I’ve been the pastor at my church since the summer of 2004. That means this is the fourth presidential election we have been through together. In each of the previous three, there have been moments—small, isolated moments—of conflict surrounding the election. Things have been stirred up by email chains, social media fodder, and sometimes by things I have said. I hope these brief reflections will not be in the category of “stirring up,” but rather might provide some clarity about what Christians should agree on and what we may not have to agree on.
Here we go.
1. Since this will come up in every comment and has been asked by my own parishioners dozens of times, I’ll make clear from the outset: I will vote for President, but I will not vote for either of the major party candidates. I have been critical of both candidates—more so than in any previous presidential election—because I believe both fail to clear a basic threshold of personal integrity, sound judgment, and trustworthiness.
2. This does not mean I think every Christian must come to the same decision in order to be a good Christian. There are simply too many prudential matters in the mix for Christians to be adamant that you absolutely cannot vote for so and so. Someone may think Trump is a lecherous oaf, but still conclude that his policies and judicial appointments have a better chance of being good for the nation. Likewise, someone may find Clinton’s position on abortion utterly deplorable, but conclude that Trump’s pro-life credentials are untrustworthy and that Clinton is less likely to be recklessly incompetent. Others may be convinced that an unpopular Clinton presidency may be better for conservative principles in the long run than a train wreck Trump administration would be. Some people may think voting third party is a waste. Others may figure it is one way to send a message that the system failed us this time around. Or maybe they really, really like Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin or whomever. Do I agree with all these arguments? No. But am I able to tell Christians that these arguments are manifestly unbiblical? No. They are conclusions that require prudential judgments. While our church might discipline a member for holding the positions Clinton holds or for behaving the way Trump has behaved, this does not mean we have biblical grounds for disciplining a church member who, for any number of reasons and calculations, may decide that voting for either candidate (or neither) makes the most sense. And if we wouldn’t discipline someone for a presidential vote, we should stop short of saying such a vote is sinful and shameful.
3. While it is not the role of pastors to tell their people who to vote for, it is our role to interpret Scripture and point out theological carelessness. Yes, David was a great sinner who was used mightily by the Lord. Yes, God forgives sinners and so must we. But David repented of his sin (see Psalm 51). Being a sinner like David doesn’t qualify anyone for anything, except for the redeeming blood of Christ and the saving grace that will be given to all those who truly repent and believe.
4. Likewise, Cyrus was a pagan ruler used by God for the good of his people. Which establishes that God can use pagan rulers for the good of his people. The example itself says nothing about whether God will use a particular pagan ruler, or whether God would have us vote for said pagan ruler if given the chance.
5. Even if you are a hold-your-noser instead of a NeverTrumper, every Christian should agree that Trump’s comments about women and his actions toward women (not to mention the way he has spoken of minorities) have been horrid. We embarrass ourselves when we try to defend the indefensible. And to claim it was merely locker room talk (which it wasn’t), or that you’ve heard worse (sadly, many have), or all men have spoken like that before (they haven’t) only serves to excuse sins that need to be forgiven not minimized.
6. And what about Clinton? It’s true, some conservative evangelical Christians have voiced more criticism about Trump than about Clinton. I imagine this is because most conservative evangelical Christians do not consider Clinton a viable option because of her extreme views on abortion. The conversation among most white evangelicals is not Trump or Clinton but Trump or not Trump. But certainly Clinton is no paragon of virtue either. It is hard to think she can be trusted with money, with power, with classified information, or with simply telling the truth.
7. But we are not voting for Pastor-in-Chief! Agreed. I don’t insist that the President of the United States has to be qualified to be a leader in our churches or even a member in our churches. And yes, many presidents have been morally bankrupt. But we can’t say what we would do then with what we know now. More importantly (and more theologically), we must not be moral relativists. The Bible does not teach that every sin is the same, nor does it suggest that private character is an irrelevant consideration for public service. There is nothing about sitting in the Oval Office that magically transforms people into something other than what they have been. If anything, power tempts even good people to be bad and makes bad people even worse. Our candidates will always be imperfect. When and where that imperfection crosses the line into “morally unfit” may be a matter of discretion, but it must be a matter that matters.
8. Likewise, to criticize a candidate’s egregious moral faults is not “casting the first stone.” We are not killing them or condemning them as irredeemably lost. The question is not whether Trump or Clinton are perfect moral examples, or whether we have failings in our past, or whether grace can cover all our sins. I evaluate presidential candidates with the same sort of grid I’d use for a staff evaluation: character, convictions, competence, and chemistry. Obviously, I don’t look for all the same things in a president as I would for an associate pastor. But I do think that in both cases a person’s ethical compass is crucial. The Founding Fathers, however imperfect they were in practice, were at least agreed that a Republic cannot long endure apart from the cultivation of virtue. I’d like to see the President defend and pursue the same.
9.There is a tendency, on both sides, to treat “our side” differently than we treat “their side.” Would the same Christian leaders excusing Trump’s statements ever think to excuse the same from Clinton (Bill or Hillary)? Of course not. Would liberals be overlooking Bill Clinton’s treatment of women (and Hillary’s role in downplaying or silencing accusations) if a Republican candidate (or spouse) had the same trail of serious allegations? No way. So much of politics is “defend our guy at all costs” and “seek and destroy their guy at all costs.” The church must show a better way.
10. I am interested in politics, always have been. I follow the ups and downs and ins and outs of the campaign season closely. I love my country and care about who wins and loses. Elections have consequences. Yet I’m much more interested in the church—my church and the Church. Our fidelity to biblical truth, our personal holiness, our sincerity, our consistency, our ability to speak with grace and truth, our unwillingness to confuse the kingdom of this world with the kingdom of Christ, our realism in the midst of utopian promises, our hope in the midst of fear and loathing, our winsome witness to the gospel—to embody these realities week after week is more important than what happens on the second Tuesday in November.