Dear fellow Christians: please stop telling me who not to vote for.

I have loved politics my entire adult life (and most of my childhood, actually; when the Nickelodeon network invited kids to participate by phone in a mock poll during the Clinton/Dole election of ’96, I called seven times). I first voted in 2008 (from Afghanistan, no less), but have closely watched every election—including mid-term—since Clinton’s re-election campaign. My father, a liberal firebrand, always recognized the importance of politics and encouraged my interest. Being part of the first generation to grow up with the twenty-four hour news cycle did not hurt, either. All this is to say, I have been through a few elections by now, enough to note that each election has its own distinct character. 2008 was defined by blind optimism summed up in three words, “Yes we can.” The landslide results proved the strength of the nation’s collective hope. 2012, by contrast, felt pessimistic: conservatives were unsatisfied with Romney’s Republican campaign[1], while liberals embraced base vitriol as their official campaign platform[2]. It marked the first time a stranger called me a “misogynist” and a “bigot” on the basis of my party affiliation.

There is something different about this election cycle for me, though: it is my first time voting as a Christian. Unlike past elections, a majority of the people I talk politics with are believers. In those discussions, my immediate Christian community has introduced me to a deep bench of believing writers, bloggers and thinkers eager to tell their fellow believers who not to vote for. Through forwarded articles and e-mails, unprovoked social media posts and matter-of-fact messages from my brothers and sisters, I have pored over entry after ethos-grabbing entry railing against one particular candidate, with zero positive suggestions to an alternative. I will give you a moment to guess who the target of all their righteous ranting might be.

 

That’s right, it’s Donald Trump. I thought, at first, that maybe I was just seeing more anti-Trump articles because I am surrounded by an above-average number of socially liberal, politically active Christians. After all, I just graduated from a Christian university, so my friends list is populated by fellow students, recent graduates, and a few professors. It is not just my social feed that is so heavily anti-Trump, however. Try an Internet search to see who Evangelicals should vote for. I used Bing (because at least one person out there should use Bing, right?):

notrump[3]

The authors of most of these articles are journalists or Christian lifestyle writers, each with their own careers, theology and philosophy. Their work is typically varied, but, on this, they rally around a common narrative: don’t affiliate with Trump[4], don’t support Trump[5], and certainly don’t vote Trump[6]. The reasoning is similar across all fronts, asserting that Trump’s boisterous and unrefined style and pointed statements about certain groups are evidence of racial and religious hatred and should, therefore, disqualify him to any true God-loving voter. Some writers drag Trump’s heathenistic personal past (did you know he was married three times?) into their articles, seemingly hoping to appeal to more legalistic readers and likely forgetting that Ronald Reagan, a universal champion of Republican, conservative and Evangelical voters, also had a divorce on his record before his Presidential run[7] (note: this is not an attempt to put Trump on the level of Reagan).

Almost working in concert, the writers create a unified anti-Trump message, which would be fine, if they were political columnists or writing without overtones of faith and doctrine. This is where the problem with this broad stream of #NeverTrump Christianity begins—this kind of speech would not be welcome at the pulpit, both as a matter of legality and principle, so it winds up on the Faith and Religion pages of various newspapers, or faith-based blogs. Perhaps the best example of the problematic result of mixing religious legalism and national elections comes from two writers at the Dallas Morning News, who put together a comprehensive list of “10 Reasons You Can’t be a Christian and Vote for Donald Trump,”[8] which states, “one cannot really love Jesus and wish to follow him and also vote for a person who so clearly embodies the opposite of everything Christ taught, died for and demands from us.”[9] While I criticize the article’s thesis, I do, at least, applaud its authors for having the conviction to write what all the articles referenced previously were too sheepish to.

The language is all too similar to what a number of chapel speakers—mostly pastors of churches from various areas around the nation—told the students at my alma mater: no real Christian would belong to certain social or political camps. The core issue should be self-evident. When believers attach trueness/quality/level of faith to a social or political issue, particularly one so fleeting as an election, not only do they make Pharisees of themselves, they use their faith as a political weapon to promote an evaporating agenda. Ed Stetzer at Christianity Today echoed the sentiment with a sharp, satirical headline, “Lord, I thank Thee that I am not Like Those Evangelical Trump Supporters.”[10] The eternal and the infinite become tools to push the temporary and earthly. Christian identity, something that, throughout the New Testament, is afforded to all who receive the Holy Spirit, is made contingent upon conformity to opinion. To combat this, I look to the Jerusalem Council, found in Acts 15. At the event, a group of Jewish-Christians argued before the apostles and church elders that real believers needed to be circumcised and adopt the entire Mosaic custom and culture, while Paul and Barnabas spoke about their experience baptizing Gentiles and spreading the Gospel. Peter and James provide the conclusion. Peter’s speech begins in Acts 15:8,

And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to [the Gentiles], by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of their disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.[11]

At the Council, that yoke was the aforementioned Mosaic custom. Translated to the current conversation, the yoke takes the form of any single political affiliation or social policy. If Paul thought like today’s Christian political activists, it would not be hard to imagine, when the Jailer falls at his feet in Acts 16, that Paul might tell him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, also remember to vote Democrat, and never say ‘All Lives Matter.’” Any time a believer speaks from a place of authority, including moral or Scriptural authority, and attempts to attach a political agenda to the Gospel, they are putting a yoke on their fellow believers. Peter might even argue they are testing God, but I will not try to make that case here. Modern politics (and its cousin, social justice) is a rapidly-changing endeavor. The Christian community cannot allow true faith in Jesus to become confused with political passion. Our unity comes from the Lord and is not to be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. The only conformity we should demand from one another is a shared faith in Jesus. This message should carry to both liberal and conservative Christians. James’ statement at the Council seems to support such an idea,

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.[12]

The problem is not that there are Christians arguing against Trump, it is that they are using their faith as a primary means to do so, which would be problematic regardless of the target candidate. When we admonish each other, our focus should be pushing our brothers and sisters towards a life of righteous behavior, spiritual maturity and fruitful discipleship. Political conformity should not be our objective; the Jews and Gentiles of Paul’s and Peter’s days were likely not of one mind socially or politically, but they were, through faith, joined by one Spirit. The same applies to us—Trump, Clinton and Sanders supporters alike. If true Christianity even exists, it hangs on belief in Jesus, not support of any candidate nor cause.

The articles and diatribes about 2016’s Evangelical vote are fundamentally flawed, their main weakness being the reason for this writing and a callback to its opening line: they only talk about who not to vote for. None, not one, of the articles referenced here make a positive suggestion as to whom Christians should vote for. The rank and position these thinkers have in the faith community allows them to drone on about social justice and abuse history to argue against one candidate, but never to offer a replacement, which leaves the audience with no further clarity on what to do this November, except, perhaps, to vote Democrat or write-in an already-defeated candidate (which might be the objective in more cases than these Christian writers would like to admit). That was the primary motivation for this piece, a gallery of men and women fully prepared to shake Scripture at me to devalue one candidate, but none with the conviction nor the guts to assign value to another. A student who heard Bernie Sanders speak at Liberty University had his response to the candidate published across the web and, while he might be terribly misguided and perverting images of John the Baptist, he has more social courage than these writers and bloggers. At least he makes a vocal endorsement.[13]

The writers appear to employ remarkable short-term memory, wondering how a group that split its support between a Mormon Republican[14] and an ostensibly secular Democrat[15] just four years earlier could possibly ever support Donald Trump. They say Evangelicals would sacrifice their character by voting for the nonreligious Trump, but none seemed to think voting for Romney, who believes in a theology wholly separate (and in many ways contradictory to) traditional Evangelism, or for Obama, who seems to disagree with Evangelicals as a matter of policy, would be so severe. In the 2008 Obama v. McCain election, Evangelical support was even more split between the two candidates than in 2012, as 45% of Protestants and 45% of white Catholics (including 67% of Latino Catholics) voted Obama[16], all without a long string of articles written with furrowed brows seeking to explain the Evangelical vote or condemning the community’s compromised character. Past Evangelical votes for Obama should be pointed out to the Washington Post, which in May published an article summarizing the community’s support for Trump by chalking it up to racism and white supremacy.[17] Either candidate Trump is so truly unique that voting for him jeopardizes the faith community, or the writers are working from a place of selective memory (or ignorance, or both). The latter seems more reasonable.

Now late in the primary season, voter support in all communities is finally solidifying. That should go a long way in explaining the Evangelical vote, but the open stream of op-ed’s suggests otherwise. Evangelicals, like the Republican Party many of them belong to, are only recently settling around Trump, as the reality of his candidacy emerges. Earlier in the primary season, their vote seemed fluid; they loved Ben Carson,[18] but never really believed Carson would win[19]; Ted Cruz was “locking up” Evangelical support,[20] except when he was not.[21] Evangelical support for Trump is explained by many navel-gazing academics as some radical new compromise for Christian voters, one that demands they surrender part of their faith in exchange for Trump’s charisma. The truth seems much more reasonable, however: Evangelicals are supporting Trump because he is the last Republican candidate standing, following the same pattern as they have in past elections. In 2012, they flirted with Catholic Republican Rick Santorum[22], even powering him to an unlikely Iowa caucus victory, before finally settling for Romney. This year, the community rallied around an ill-fated Carson campaign before latching onto Cruz, the eventual runner-up. Now they’re settling again, for Trump.

Admittedly, settling for Trump seems a less bitter move than settling for Romney was, though that probably has less to do with Trump’s values and more to do with his opposition’s. If liberal Christian thinkers rush to ask how Evangelicals could ever support Trump[23], conservative Christian thinkers should be equally quick to ask how Evangelicals could ever support Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton (flash: no one is asking that). After all, Sanders has a “lifetime pro-choice record,” and would, under his universal healthcare program, offer pro-bono abortions,[24] something Evangelicals have historically opposed. Further, a vote for Sanders is a vote for socialism and a progression of radical social justice policy[25], one heavy on liberal convictions about race, both of which are big asks for a group reluctant to embrace either. Clinton does not come out so strongly on the issue (not for now, at least) but she does still voice support for abortion access[26] and champions social policy similar to Sanders. It is unclear what exactly about a Sanders or a Clinton Presidency is supposed to appeal to Evangelical voters. Call it political pragmatism, but Trump offers the highest probability of a platform that Evangelicals can find palatable. The fruit of Trump’s promises to be friendly to the church community[27] remain to be seen, but they at least sound better than what a Sanders or Clinton Presidency would bring—assumedly the continued social marginalization of the church and expansion of secularism. Trump may not be Reagan, but he is also not Clinton, nor Sanders, which could be equally valuable in an election that pits the lesser of two evils against one another.

As the discussions about this election continue—and they undoubtedly will—Christians must remember their unity comes from something much more powerful than political opinion. We should be free to disagree with one another on social and political issues, however important, without calling into question one another’s faith. Support for any candidate does not eschew nor define support for Jesus. He is our King, and has made us free to select our President, along with the universal capacity for compassion and reason. A fellow Christian’s candidate choice is not a make-or-break matter. Don’t treat it like one—pray, go, and vote freely, then join your fellow Christians somewhere and pray again, rejoice and worship with members of all parties and opinions. Remember, you are supposed to be a disciple for Jesus, not for your candidate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/why-most-republicans-dont-like-romney/

[2] http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/08/vp-biden-says-republicans-are-going-to-put-yall-back-in-chains/

[3] Results of a Bing search performed by the author. Search conducted on 3 June 2016 around 10 PM.

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/evangelicals-may-carry-the-mark-of-trump/2016/06/02/dc0f59b4-28eb-11e6-ae4a-3cdd5fe74204_story.html

[5] http://townhall.com/columnists/michaelbrown/2015/11/29/why-evangelical-christians-should-not-support-donald-trump-n2086230

[6] https://williebemacin.com/2015/07/24/christians-should-not-back-trump/

[7] http://www.nysun.com/national/jane-wyman-reagans-button-nose/62345/

[8] http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/latest-columns/20160229-christopher-pieper-and-matt-henderson-10-reasons-you-cant-be-a-christian-and-vote-for-donald-trump.ece

[9] Ibid

[10] http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/june/trump-supporters.html

[11] Acts 15:8-11, ESV

[12] Acts 15:19-20, ESV

[13] http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/9/16/1421659/-An-Evangelical-responds-to-Sanders-speech-at-Liberty-U

[14] http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/07/election-2012-post-mortem-white-evangelicals-and-support-for-romney/

[15] http://www.christianpost.com/news/poll-evangelicals-may-double-their-support-for-obama-in-2012-election-72657/

[16] http://www.pewforum.org/2008/11/05/how-the-faithful-voted/

[17] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/05/16/trumps-success-with-evangelical-voters-isnt-surprising-it-was-inevitable/

[18] http://www.newsday.com/opinion/columnists/lane-filler/why-white-evangelicals-in-iowa-support-ben-carson-1.10745388

[19] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-evangelicals-and-the-carson-illusion.html?_r=1

[20] http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/ted-cruz-evangelical-vote-216080

[21] https://newrepublic.com/article/121352/ted-cruz-courts-evangelical-vote

[22] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/24/us/santorums-catholicism-draws-evangelicals.html

[23] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2016/03/07/a-conversation-how-can-evangelicals-support-trump-part-1/

[24]http://www.ontheissues.org/Archive/2016_Pres_Web_Bernie_Sanders.htm

[25] Ibid

[26] http://www.ontheissues.org/2016/Hillary_Clinton_Abortion.htm

[27] http://www.latimes.com/la-na-trailguide-05202016-donald-trump-tells-latino-chur-1463799681-htmlstory.html

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