Evangelicals Need a New Political Playbook

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Thanks to everyone who offered words of encouragement and support in the wake of yesterday’s post on my refusal to become numb to the daily immorality emanating from the White House. This was the closest thing we get at The Way of Improvement Leads Home to a viral post.

A lot of people hated the post.  I mean REALLY hated it. Facebook friends that I didn’t know I had came out of the woodwork to condemn the post. I had to unfriend about five people who decided to make personal attacks on my character.  But overall the feedback has been positive.

But let me respond briefly to some of the criticism.

First, some conservative evangelicals have accused me of self-promotion. When people write publicly and their work gets attention there is always the temptation of pride, the unhealthy practice of thinking too highly of oneself.  In the Christian tradition, pride is the opposite of the virtue of humility.  It is a sin. I am tempted by pride every day and I regularly give into it.  I imagine that any Christian who writes for the public deals with this temptation.

I don’t like the word self-promotion, but if this is the word we use to promote our ideas then I will accept the criticism. For the last two weeks I have been talking with my students about the Christian’s call to create.  Because we are created in God’s image, we are co-creators with God, advancing his creation through our creative work.  The Christian tradition teaches that all of us have gifts that we are required to use to advance God’s purposes in the world.  I hope as a Christian who writes and thinks about politics, culture, and history I am using my gifts in this way.  So yes, I want my ideas to enter the marketplace. I want to make them public.  I see this as a calling confirmed by wise mentors and friends who have encouraged and supported me over the years.  I hope my writing is less about promoting myself and more about promoting my ideas in a way that helps people to think more deeply about the world.

Second, several folks have criticized me for writing and speaking in “liberal,” “left-wing,” or “progressive” outlets.  (Of course some of these critics see anything but Fox News as a liberal, left-wing, and progressive outlet). When I move beyond this blog and write for newspapers, magazines, and websites I send pitches to outlets across the ideological spectrum.  Most of my views, which I hope are informed by my Christian faith, do not fall comfortably in the traditional “Left”/”Right” or “conservative”/”liberal” camps.  Sometimes I think an outlet might be a perfect fit for a particular piece of writing only to find out that an editor does not share my enthusiasm.  I want to write more for editors at Christian publications, but most of them either keep me at arms length because they think my views are too divisive or do not publish the kinds historically-informed criticism that I write. I also pitch pieces to politically conservative outlets all the time.  So far none of them have taken my work.

Third, people say that I do not understand Trump voters.  They believe that if I only understood them I would not be so harsh.  They tell me that there are many evangelicals who are “reluctant” or “dismayed” Trump voters and I am not being fair to them.  This criticism of my work seems to confuse understanding with agreement.  Let me say this again: I do understand why evangelicals voted for Trump. Much of my understanding has been shaped by friends, family members, and neighbors with whom I have conversations.  But as I listen to Trump voters, I still hear fear, nostalgia, and a commitment to a political playbook defined by the pursuit of political power. (More on this below).  All of these things, in my opinion, are not healthy Christian approaches to politics or public life.  The fact that so many evangelicals disagree with me has nothing to do with it.  When I hear Christians equate majority opinion with moral certainty I remember what Jesus said about the narrow gate.  I hope and pray I am focusing my attention on the correct gate, but I also realize I could be wrong. We see through a glass darkly.

Fourth, people criticize me for painting Trump evangelicals with too broad of a brush.  This is a fair critique. It was a problem with the first edition of Believe Me.  I have fixed that error in the new postscript to the paperback edition and I have written about this change and talk about it whenever I have the opportunity.  But as I have said multiple times now, if someone voted for Donald Trump, whether they did so enthusiastically or reluctantly, they are partially responsible for the moral damage this president is doing to the United States with his behavior and policies. I understand that some believe that evangelicals must tolerate the immoral egomaniac in the White House and the damage he is doing to the republic because he is delivering on the Supreme Court and the economy, but I disagree with them and think that their choice to support this man–even if its just a vote– is harmful to the church and the country. Again, I have written extensively about this.

Finally, though some might find it hard to believe, I think this whole conversation transcends Donald Trump and his presidency.  Trump will be gone one day.  But the political playbook that evangelicals follow will not go away unless we decide to burn it and start over. There is a very good chance that this playbook will lead evangelicals into the arms of another immoral tyrant who promises conservative Supreme Court justices and offers platitudes about religious liberty.  I have no doubt that such a person is waiting in the wings.  He or she is watching Trump manipulate American evangelicals and is taking good notes.

This is why it is time for a new playbook. My prayer is that evangelicals will no longer be held captive by the political power plays of the Christian Right. I want my fellow evangelicals to embrace a politics of life. I want my fellow evangelicals to develop an approach to public life defined by human dignity. I want my fellow evangelicals to embrace a politics that offers us glimpses of a coming kingdom defined by love, justice, grace, mercy, and compassion.

For example, who said that the best way to reduce abortion is through the pursuit of political power and the appointment of federal justices?  Since Roe v. Wade evangelicals have tried to deal with the problem of abortion in only one way.  Unless evangelicals develop new thinking on this front they will end up in the hands of the next tyrant who is willing to use abortion to advance his or her political fortunes.

And what about religious liberty?  Yes, there are some legitimate threats to religious liberty, especially for Christian colleges and other institutions who uphold traditional views of sexual ethics.  But we need to develop new thinking about religious liberty that does not lead us into the hands of people like Trump.  We need a robust conversation about the relationship between religious liberty and the kind of persecution for the sake of righteousness that Jesus talks about in Matthew 5.  We need creative solutions that offer civil liberties to all people, including members of the LGBTQ community.  (I like this approach).  We need to have more face-to-face conversations, conducted in civility and love, with those who disagree with us on the issues driving the religious liberty debates in our country.  We need to stop going on social media and demonizing our enemies with Fox News talking points.

Am I being too hard on evangelicals?  Perhaps. But this is my tribe. I have chosen, for better or for worse, to save my strongest criticism for my own people.

Evangelicals need to rid themselves of the powerful hold that the Christian Right has over our politics.  Even those who do not consider themselves adherents of the Christian Right still seem to engage politically using this forty-year-old playbook.  Many evangelicals have thought long and hard about alternative Christian approaches to politics, but their views have received little traction.  We need to take these approaches seriously.  Read Michael Gerson, Jamie Smith (and his Kuyperian friends), John Inazu, Tim Keller, James Davison Hunter, Glenn Tinder, Ronald Sider, Peter Wehner, and others who know far more about political philosophy than I do.  What might the Civil Rights Movement teach white evangelicals about politics?

It is time for evangelicals to develop a different approach to politics. But first this president needs to go.  Only then, it seems, can we begin the serious work of reconstruction, education, healing, and the binding of the church’s wounds.