Some time back I published an article suggesting that evangelicals should not support Donald Trump. One of the most common responses I received was, “He’s better than Hillary Clinton!” Whether or not that’s true, the Republican primary was still ongoing at the time, so it was not a foregone conclusion that Trump would be his party’s candidate. Things have now changed, and evangelicals are faced with quite a dilemma.
Many evangelicals find Trump’s rhetoric and proposed policies repugnant. The problem is, they also have serious concerns about Clinton. In other words, while they may find some resonance with one candidate or another, many evangelical voters simply cannot muster enthusiasm for either of our presidential hopefuls. This is not, however, a particularly surprising development.
One of the theologians who has most influenced me is Stanley Hauerwas. I don’t particularly enjoy his manner of public engagement, but the sheer intellectual horsepower of the man, his theological creativity, the consistency of his principles, and his insistence on prying apart the witness of the church and the comfort of the surrounding culture are deeply compelling. I first encountered Hauerwas’s writings at a time in my life when I was desperate for a deeper, more orthodox, and more countercultural form of Christianity than I had been taught up to that point. And here was a theologian insisting, most often quite indelicately, that Christians must be first and foremost Christian. We are not first citizens of a nation state. We are not first Republicans, Democrats, Green, or Libertarian. We are not first business people, professors, mechanics, pastors, or anything else. We are first Christians, and Christians have one Lord, Jesus Christ. As a friend of mine would say, Christ has many enemies, but he has no rivals.
Hauerwas holds that there is an overarching narrative in the Bible–a narrative of salvation. It affects everything in our lives: how we spend our money; how we think about sex and marriage, war and peace, poverty and wealth; how we understand the beginning and end of life. We see everything through the narrative of salvation disclosed in Scripture.
Take, for example, the case of a person with a moderate to severe intellectual disability. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that many in our culture would see such a person as a societal burden, one who costs money but contributes little if anything to society. That helps to explain why 80-90% of pregnancies in which Down syndrome is detected are terminated, often at the urging of medical personnel. From the perspective of the ambient values of Western culture, such people simply aren’t as valuable as those with “typical” cognitive function.
Christians, Hauerwas would say, should never think in this way. I’m no expert on Hauerwas, but let me try to extrapolate. (My friends who are experts on Hauerwas will surely tell me where I’ve gone wrong.) One’s value as a human does not depend upon some vague notion of social utility. Rather than emphasizing individual utility, Scripture teaches us about our dependency–dependency upon God and our family of faith. Rather than teaching us about the value of self-sufficiency, Scripture teaches us about our vulnerability, a vulnerability that Christ freely took on in the Incarnation (Phil 2:5-11). Dependency and vulnerability are essential components of the human condition understood from a Christian perspective. As Paul teaches us (1 Cor 12:12-31), the nature of the church is that we need one another. We are dependent upon one another. Therefore to see people with intellectual disabilities as less valuable than other people is to think in a distinctly non-Christian way. Once we acknowledge our common dependency and vulnerability, arguments for human value based on utility make no sense. The same can be said about issues related to people who are nearing the end of life. We do not kill such people, despite the various euphemisms our culture employs, such as “assisted suicide.” Christians place a higher premium on their lives than this because we realize that participation in the body of Christ is inherently a relationship of dependency. A fuller embodiment of dependency is therefore no reason to consider ending a person’s life.
This uncompromising insistence on the lordship of Christ creates an uneasy relationship with the surrounding culture. Hauerwas holds that the primary function of the church is truth-telling. We have been entrusted with the truth of the Gospel and charged to proclaim it in word and deed. The problem is, the truth hurts. The truth is exceedingly uncomfortable to the surrounding culture. Thus we live as strangers, exiles in our own communities (1 Pet 2:11); hence the title of the classic work by Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. That book really did a number on me. I could never think about the faith in the same way again after reading it.
An inevitable result of thinking about the faith in this way means that we will have an uneasy relationship with political parties. Despite the rhetoric of political campaigns, the purpose of our political system is not to instill the values of the Christian faith into our daily lives. The purpose of political parties is to achieve political ends, which may or may not overlap with Christian values to some extent. Political goals are determined by special interests, financial contributors, lobbyists, and popular opinion.
As I look at the upcoming election, I am reminded of a story in Joshua 5:13-15:
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
Are you for us our our enemies?
Neither, says the commander of God’s armies.
In the current election, both sides wish to court the Christian vote. Whose side is God on? Neither, I would suggest. Perhaps you feel differently. Perhaps there is one candidate whose values you feel line up very nicely with the values of our faith. If that is the case, I certainly respect the honest difference of opinion. I also envy you, because in this election I will inevitably vote against someone, but for no one. Many of my conversation partners feel the same.
In May, Christianity Today published an article on evangelicals and our two presidential candidates:
According to Reuters, 20 percent of self-identified “born again Christians” now say they would abstain from voting, down from a high of 28 percent in early April. And 26 percent of Americans who worship weekly or more now say they would abstain, down from 33 percent in early April.
Among born-again Christians who worship weekly or more, 23 percent say they would abstain from voting for Trump or Clinton, down from 31 percent in early April.
A CNN poll found that only four percent of overall voters would abstain from choosing either candidates, but not because voters were pleased with the choice. More than half (51% of Clinton voters and 57% of Trump voters) said they would cast their vote not to support their candidate, but to oppose the other one.