Four years ago we witnessed the beginning of a new political divide, an intramural division within American social conservatism, which was felt most prominently within the evangelical wing of this movement.
Evangelicalism has never been a monolithic entity, and there were always differences and disagreements on politics. Still, within the social conservative faction (which accounts for around 60 to 75 percent of evangelicalism) there had been a general sense of unity. That all changed with the candidacy of Donald Trump.
Even by the standards of partisan politics, President Trump has been a uniquely polarizing figure. Before 2016, no one could have predicted he’d bisect socially conservative evangelicals into warring camps. Yet reactions to Trump—both the man and his presidency—have become one of the most divisive elements in American evangelicalism
Witness vs. Transformation
A week before the 2016 election, I attempted to explain this divide. I wanted to present the reasoning of both sides (at least as I have observed the debates), to examine their strengths and weaknesses, and to propose a way forward. Now that the 2020 election is less than a week away, I want to again attempt to explain that divide as fairly as possible.
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.
In 2016, I saw the divide as being between those focused primarily on justice and those foregrounding gospel witness. The changes brought about by President Trump, especially on the Supreme Court, has caused a slight shift, both in allegiance and also goals. Today, I would classify the division as between those on the side of witness and those opposing transformation.
Let’s start by examining the transformation side.
In 2016, the concern of this group could be summed up in two words: Supreme Court. Many of the issues they care about most will likely be decided by the court—abortion, marriage, transgenderism, and religious liberty. They were legitimately worried that if Sen. Hillary Clinton were allowed to choose the replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia it would set us back decades, and even push us to a point from which our country might never recover.
The outcome was more than they could have hoped for. Trump not only replaced the conservative Justice Scalia, but also replaced two socially liberal justices, Kennedy and Ginsburg. While many on the transformation side believe this vindicates their 2016 vote, it also changes the calculus for 2020. Now, the issue is no longer a matter of Supreme Court appointments but about avoiding the transformation that would come from electing Biden, a man they believe will give free rein to progressive impulses.
The transformation position was recently explained and defended by TGC council member Albert Mohler. Although he did not vote for Trump in 2016, he explained why he would do so in 2020, and concluded:
I truly believe that this presidential election, with the control of the Senate also clearly at stake, is likely to be transformational. The stakes just keep getting higher. The difference between a Trump administration and a Biden administration will shape a generation and have a very great deal to do with the future of our nation.
The strength of this position is its clarity and simplicity. This group reasons that even if Biden and Trump were to govern in the exact same way on almost every issue and differ only on abortion and religious liberty, we would be no worse off and would, in many ways, be much better off.
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 transformation side believes by supporting and voting for Trump they are minimizing the maximum possible loss that would result from a Biden presidency.
For the transformation side, the timeline we should be considering is the next four years, because that time period could be transformational for America’s future. If we can just hold on four more years, they believe, there is a possibility that we will be able to affect a change that would not require us to choose the “lesser of two evils” in every future election.
That is the main strength of the transformation position. The drawback is the trade-offs they have to make to support Trump, specifically sacrificing the “character issue” not only from this current presidential election but also from every election for the next generation. They’ve also made it impossible to justify requiring character to be used as a criterion for almost any vocation outside of the pastorate.
Now let’s examine the witness side. This group of social conservatives is also concerned about the long-term threat that will result from a Biden presidency. On this matter, most of them share the same concerns as the transformation side. Where they differ is in fervently believing the damage done to our gospel witness in continuing to support Trump outweighs the potential devastation caused by a Biden presidency.
This side rejects the concept of the “lesser of two evils” as being unbiblical, since Scripture calls us to reject every kind of evil (1 Thes. 5:22). 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 proven to be antithetical to most everything Jesus stands for—all while claiming to be a follower of Christ. 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 Biden) evangelicals are sending the message that we’re willing to sacrifice our witness as ambassadors of Christ, and that we’re willing to choose certain evils because it might lead to a preferred political outcome.
This is also a form of minimax strategy, though the difference is the witness side believes that by not supporting Trump or Biden 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. As TGC Council member Russell Moore said in 2016, “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?”
That is the main strength of the witness side. The drawback is by being rigidly focused on our gospel witness, evangelicals may suffer losses, such as religious liberty, that might affect our ability to proclaim the gospel in the future. By not fully supporting Trump as the “lesser evil” the witness side may be helping to tip the election toward a Biden presidency. That could result, as many on the transformation side have noted, in the promotion of socially progressive policies that will shape the future of our nation.
How Witness and Transformation 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 both about the future of America and our gospel witness. Claiming the witness side is secretly trying to elect Biden or that the transformation side is using abortion as an excuse to justify blind allegiance to the GOP is both dishonest and unfair. Almost everyone involved in this debate is seeking to do the right thing based on their convictions and conscience.
Second, we need to make sure we’re on the side of the divide we intend to be on. To do this, the transformation side must ask, “How much gospel witness am I willing to sacrifice for the sake of preventing the progressive vision for America?” and the witness side must ask, “How much transformation 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.
Finally, both sides must ask how they can help the other without sacrificing their own convictions. For the transformation 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 discredit Christianity and impede the work of spreading the gospel. For the witness side this means figuring out what additional measures can be taken to offset the detrimental effects on religious liberty and the cause of justice that will result from a Biden presidency.
Temporary Family Spat
Even after taking these steps we may not find ultimate reconciliation, not before Election Day and not for a long time after. But by seeking to understand our fellow evangelicals and the 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 we still have each other.