wrestling a lot with the concept of what it means to be an Evangelical Christian and an American — specifically as regards to Donald Trump. Evangelical leaders such as Wayne Grudem and Franklin Graham have issued statements calling for Trump votes either explicitly or implicitly [edit: Wayne Gtudem withdrew support for Trump on 10/9/16, one day after this was originally published]. To some, failing to vote for the Republican nominee is prideful and contrary to Christian principles. To others, such as Al Mohler, “Far too many evangelicals have set themselves up for a humiliating embarrassment by serving as apologists for Donald Trump.”
The latter camp is where I fall. I don’t believe Evangelicals should vote for Donald Trump. The reason many believe they should is because they are still playing by the rules of a political era that is coming to a close.
I want to lay out my case for this, first by talking about the era of the Religious Right, and distinguishing that from the modern political era. Then I will address a couple of the other big concerns tying Evangelicals to Trump, and try to describe what I think a Christian approach to politics should look like.
The Era of the Religious Right
Prior to the social and political revolution of the Long 60s, there was very little if any association between American political alignment and religious devotion. But in the decades following, that changed dramatically. The beginnings of this trend were felt in the 1972 presidential campaign. Democratic nominee George McGovern was labeled the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” and had his tush readily handed to him by Richard Nixon. In the years following, the political Left’s positioning on social issues like sex-positivity, abortion, and drug use starting in the latter half of the 20th century, and later gay marriage, drove conservative Christians to the Republican Party.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan played a prominent role in building this momentum. He spoke to Christian concerns in a way that resounded deeply in the hearts of millions. “America has begun a spiritual reawakening. Faith and hope are being restored. Americans are turning back to God. Church attendance is up.” There was an electricity in the air — a distinct feeling that conservative Christianity was going to be a powerful cultural and political force, and that this would happen through the Republican Party.
The solidarity felt between the GOP and deeply religious Americans took off during the Reagan years and continued to grow for the decades following. As America underwent dramatic social change in the subsequent decades, that solidarity served as a stop gap for conservative Americans experiencing cultural whiplash — a bond that unified the socially conservative and the fiscally conservative. And the Religious Right, as a voting bloc, had meaningful impacts on American politics, such as the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, the striking down of California’s Prop 8 in 2008, and the positioning of abortion as one of the most important issues of our time.
And while the Republican Party during this period was a “big tent” encompassing a wide range of political perspectives, there was a certain type of establishment Republican that typified the party in my mind (though perhaps not in reality). It was a Republican who I greatly respect: a Republican with a genuine, visible faith in God, and a heartfelt desire to steward what he has given to us; a Republican who from the same fount of faith drew compassion for the poor and a desire for limited government; a Republican who cared about principles more than popularity, and was willing to stand against public pressure for the sake of their conscience. It’s the kind of character we should all aspire to have.
But times have changed, and the Republican Party’s priorities have changed. It’s 2016, and if there ever was any validity to the idea that the Republican Party was America’s last bastion of traditional Christian values, that picturesque notion has gone up in flames like a Thomas Kinkade painting in a blazing dumpster fire. This year, the new Republican electorate has demonstrated that it does not want humble politicians who will lead as faithful servants; it wants mass-media mongers who exploit sensitive issues to gratify their own desire for attention and their constituents’ desire for titillation. The new Republican electorate does not want well-thought-out and constructive policy initiatives based on sustainable economics; it wants impractical displays of machismo. The new Republican electorate does not want productive political discourse; it wants vapid shrieking, emotionalistic name-calling, and length measuring contests. And there is clearly a lack of a deep concern for morality and decency.
Obviously these are generalizations. There are plenty of GOP voters and politicians to whom these statements do not apply, and the party is not a monolith. But what a lot of Evangelicals are failing to understand is that one era is ending and another is beginning. It would be simplistic to try and identify specific start and end dates, but history may very well look back at the American Religious Right as a phenomenon bookended by two men: Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. This year marks the end of one period of American history, and the beginning of a new one. Many Evangelicals are playing by the old rules, where a vote for the Republican was, at bare minimum, a vote for the lesser of two evils. But that is no longer necessarily true, if it ever was. Conservative Christians should not vote for the Republican candidate because the Republican party is no longer typified by social and fiscal conservatism and Christian morality, but by white nationalism and xenophobia.
The Heart of Trumpism
The motivating force in the heart of the Republican of this age is dramatically different from that of the last age. In the last age, it was a concern for Biblical morality and Christian stewardship. In this age, it is white nationalism.
In his book, The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones expounds upon a simple truth: during the last several years, the United States has gone from 54% white Christians to 47% white Christians. The majority of children under one year old are now nonwhite. This is largely due to (1) a declining birthrate among natural-born Americans and (2) a growing percentage of Americans who identify as religious Nones (atheists, agnostics, etc.). As the Baby Boomers pass on, this trend will continue. And a group that has been the majority for America’s entire history is coming to grips with the idea of becoming a minority.
It’s understandable for parts of the population to be upset that they are losing influence. White, working-class Americans (Trump supporters) have seen their jobs go overseas due to trade deals, have been losing political influence over the past several years, and all the while have been labeled as privileged bigots by the political Left. Plus, they’re scared of terrorism and what they perceive to be as rising crime (though crime rates have been trending downward since the 90s).
So when a charismatic strongman rises up and tells these people he’s going to make America the way it used to be, they respond to that. When he says he’s going to reduce trade and cut taxes and exile millions of brown people and stop many more from coming in and make people say Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays, they respond to that. They respond because he’s tapping into these powerful, repressed feelings in a really cathartic way.
But even if Trump is elected president, it’s very unlikely that he’ll be able to enact his most grandiose promises. The reality is that America really has changed for good, and it will continue to become more ethnically and religiously diverse. And in a couple of decades, the bubble we currently exist in — the bubble where Trump’s behavior has become somewhat normalized by his extended period of high media exposure — will be an embarrassing memory. Trump’s presidential bid will likely be viewed as the failed last effort of an increasingly marginalized segment of the population, flailing for something to hold on to. Trumpism will not be remembered like Aragorn, rising up to take back the throne of goodness from the dark forces of evil. It will probably be remembered more like the Balrog casting it’s fiery whip up one final time before it plummets into the abyss.
In the future, when that’s America’s general attitude toward Trumpism, Evangelical Christians need to be able to point back and say that we publicly spoke out against him. I plan on being alive and preaching the Gospel in 2045, when America becomes a minority white nation. I need to be able to say, for the sake of my Christian witness, that I didn’t vote for Trump during the time when a lot of the white people decided they wanted to boot a lot of the brown people out of the country. When I preach against the evils of pornography, I need to be able to point back and say that I spoke out against the blatantly misogynistic dude who came really close to the White House in 2016.
I could spend a lot of time here expounding upon the many moral failings of Donald J. Trump, but these are all well-documented and go without saying. Instead, I’ll turn to a couple of issues that are strong motivating factors for many Evangelicals.
What about Abortion and the Supreme Court?
Among Evangelicals who will be voting for Trump, two of the main reasons I’ve heard are abortion and the Supreme Court. As a deeply pro-life guy, I would really like to vote for a pro-life candidate. But this election, none of the prominent candidates are pro-life in any meaningful way. Trump has been nominally pro-life for something like 12 minutes, and that seems to be mainly because you can’t really run as a pro-choice candidate in the current Republican Party. It’s true that Hillary is very aggressively pro-choice, so Trump does edge her out somewhat in my mind. But we’ve had three pro-life Republican presidents since abortion was legalized in 1973, and none of them has had much of an impact as far as lasting legislation. Meanwhile, abortion rates have been steadily declining even under pro-choice President Obama. Trump as wishy-washy at best on the issue of abortion, and most of his posturing is just empty campaign promises that he won’t be able to keep — nor do I think he will try that hard to, because abortion isn’t a meaningful part of Trumpism.
Conservative Christians also speak about the danger of a Hillary Clinton election, because the next president will likely have the opportunity to nominate a handful of Supreme Court justices, which could dramatically shape American politics for decades to come. The fear is that Hillary will appoint ultra-liberal justices who will take the Court in a direction of progressive secularism and judicial overreach. Trump, on the other hand, has put forward a list of conservative judges that he would nominate from. My thing is, I don’t really trust anything Donald Trump says because he lies about, like, every single friggin’ thing. It’s a shame that the Supreme Court has become so partisan that this is even an issue, and that justices can’t be expected to set aside their personal politics when rendering decisions. But I don’t think Trump is going to do anything to solve that issue.
Also, conservative Christians have a tendency to overstate — often in apocalyptic terms — the dangers of electing Democratic presidents. President Barack Hussein Obama has had 8 years to try to lock up the Christians, take away our guns, and institute his Muslim Caliphate. But he hasn’t even tried to do that because he never wanted to do any of that, and Evangelicals need to stop buying into the conspiratorial fear-mongering and mindless alarmism of Breitbart and the political hard-Right.
That’s not to say I think there’s no chance of Christians facing persecution in America. I can’t clairvoyantly look into the future, and it would be naive to rule out anything. But even if the worst fears of conservatives are realized (which I very much doubt they will be), even if an ultra-progressive judicial branch feeds the Constitution through a paper-shredder and institutes a set of policies where Christians are rounded up and killed (again, I think this is extremely unlikely), so be it. Our Kingdom is not of this world. God’s people rejoice when they have legally recognized religious freedom, and God’s people rejoice when they are thrown into the dens of lions. Men can take away our legal freedom, but they can never take away our spiritual freedom, and God forbid that we sacrifice our integrity and our Christian witness in order to cling to legal recognition in the eyes of a human government. That attitude is utterly at odds with the life and death of Jesus Christ and the example set for us by the early Church.
How Christians should approach politics
I know it’s far easier to complain about things that are wrong than to offer any kind of meaningful solution to problems. And honestly, I don’t have solutions for America’s problems right now. But I do know that Evangelicals need take a long, hard look at how we’re going to engage with politics in a new era. So in closing, I just want to throw out some thoughts on what a Christian approach to politics should look like.
At a time when the nature of political discourse has become dishonest, sleazy, and vapid, Christians have an obligation to model an approach to politics that is tangibly distinct. When the partisan forces of this world are motivated by power and greed, we are motivated by the love of Christ, the glory of God, and the power of the Gospel. Christians should not be politically apathetic. We have a responsibility to seek the good of the country we live in while sidestepping and calling out the nastier tendencies of the dominant political machines. We must be prayerful for our leaders, even when we strongly disagree with them.
We must be thoughtful and prayerful regarding broad strokes of political philosophy and specific pieces of political policy. We must be charitable and humble toward those who disagree with us.
We must be joyful in the present and optimistic for the future because of the Gospel hope that is within us. We can have a refreshing open-mindedness toward many political issues because our identity does not stem primarily from our politics, but from Jesus Christ and the work that he has done for us.
Yoking ourselves unequally to a bitter and embattled political party is counterproductive to all these aims. There may be times when it is beneficial to form short-term alliances with political movements, but we must also know when it is time to break away. And when the political institution is infecting the church rather than the church redeeming the institution, it’s time to break away. We must come to grips with the fact that Christians will and should feel like political outsiders most of the time.
It’s healthy for Christians to feel a sense of alienation when it comes to worldly politics, because it stokes in us a greater longing for the saving power of Jesus. Losing hope in the flesh-and-blood leaders of America’s political institutions reminds us that transformative, life-giving power comes from the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone. It reminds us that this Earth will never be our true home until it is unmade and remade.
My prayer today is this: as a polarized America falls ever more to the Left and the Right, may God’s people fall ever more to our knees. May we stop longing for the return of the past, and start looking forward to the work that we have yet to do in America. May we see the sad end of one age as the hopeful beginning of a new one. May our despair of our human leaders bring us to put our hope more completely in Christ. And may God grant us the wisdom to see his purpose for us at this point in history. For we know that for those who love God all things work together for good. America’s seats of power are passed between fleeting political parties, but our Savior rules in Heaven, his reign uncontested both now and forever.