Editors’ note: This year’s election season clearly revealed what many have long suspected: America is a deeply divided nation. What has caused this division? What is the way forward? How can evangelicals respond in way that leads to healing and increased unity? The Gospel Coalition invited several writers and observers to explore those and related questions for an online symposium on the State of Evangelicalism.
Like many others, I have spent recent days listening for the best explanation of the surprising election of Donald Trump and wondering how that might bear on America's divisions. My listening has led back to the great themes of love and respect.
To my surprise, I propose that voters in most states came to believe that Donald Trump cares about them—loves them—more than Hillary Clinton does. More importantly, a return to a life of love is the way of healing for our nation. Futhermore, I find in the example of history some hope that God might work through political leaders to protect a thriving churc.
Love for the People
Commentators often assert that Hillary Clinton was perhaps the best-qualified presidential candidate in history. Therefore, she must have lost the election because of prejudices: She is a woman, and she was the de facto successor of America's first African-American president.
I propose that Clinton lost the 2016 election for the same reason Mitt Romney lost in 2012. Whether the assessment was accurate or not, both candidates seemed to care little for a large portion of the electorate. Both were caught making private comments that reinforced that impression. In remarks that were supposed to be private, Romney said 47 percent of the electorate would never vote for him because they depend on government largesse. And Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables.” People call these moments “gaffes.” Michael Kinsley explained gaffes and the associate concept of spin this way:
Spin is often thought to be synonymous with falsehood or lying, but more accurately it is indifference to the truth. A politician engaged in spin is saying what he or she wishes were true, and sometimes, by coincidence, it is. Meanwhile, a gaffe . . . is when a politician tells the truth—or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down.
The New York Times reported that Bill Clinton begged his wife’s campaign to spend more time in small depressed towns. He went himself, but she did not because she believed she already had their votes. Candidates like Romney and Hillary Clinton contrast with warmer politicians like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. They contrast even more with the apostle Paul, who sets the example of the church’s conduct. He told the Philippians, “I hold you in my heart” (Phil 1:7) and spent time tending relationships, even declaring his loving affection at the start of Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon (see also 1 Cor. 16:5-7, 2 Cor. 7:12-16, Gal. 4:12-20). Paul believed, “If I . . . have not love, I am nothing.” Meditating on Paul's ways I now pray, before every sermon, “Lord, please let me love these people and let them feel it.”
The counterpoint appears in Romans 14:3, in the debate about foods. Paul warned, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” This is brilliant, both emotionally and relationally. Everyone who has an overweening certainty in his rectitude, everyone who is certain I am right is prone to despise those who differ. Many thought Secretary Clinton and Governor Romney had a whiff of that smugness. Their followers often speak and act in the same spirit.
To heal our divisions and move forward, we must despise less and love more.
To heal our divisions and move forward, we must despise less and love more.
Do We Love a Party?
Humans are social creatures. It is our nature to search for admirable leaders and to seek out groups that affirm our views. If we doubt ourselves and our beliefs, it is comforting to stand with people who think and act as we do. That helps us avoid information that challenges our beliefs and lifestyle.
I may be asking the impossible, but I believe we can begin to heal our divisions if evangelicals place less confidence in princes and parties and more in the One, the King who deserves unstinting loyalty. Only he can bless leaders with the necessary character and resolve to work in such a way that supports the church.
The 2016 election, with its profoundly flawed candidates, offered a great opportunity to relax our allegiance to political parties. White evangelical Christians tend to vote Republican, and with some reason. For decades, the Republican Party aligned with Christian values on vital issues such as protection of the unborn and the sober view of human nature that drives a limited government. Republicans especially seem to grasp that the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause entails more than freedom of worship and the right to hold religious ideas in private.
That said, it seems Democrats’ interest in justice should appeal to many believers. They promote freedom from discrimination based on religion, race, ethnicity, and gender, and support equal pay for equal work and equal access to polls, housing, education, and credit. Democrats seem more committed to creation care and compassion for the poor. Christians should be the first to protect the poor and disenfranchised, the first to protect and defend aliens and strangers. The Israelites were strangers in Egypt (Lev. 19:34), and the first Christians were sojourners and exiles in the Greco-Roman world (1 Pet 1:1, 2:11-12), therefore we ought to empathize with strangers and exiles. We should be committed to creation care, for the Lord commanded our parents to work the garden and keep it (Gen. 2:15), to refrain from killing trees without reason (Deut. 20:19), and to care for animals (Prov. 12:10).
Back on the Republican side, GOP voters nominated Trump for president in 2016 despite an array of candidates with better credentials and, it seems, superior character. Trump made comments that sounded nationalist, racist, and sexist. He expressed admiration for dictators, and disregard for treaties. All of this violates conservative principles that reflect Judeo-Christian principles. Trump’s nomination ignored the enduring conservative principle that character matters.
At least in the past, Trump reveled in sexual immorality and he regularly insulted women and minorities. The gibe, “We aren't electing a choirboy” barely makes sense. Character matters because presidents inevitably encounter unforeseen events: for Kennedy, a missile crisis; for Johnson, a civil rights movement; for Bush, a terrorist attack on America’s soil; for Obama, the rise of ISIS.
Character is the chief architect of human action. People of character do the right thing under duress. They tell the truth when truth matters most, they set the right course when it is least popular or advantageous. Presidents therefore need character: faithfulness, justice, love, patience, mercy, wisdom, even humility. We should pray for President-elect Trump that he would develop and display godly character.
Stepping back from this election I wonder if, contrary to prevailing rhetoric, the major political parties are rather similar to one another. Politicians highlight differences, especially during elections, but consider their common ground. Both parties nominated profoundly flawed and very wealthy candidates who allegedly secured their wealth in questionable ways. Both appear to be allies of Wall Street. Both enjoyed substantial favor—in the form of massive coverage, whether positive or negative—in the media. Both parties operate on materialist principles, promising prosperity and treating economic growth as the chief measure of successful governance. Both parties participate in the accumulation of a staggering national debt that shifts burden this generation to future generations, thereby institutionalizing intergenerational theft. Both parties are committed to a vast military-industrial complex, which, in some years, has spent more on defense than all other nations combined.
If both parties do operate on materialist principles, assuming that prosperity is the best mark of successful governance, that opens space for leaders with different agendas. I will need to develop this point in subsequent articles, but let me mention my fears in 2016 and the way a justice-oriented politician might address them. If Trump’s character flaws and ignorance of foreign policy worry me now as he prepares for the White House, Clinton’s combination of self-righteous rectitude and liberal Christianity worried me before the election.
She seemed like the kind of politician who could conclude that traditional Christian views of sexual ethics are sub-Christian because they are not progressive. If that assessment should occur, the withdrawal of federal benefits—such as federal loans for students attending Christian colleges—could have followed. The consequences could have been dire for evangelical and orthodox Christian schools.
Despite the similarity of the parties, elections matter. It remains to be seen what consequences will result from 2016. History offers evidence of how God can, in his unique purposes, raise up political leaders for the sake of his church.
Back for the Future
Consider the consequences of character for the church in political leaders of the past. In days past, magistrates focused more on protecting their people than on promoting their prosperity. Since we soon celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, consider the magistrates who dedicated themselves to the safety of the reformers. Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses in 1517. By 1521 he had been declared a heretic and an outlaw. For the rest of his years, Luther lived under a death sentence, and Emperor Charles surely would have seen to his execution if Elector Frederick III, the governor of Luther's portion of Germany, had not resolved to protect him.
One year later, in 1522, Ulrich Zwingli's radical decision to preach through the New Testament led him to advocate the supreme authority of Scripture and to criticize clerical abuses, mandatory fasting, veneration of saints, and clerical celibacy. Although the situation differed greatly, the magistrates of Zurich held disputations and led votes also protected Zwingli from the hostile local bishop (of Constance) and the episcopal courts.
Geneva's magistrates also held elections that established it as a Reformed city. A few months later, Calvin arrived and began to preach and lead. Within two years, the city council fired him. Two years later, they begged him to return. Calvin's consistory included five pastors, twelve elders, and ten magistrates. The group worked together for moral reforms in city and church and in the physical defense of the city.
The Scottish reformation, led by John Knox also depended on Christian governors. In this case, regional noblemen petitioned Knox, a Scot, to return from exile and preach, promising to protect him from a Catholic queen with allegiance to France, which had a disconcerting tendency to kill Protestants. She would have silenced Knox if she could, but the Scottish nobility, resolved to establish Reformation principles in Scottish churches and to protect its leaders.
Defender of All Faiths
William of Orange (1533–1584), also known as William the Silent, presents an even more striking case of a Christian magistrate protecting his people. William was a man who found favor with God and man. Commoners and royalty, Catholics and Protestants were all attracted to him. William inherited a large estate in his youth. He acquired additional lands upon his marriage, and yet more land when his first wife died and he married another. With extensive holdings in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, William was very wealthy. The Spanish emperor, Charles V, set a condition for William's inheritance; he must first receive a Catholic education, overseen by the emperor's family. Although raised a Lutheran, William submitted. In time he became a ward of the emperor, and he received the best possible education, including military training.
William became a confidant of Emperor Charles and his friend King Henry II of France. One day during a stag-hunt King Henry began to describe a plan for the violent extermination of Protestantism in France, the Netherlands, and beyond. Henry assumed that William knew of the plan; William remained silent until Henry had fully disclosed his plans for extirpating the Protestant “heresy” with Spanish troops notorious for brutality. William, just 26, quickly resolved that he could not allow the slaughter of “so many honorable people,” especially in his home country, the Netherlands. He returned to his Protestant faith, and resolved to defend the people and the faith of the Netherlands. More than that, he determined to protect the religious freedom of Catholics and Anabaptists, not just Protestants. (See Frederick Harrison, William the Silent, 22-23). William risked everything, lost most of his wealth, and eventually fell to an assassin’s bullet. But before he died, he did govern, and protect his people—regardless of the faith they professed.
Clearly, William and an array of Reformation era magistrates pursued justice and protection of their people, more than material prosperity. William offers a stirring case of a magistrate who lived out his faith at great cost, for the sake of the Lord and his people.
May these cases inspire modern-day Christian magistrates who are willing to defend the cause of religion in politics.
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