Christians in the Age of Trump: A Contrasting View

Donald Trump rose to power amid controversy. Two and a half years into his administration, there is no sign that’s ever going to change. No doubt, he’ll continue to be a controversial figure long after his administration has moved into the history books.

I agree with much of what Greg Barkman had to say on the topic yesterday, particularly the negative assessments of President Trump’s character and behavior. I agree also that some of the President’s policies have been helpful to the nation and sensible in the eyes of conservatives. I concede, too, that in an election, deciding what candidate to support can be difficult—especially if we only consider those who have a chance of winning. If we accept that constriction, we’re stuck with what the parties decide to offer us.

Those are the primary points of agreement. Philosophically, I’m sure we agree on much as well. Most of the controversy among conservative Christians has to do with how to apply principles we share. Still, these principles are often not articulated in the more Trump-friendly perspectives I hear from fellow-Christians. I believe that if these truths are more front-of-mind, they’ll have more influence on how we evaluate presidents and make electoral choices.

1. Christian perspective is long and deep.

I’m using the word “Christian” in this post in a particular sense: not “the way Christians actually are,” but rather, “the way Christians ought to be,” that is, the way we are when we’re true to what Christianity is.

When I say the Christian perspective is long, I mean that Christian thought always puts now in the context of the whole story of humanity—which is God’s story. So our analysis of consequences should be quite different form the analysis that is normal in our culture. Rather than, “If we do X today, what will happen tomorrow?” Christians should think, “If we do X today, where does that fit into eternity?” From there, we work backward to the present: “What’s the consequence generations into the future? What’s the consequence in twenty years?” Admittedly, we often can’t answer those questions. But it gets easier when we get down to, “What impact does this have in a decade? Or in eight years?”

But I think we rarely start our analysis of consequences with the question of eternity. How will my choices in this moment matter when all this is over? (and they will matter—Matt. 12:36, 2 Cor. 5:10). When it comes to public policy and elected officials, we just about as rarely consider political outcomes a couple of election cycles down the road. This is a failure to look through the Christian lens.

The Christian perspective is long. It’s also deep. When we’re looking at things Christianly, we’re not only driven by our relationship to the God who sees the end from the beginning, but also to the God who sees and knows the real essences of things and is never fooled by mere appearances (Heb. 4:13, among many others).

The deep perspective takes some work. “Man looks on the outward appearance” (1 Sam 16:7), and by default, surface realities are what’s most real to us. But at the current political moment, we’re called to look past both the bashing of left-leaning punditry and the cheerleading of right-leaning (or right-off-the-edge!) punditry to sift out what’s really factual and wise. We’re called to tune out the noise and dazzle and hype, and read thoughtful, reflective considerations of the issues we face in our times.

2. Christian ethics looks beyond results.

Genuinely Christian ethics does include results when evaluating the rightness or wrongness of actions. “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (NIV, Rom. 13:10). “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (ESV, Rom. 14:21).

But outcomes are not the only consideration, or even the primary consideration. This is because everything a Christian does is personal. Worshipful service of our Creator is supposed to be an ever-present motivational layer in all we do (Rom. 12:2). The apostle Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 6:16 that Christian sexual ethics is not only driven by the goal of holiness but by the fact that Christ Himself is joined in some way to everything we do. Elsewhere Paul describes his own motivations in life as a drive to “please” a real person—Jesus Christ, whom we call Lord (2 Cor. 5:9).

Whatever else we might say about Christian ethics, we have to acknowledge that what ultimately determines right and wrong from our perspective is how Somebody feels about it. This shatters the popular utilitarian reasoning that whatever brings about the greatest good for the greatest number is the morally right thing to do.

Because Christian thought takes the long and deep view, we know that discerning what really brings about the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run is often impossible to know. Because we evaluate our choices through a personal grid—the good pleasure of our God—human good isn’t even mainly what interests us.

It’s possible to accept all that and still believe that a Christian should (a) vote only for a candidate that can win, and (b) vote for the least objectionable candidate that can win. But there’s a lot of thinking and evaluating that should happen before we even get to that point. In the long, deep, and Personal analysis, what really constitutes “winning”?

3. Christian values emphasize persuasion over coercion, understanding over compliance.

If we managed to put the ideal candidate in office—one who lacks all the character and conduct negatives of a man like Donald Trump—there’s still only so much he could get done, and only so much that would survive the next swing of the electoral pendulum. There’s only so much external constraints can accomplish.

Christian thought understands that faith in God-revealed truth is eternally transforming (Rom. 10:9-10, 17). There isn’t anything on earth more mighty than genuine Christian faith, because that faith is a heart-soul-mind surrender that permanently entwines us with the Creator God.

No law, or set of rules, or series of court decisions can do that.

And even on the time-bound plane of social concerns and public policy, only winning hearts and minds—genuinely persuading people of enduring truths—can produce changes that endure through election cycles.

A president who can get some policies enacted but who does it in a way—and from an ethos—that closes minds to important ideas and values may well do more harm than good. On the other hand, a president who is opposed to Christian views of society and justice (as those on the left are) but who provides a clear and sharp contrast with the ideas at the core of both conservatism and Christianity, may unwittingly persuade many to reject leftist beliefs.

To sum up, none of us really knows beforehand what the long and deep outcomes of a presidential election are going to be. We often don’t even know that years afterwards, with much confidence. What Christians should do then, in the electoral ethics department, is ask ourselves what pleases our God. And though that also doesn’t make the decision obvious, it does change the equation. We know that our Lord is at least as interested in how we get somewhere as He is in where we arrive.

“…for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Eph 5:8).

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There are 183 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I don't really know what to do with the vote relative vs. vote absolute analysis... I don't think I understand it.

Doesn't everyone believe that the moral significance of a vote is relative to one or more factors? For some, the only factor seems to be "is better than the other electable candidate." For others, there is a character threshold, so it comes down to "is better than the other electable candidate and is also not below the minimum character threshold."

On Christian nationalism

There's a lot of confusion/disagreement about the difference between patriotism and nationalism. I'm not confident of what my view is on that. I certainly don't think there's anything wrong with trying to conserve the way of life that has defined what we are as a nation (and made us distinct from many other nations of the world) for a couple of centuries. We get into trouble trying to identify that with the Christian faith, though. Don't get me wrong: everything a Christian does should be connected to/framed in/integrated with his or her faith, but there's a difference between the "Christian worldview heritage" of the USA and "a Christian duty to use the institutions of power (elected leaders, laws) to oppose alternatives to that Christian heritage."

There's a lot to think about on this but, I've been emphasizing that the Christian way is persuasion, not coercion. Anyone who understands the Bible understands that there's no good in trying to force people to conform to/outwardly affirm a belief system they don't really believe in.

I've used the phrase in other threads: "stupid and wrong."  Stupid because it doesn't work. Wrong for reasons that should be obvious.

So the way we relate our Christian worldview to "Amerian exceptionalism" is more along these lines

  • Thankfulness for the way of life we've been able to enjoy with awareness of its special temptations
  • Understanding that the view of basic moral standards the Christian worldview provides is healthy and blessed for a society -- and that case can be made via the social sciences. In a free society with separation of church and state, the results arguments and historical arguments are the best. Biblical authority-based arguments are for believers.
  • If we want to reclaim some Christian heritage, our energy should go into being winsome and persuasive, not into using law/policy to try to impose it on people who don't believe in it.
  • Other religions: of course anybody who believes in their faith (and has a coherent view of truth) sees other religions as "second rate." That's an opportunity for persuasion, not an opportunity for bigotry or legislation.
GregH's picture

I have been doing a bit of reading on nationalism lately, not in light of what we are discussing here but from another angle. It is a new concept (only a few hundred years old) that I think one could describe as pride in a culture/heritage/geographic area that crosses tribal boundaries and class boundaries. The last part of that is why it is a new concept and new term.

Here is the problem I see and I will use Karl Marx as an example. If you read Marx, you don't see totalitarian regimes and gulags and such. You see what appear to be good intentions, some valid complaints with modernism and some ideas to help that might even have merit. 

The problem is that what actually came out of Marxism was evil. And ever since, there has been debate about whether that evil existed in Marx all along or communism took Marxism and twisted it into something evil. I tend to believe the former; that the seeds of evil were there in Marx and bound to be exploited by human nature.

Nationalism is the same way. While in theory, it could just be harmless patriotism, does it ever actually stop there? Does it not lead to cultural or racial superiority (which implies others are inferior) and a host of other problems including imperialism, genocide, and frankly, the violence we see here in the US towards immigrants? By the way, nationalism actually originated with German philosophers in the 19th century who greatly influenced the Nazi Party.

So, I see the mixing of Christianity and nationalism to be very problematic. I don't even get or believe in the idea of American exceptionalism but that is another matter.

 

Larry's picture

Moderator

Part of my thesis is that there are things that are wrong to do regardless of outcomes. That is, there is no outcome that can justify them. In those situations, the question of outcomes is off the table entirely.

I understand but I don't think there is any reasonable way to suggest that that is in view here.

Can there such a thing as a candidate so messed up it would be wrong to put him in power regardless of the alternatives? 

Is this really an option? Someone is going to be in power. The only issue is whether or not your voice will be heard in it. 

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