Jesus and his disciples were truly the “silent majority” in ancient Roman-occupied Palestine. It was inhabited mostly by Jews who were allowed to exist but had no political power and paid taxes from which they did not benefit. They were anxious for Israel to be restored and for the Jewish people to be great again. At the heights of these political hopes, some of the disciples asked for a position of power in the coming kingdom (Matt. 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45) and/or argued over who was the greatest among them (Luke 22:24-26).
Jesus replied, “Whatever it takes. We as God’s people must have control of the highest courts and branches of government. We must elect leaders, no matter how immoral or inexperienced, who have promised us this power, so that all people will be forced to conform to my will.”
Of course, Jesus didn’t actually say that. But if you listen to a majority of the white evangelical voting bloc, you would think that’s what he said. Jesus actually said something quite opposite of that: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matt. 20:25-27).
What has happened?
Julie Zauzmer wrote an article for the Washington Post in which she interviews white evangelicals about the election. The responses she compiles are right in line with what I’ve heard many other people say or write. This year, millions of evangelicals felt that not only the country but their faith, and their ability to practice it freely, hung in the balance.
In particular, this year, for many, was about the Supreme Court. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals (according to exit polls) were willing to look past unabashed immorality that dwarfs what many considered impeachable during the Bill Clinton era to hedge their bets on a promise to fill the Supreme Court with justices already predisposed to rule one particular way on cases involving linchpin Christian issues.
Aside from this troublesome expectation that justices come to the bench having made up their minds before hearing each individual case, I have to ask: Have we really strayed so far from the life and teachings of the man we call Savior to believe that this is our great cause and our life’s work? Even if one believes that it’s God’s will that we somehow Christianize the Supreme Court, this year we would still have to ask, “What shall it profit us to gain the whole Supreme Court but lose our soul?”
The problem I’m addressing here is not a candidate. The problem is evangelical Christians publicly and enthusiastically embracing a candidate as some sort of champion who will renew Christianity’s influence with the stroke of pen or by some other form of power — exactly the kind of thing Jesus rejected.
As the Rev. Matthew Sturtevant observed, if Jesus was seeking theocratic control of an earthly nation state, his temptation scene with Satan would have gone very differently. “Jesus had his shot to create the ultimate theocracy, and chose a very different kind of kingdom.”
The problem is not a particular political party, but Christians hitching their wagons to any political party, because in reality a worldly power will only exploit religion and use it for its own purposes, something that Billy Graham warned about all the way back in 1981. Some are analyzing this year’s election in isolation but it is actually a culmination of years of white Christians living with a persecution complex that has made us elect people who then use public office to do actual persecuting of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, or otherwise unconstitutionally seek privileges for Christian faith in the public square under the guise of religious freedom.
Now it has come to a head. Evangelicals, known for their commitment to the message of repentance and grace through faith in Christ threw their hope and weight behind a man who said, “I’m not sure I have [ever asked God for forgiveness]. … I don’t bring God into that picture.” Evangelicals, known for their commitment to the Bible, think they have an advocate now in a man who, when pressed for his favorite Bible verse, quoted an Old Testament law that was explicitly rejected by Jesus (Matt. 5:38-39).
In our toxic partisan climate, I’m sure people will hear my words as being pro-Clinton. They are not, and I sympathize with those who were less than enthusiastic about this year’s choices. Had evangelicals endorsed her or any other candidate as Christ’s ambassador in the White House, the fundamental problem would be the same. But this year was a particularly damaging one for Christian witness and integrity in the eye of the public. It’s one thing to sin. We all do that. But millions of Christians, at the urging of some prominent evangelical leaders, held up as champion of Christian priorities a man who seems to take pride in his sins. In his books and interviews, Trump has bragged about everything from his propensity for revenge to his adultery. Much of his business empire is built on debauchery with ties to the gambling and sex industries. He has a documented wage theft problem. And why is it that the KKK and white nationalists see an advocate in him that they have not seen in other major party candidates?
Here’s a quote from a prominent evangelical author: “As it turns out, character does matter. You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world!” That was written by James Dobson of Focus on the Family. But he wasn’t talking about Trump. He wrote that about Bill Clinton in 1998. This year, he enthusiastically endorsed Trump.
This is unbridled hypocrisy. Religion writer Jonathan Merritt put it well: “Pious preachers, thunderous televangelists, and moralizing activists have sold America a bill of goods about their pure motivation for decades. But evidence indicates that evangelical political engagement is really about cultural influence, social dominance, and power.”
As Robert P. Jones noted, the ends apparently justify the means. “White evangelicals have now fully embraced a consequentialist ethics that works backward from predetermined political ends, refashioning or even discarding principles as needed to achieve a desired outcome.”
I can’t help but see our situation as something similar to the religious insiders of Jesus’ day whom he accused of neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). The problem is not that people take the priorities and values of their faith into the voting booth. That’s what we all do and what we’re supposed to do. But the priorities and values of some modern day Christians have gotten so far out of step with those of Jesus that it cannot go unchallenged.
Luckily, I am far from alone in challenging it. For every person who sold out, there was another who called foul. Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist ethicist, has remained critical of Christians putting their faith in political candidates, particularly Donald Trump, and called on Christians to “play a long game of cultural renewal and persuasion, not driven merely by the populist passions of the moment.”
This was the year that we saw popular, beloved evangelical authors break their previous political silence, alarmed and puzzled by Christians sacrificing their moral witness for an abstract sense of political victory. One of those authors was Max Lucado, who wrote an article called “Decency for President.” He began by talking about his daughters’ dates and how they have all had to sit down with him for a short conversation to ensure that they pass the “decency test.” Lucado wrote of Trump (before his official nomination): “The leading Republican candidate to be the next leader of the free world would not pass my decency interview. I’d send him away. I’d tell my daughter to stay home. I wouldn’t entrust her to his care.” He lists many instances of name-calling and other aggressive behavior by Trump, and then somewhat incredulously says, “Such insensitivities wouldn’t be acceptable even for a middle school student body election. But for the Oval Office? And to do so while brandishing a Bible and boasting of his Christian faith?”
These critics and others, like Albert Mohler and Beth Moore, are not liberals predisposed to vote Democrat. These are deeply conservative Christians and long-time favorites of evangelicals going back decades. That says something.
There’s no doubt that the public witness of Christians has been severely compromised, but at the same time, I believe that our most crucial opportunities lie ahead of us. For starters, we must sincerely pray for president-elect Trump and all of our leaders. To do otherwise, or to in any way take pleasure in someone’s failings, is not love of neighbor.
But this posture of prayer is not incompatible with our duty to speak truth to power, something that has strong biblical precedent. Nor is it incompatible with our obligation to be advocates of justice for our most vulnerable populations and our culture’s minorities. My heart has broken as I’ve listened to so many of them express fear for their well-being, and even safety, under the politicians currently being put into positions of power.
Now is our time, church. Now is when we must let go of concern for issues rarely addressed in scripture and instead speak loudly and clearly for justice, a central issue in the Bible. The prophet Isaiah said, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights” (Isa. 10:1). The book of Proverbs says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute … defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9). The prophet Jeremiah said, “Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer. 22:3). Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
I believe this public witness of the church is about to get more relevant and urgent. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the church is “neither the master nor the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”
Rise up, church. This is our time.