Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, red states and blue states—the political divides in our country tend to fall into binary structures. The ones we are most familiar with tend to be firmly established, and we often know, through intuition or experience, what side we align with.
But over the past few months there has been a new political divide, an intramural division within American social conservatism. And this discord has been felt most prominently within the evangelical wing of this movement.
Evangelicals are not a monolithic entity, and there have always been differences and disagreements on politics. Still, within the social conservative faction (which accounts for around 60 percent to 75 percent of evangelicalism) there has been a general sense of unity. At least there was before this election season. The candidacy of Donald Trump has caused a split within this group that has grown increasingly rancorous as we inch closer to the election.
Even by the standard of partisan politics, Trump is a uniquely polarizing figure. Before this year few could have predicted he’d bisect socially conservative evangelicals into warring camps.
Witness vs. Justice
In an attempt to bridge this chasm I want to explain the reasoning of both sides (at least as I have observed the debates), examine their strengths and weaknesses, and propose a way forward. While the two sides may not agree on much before November 8, we can at least attempt to seek a modicum of understanding and reconciliation.
There are differences and disagreements within each group and just as many areas of overlap between the two sides. By painting their outlines with a broad brush we will miss many important aspects and nuances. Still, doing so will help us focus our eyes on a few of the most essential elements.
To give a label to each side, we can identify the division as between those focused on Witness and those foregrounding Justice. Let’s start with by explaining the Justice side.
The concern of this group can be summed up in two words: Supreme Court. Many of the issues they care about most are matters of justice that will likely be decided by the court—abortion, marriage, transgenderism, religious liberty, and so on. They’re legitimately worried that if the liberal party candidate, Hillary Clinton, is allowed to choose the replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia it will set us back decades, and even push us to a point from which our country may never recover.
Although Trump might not have been their first choice of candidates, they see him as the lesser of two evils. They don’t necessarily know what he would do in office, but they are quite certain how Hillary will govern. For this reason they are willing to take a chance on Trump. To reverse an old saying, “Better the devil you don’t know than the one you do.”
The strength of this position is its clarity and simplicity. This group reasons that even if Clinton and Trump were to govern in the exact same way on every issue and differ only on Supreme Court nominations, we would be no worse off and would, in many ways, be much better off since the Court would be returned to its former status quo.
This is form of minimax strategy, which is often used in two-player, zero-sum games (like presidential elections). Minimax is a strategy of always minimizing the maximum possible loss that can result from a choice a player makes. The Justice side believes by supporting and voting for Trump they are minimizing the maximum possible loss of justice that would result from a Clinton presidency.
For the Justice side, the timeline we should be thinking on is decades, rather than the next four to eight years. My TGC colleague Bethany Jenkins summed up this rationale when she said, “As a lawyer who has read hundreds of cases, I’ve found one thing certain: Presidents come and go, but a SCOTUS Justice lasts a lifetime.” (NB: Bethany is not a Trump supporter, though she is sympathetic to the concerns of the Justice side.)
That is the main strength of the Justice position. The drawback is the trade-offs they have to make to endorse Trump, specifically sacrificing the “character issue” not only from this current presidential election but also from every election in the future.
A prime example of a champion on the Justice side is Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and a member of Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board. After hearing Trump bragged about committing sexual assault, Jeffress said the comments were “lewd, offensive, and indefensible.” But he said he’d still support Trump for President. “I would not necessarily choose this man to be my child’s Sunday school teacher,” he said. “But that’s not what this election is about.”
The implication is that there is not even a minimal biblical standard of character for a man or woman seeking a leadership role in America’s government. While integrity and a reputable character might be preferred, it’s a luxury good, not a prerequisite to receive the political support of evangelicals.
The result of this decision to disregard character is likely to live longer than even the most robust Supreme Court Justice. No longer can we credibly claim a lack of character is a disqualifier from public office. If Hugh Hefner decides to run for president and chooses Larry Flynt as his running mate, they could credibly claim to be the candidates for evangelical “Values Voters,” so long as they promised to appoint conservative judges.
Now let’s examine the Witness side. This group is also concerned about the long-term threat that will result from allowing Clinton to choose Supreme Court justices. In fact, on this matter they share all of the same concerns as the Justice side. Where they differ is in fervently believing the damage done to our gospel witness in choosing Trump outweighs the potential devastation caused by a liberal Court.
This side rejects the concept of the “lesser of two evils” as being unbiblical since Scripture calls us to reject all evil. They believe the character of both candidates has made them unfit for the highest office in the land, and that voting for either to be President would violate their conscience. Additionally, they believe Trump has made comments that reveal him to be racist, sexist, and/or anti-life—all while claiming to be a Christian. For this group, turning a blind eye to Trump’s character for the sake of political expediency betrays our calling as Christians.
The strength of the Witness position is its integrity and faithfulness. They contend that by supporting Trump (or Clinton) evangelicals are sending the message that we’re willing to sacrifice our witness as ambassadors of Christ, and that we’re willing to choose evil on the chance it will lead to a good outcome.
This is also a form of minimax strategy, though the difference is the Witness side believes that by not supporting Trump or Clinton they are minimizing the maximum possible loss of gospel witness that will result, regardless of who gets elected.
For the Witness side, the timeline we should be considering is eternity. This side feels the greater concern is for the souls that may be lost because people associate the gospel with pragmatic power politics. My boss Russell Moore summed up this rationale when he said, “I'm looking beyond this election to recovering the witness of the church, when it comes to the important questions. The most important being: What is the gospel?” (NB: I work for Moore at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.)
That is the main strength of the Witness side. The drawback is by being faithful to the gospel evangelicals may suffer significant political setbacks or even losses of freedom. By not fully supporting Trump as the “lesser evil” the Witness side may be helping to tip the election toward a Clinton presidency—and to a liberal Supreme Court.
How Justice and Witness Can Reconcile
How can these groups reconcile? The first step is to be charitable and recognize that while each side may prioritize one aspect over the other, they both care about justice and gospel witness. Claiming the Witness side is secretly trying to elect Clinton or the Justice side is using the Court as an excuse to justify partisanship is both dishonest and unfair. Almost everyone involved in this debate is seeking to do the right thing.
Second, we need to make sure we’re on the side of the divide we intend to be on. To do this the Justice side must ask, “How much gospel witness am I willing to sacrifice for the sake of seeking justice?” and the Witness side must ask, “How much justice am I willing to sacrifice for the sake of gospel witness?” We should do this while searching the Scriptures and praying fervently for God to show us where we should be standing.
(I readily admit I am on the Witness side of the line, for I truly believe this is where God says I should be. While I attempt to be as fair as possible to the Justice side, I can’t pretend to be unbiased.)
Finally, both sides must ask how they can help the other without sacrificing their own convictions. For the Justice side, this means deciding how to convince others that supporting Trump and downplaying character is consistent with the biblical standard of leadership, and how their choice won’t impede gospel advance. For the Witness side this means figuring out what additional measures can be taken to offset the detrimental effects on justice that will result from a Clinton presidency.
Temporary Family Spat
Even after taking these steps we may not find ultimate reconciliation—at least not before Election Day. But by seeking to understand our fellow evangelicals and their reasons for why they have chosen to make their stand opposite of us, we can face off as mere opponents rather than as enemies.
We can disagree and debate as family members, as brothers and sisters in Christ. We can try to change each one another’s minds, try to do what we think is right, and try to find a way to work together again in the future. We can struggle to seek what most honors our holy God, knowing that ultimately he is sovereign over all. We are secure in the knowledge that no matter what happens after the election we still have him—and still have each other.