The Kruse Kronicle byline is, “Contemplating the intersection of work, the global economy, and Christian Mission.” While politics is not the primary focus of this blog, it is impossible to escape how this presidential election is reshaping Christian Mission for substantial segments of American Christianity. In short, we are asking how ought our discipleship shape our political participation?
Before you read further, you should know that I have opposed Donald Trump since he announced back his campaign in June of 2015. My take on policy and priorities leans center right, which should make me lean toward Republicans. While I have considerable policy disagreements with Trump, that it is not what drives my opposition. My conviction stems from being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Two days ago on Facebook, I posted a link about Independent Conservative candidate Evan McMullin. He is launching a bid to regain control of the heart and soul of conservatism. I commented, “And the battle for the center-right begins.” A Trump-backing Facebook friend asked:
“Why would anyone vote for a Mormon (non-Christian) candidate [McMullin] while citing the immaturity of Trump's (maturing) Christian faith as a reason not to vote for him?”
I used the occasion of that question to unpack my views. Some friends have encouraged me to post this response in a more accessible forum. So here it is with some light editing and a couple of additional comments.
I think the question [quoted above] misunderstands the issue for Christian Never Trumpers. Having no standing to speak on behalf of them as a group, I’ll speak for myself.
My primary concern is not about who wins this election, what happens to the Supreme Court, and so on. My concern is the witness of the Church. We are called to be ambassadors for the coming reign of God, to exhibit love and compassion, to speak up about injustice. We are resident-aliens in this world, not full citizens. Highlighting the intensity of that commitment, Jesus says in Luke 14:26 that the Kingdom even takes precedence over family ties. Ties that compromise that witness are idolatry.
There are no perfect candidates unless Jesus is on the ballot. Every candidate will have shortcomings. We are not looking for perfection. A candidate need not be Christian. The question is about general moral character, not the candidate’s specific religious doctrinal beliefs. The Church stays independent, whoever is elected, lifting up that which is good and offering critique for that which is not, but first and foremost living as a community that exhibits the marks of the Kingdom.
As each of us votes, we must make a determination about which of the candidates, if any, offers sufficient merit to receive our vote. Some conservative voters see Clinton as unacceptable. Fine. Let’s take her off the table. This being the case, some feel they must vote for Trump. Fine. I think that is misguided, but let’s grant that.
The issue is not that someone might vote for Trump. The issue is the attempt by the Christian Right to characterize Trump as basically a good guy, a baby Christian, basically "one of us," who is just a little rough around the edges. Trump is not a little rough around the edges.
Have you read Art of the Deal? Have you watched his life unfold? At the core of Trump’s life is the very antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount. He brags that never needs to apologize or repent about anything. [His recent apology about leaked videotapes was noteworthy for its novelty but also for NOT being an apology to the people he had wronged. It was to the voters who have the power to withhold something he wants.] He has been the apostle for win at all costs. You don’t just defeat opponents. You destroy and humiliate anyone who gets in your way. He advocated seducing the wives of rivals to humiliate them and bragged about having done so himself. He made his fortune exploiting human frailty in the area of gambling. You are unflinchingly loyal to him or you are an absolute loser. I can go on. Everything about him exudes an unstable vindictive predatory character. His “unfortunate” statements are not the product of an unpolished public figure. They are the product of a calculating, manipulative, pathological personality.
Democracy runs on the basis that there are competing views in society. When someone wins an election, the loser concedes and the winner leaves the loser standing, the loser living to fight another day. It is the understanding that no victory or loss is ever final, that keeps society moving along, even with disagreement. Trump routinely demonstrates he cannot tolerate the presence of opposition, period! Not even from beauty queens. From the beginning of the campaign to present, it has all been about what HE is going to do. By sheer force of his personality and will, and without any clear understanding of the basics of governance and a demonstrated unwillingness to learn them, he is going to fix everything. This is World Wrestling Entertainment bravado, not leadership. This grandiosity, coupled with a vindictive predatory temperament, is the recipe for authoritarianism.
Too many Christian Right Trumpers are not simply voting for the lesser of two evils. They are serving as his apologists, legitimizing his profound evils. It is an act of hypocrisy, considering all the criticism leveled at the moral failings of candidates in the past. When it is their agenda that is at stake, all concern about character goes out the window. You think Trump is the better candidate? Fine. But do not insult us with minimizing who this man is.
[As one Facebook friend posted: "You cannot support Ahab because you think he is somehow better than Jezebel and call it righteous."--Dennis Bills]
Let’s assume that by not voting for Trump, a Clinton presidency leads to some very unfriendly policies toward Christian Right people. So be it! The Church’s mission is not to win elections but to give witness to the coming Kingdom. That witness can be given through martyrdom if need be. Christ does not need the help of hateful authoritarian demagogues to achieve his purposes.
I am not that familiar with McMullin. From what I hear to date, he seems to be a principled man with admirable ethical standards, wanting to build a more civil society with aspiration and persuasion. To the degree that turns out to be true, he is a welcomed refreshing voice. I don’t care what his specific doctrines are.
In the end, I am sure I was not persuasive. For many on the Christian Right, this election is visceral. Social psychologists write about “motivated perception,” where what we see gets shaped by what we feel is at stake. For so many, legitimate or not, Hillary Clinton is the embodiment of the “other side” in the culture wars of the past forty years. The idea of letting her win, much less vote for her, is nihilistic and apocalyptic. One is forced to choose between letting loose the apocalypse or voting for a candidate who is the antithesis to all you have previously advocated as morally necessary.
The motivation to legitimize and rationalize Trump is powerful. According to survey research comparing 2011 to 2016, White Evangelical Protestants went from being the religious segment least likely to believe that someone who commits immoral acts in private life can govern ethically (2011 = 30%) to the most likely (2016 = 71%). (Source) Jeff Jacoby compares statements by leaders before 2011 with statements after in his piece How the religious right embraced Trump and lost its moral authority. When holding a moral standard means substantial loss, they embraced moral relativity, the cardinal sin of “secular-progressives” they so despise. Again, my point is not that someone will vote for Trump. My concern is that those who decide they will vote for Trump should not minimize and trivialize who the man shows himself to be.
In closing, I will say that our present circumstances in the American Church are not purely the problem of the Christian Right. Across the political spectrum, much of American Church is not formed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. A great many progressive Christians have concluded that the answer to the Christian Right is the emergence of the Christian Left. They participate in the same hyperbolic “othering” that the Right has done and call it “prophetic” and “social justice advocacy.” And what we learn now is that when you have for years embraced characterizations of your opponents as wanting to kill women, equating them to holocaust deniers, and declared them to be functionally no different than the Taliban, you lose the words to name genuine authoritarianism when it appears. (See Crying Wolf, Then Confronting Trump) The answer is not a more progressive church. The answer is a loving community of resident-aliens, seeking the welfare of the city, seeking truth no matter the implications for our host culture’s political agendas. Right, left, or whatever, precious little of the American Church owns that vision.