I’m not a political person by nature or history and yet this election cycle has gripped me. I’ve devoured every news article and op-ed thrown my way on Facebook. I’ve read through comment threads on both right-wing and left-wing publications. I’ve read both secular and Christian articles trying to make sense of the phenomenon that is Donald Trump.
And I am sensing some angst.
I sense that for many Christians who are awaiting the results of today’s Super Tuesday, they feel like they’re in a vehicle hurtling towards the edge of an abyss. The doors are locked, the brakes are cut, and the steering wheel is jammed. There’s nothing they can do. Doom feels inevitable because it looks as if two highly unpopular candidates (in case you’re wondering: Hillary and Trump) are about to win their respective party’s nomination.
Many “conservative” evangelicals despise Donald Trump, and rightly so. He’s a bully, a liar, and about as far from a professing Christian as you can get. But they also have no love for Hillary either. For one, she’s a Democrat and “conservative” Christians would never vote for a Democrat. But she also supports many issues that they’re opposed to, e.g., abortion and universal healthcare.
Though probably a much smaller group, given the conservative nature of evangelicalism, “progressive” evangelicals likewise despise Donald Trump for many of the same reasons listed above. Furthermore, he’s a Republican and “progressive” Christians would never vote for a Republican as he supports (Or does he really? No one knows with Donald—which is incredibly frightening) many issues that they’re opposed to, e.g., anti-immigration policies and gun rights. But there isn’t much love for Hillary either. Her ties to Wall Street, support of the Iraq War and potentially dodgy character issues make her unpopular among progressive Christians, especially younger millennials.
If Trump wins, the decades-old harbor of the Republican party for the evangelical church doesn’t seem so safe or welcome any more. And if Hillary wins, the smaller subset of progressive evangelicals won’t be too happy with their favored party either. Many American churchgoers will experience a sense of having no home, being let out to sea, unmoored and adrift in an ocean of uncertainty.
But this is a good thing. If this very-likely future comes to pass, I believe the unmooring of the American church will be more boon than doom. Here’s why:
1. We need to be reminded that we are exiles.
Hebrews reminds us that we are wilderness people who have not yet reached their final rest (Hebrews 3). Pastors might say from the pulpit that the church is separate from politics, but how often has the church in America seen itself as a key player in American culture and elections? The church is not a political party per se, but it has long been embraced by a political party, its influence significant. Yet a party they once called home no longer reflects the convictions they hold dear. What a stunning reminder that we were never meant to be at home in the Republican party—or the Democratic party. The only party that we’re truly a part of is the great banquet feast of the Lamb.
2. We need to remember that we are citizens—of another nation.
Our true citizenship is in heaven. Whether America is a Christian nation or not has little to no bearing on how we should live out our mission as the church because how much America reflects Christian values is only the changing context in which the church ministers the Gospel. After all, Christian values saved no one ever. Instead, the church has often done quite well when the culture around them hasn’t been so Christian-like. As citizens and ambassadors of heaven, our work was never to make America a Christian kingdom, but rather to tell people about a kingdom far surpassing any earthly one. Perhaps Hillary vs. Donald would help the church in America reorient itself to its true mission.
3. We need to remove our politicized blinders.
Because the American church is often so closely tied with a political system, we are depressingly blind to areas of hypocrisy and weakness. Rick Phillips, a conservative Reformed Presbyterian minister, recently wrote an article titled “Socialism is Evil.” Like-minded, Reformed evangelical brothers from across the pond and in Australia did not know whether to laugh or be heartbroken at our American inability to see beyond our political positions. Now the idea of meritocracy and personal responsibility when it comes to an economic system is not a bad thing. Proverbs does repeatedly warn against laziness (e.g., Proverbs 13:4), and Paul elsewhere says that one who does not provide for his family is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).
But what about grace? Isn’t grace all about receiving what you did not deserve? Did not God put in place the Jubilee (Leviticus 25) and gleaning (Lev 23:22) for those who were in need? While it is true that gleaning does involve some work, it is far, far less work than plowing, seeding, watering, tending, and the whole process it takes to grow seeds into harvest. The Israelite poor who gleaned the fields were truly reaping a harvest that they did not earn. Michael Bird says incisively:
I’m always amazed by folks who are theological Calvinists (God’s grace reaches the undeserving) but economic pelagians (God helps those who help themselves).
Because the Republican party does support clear Christian ethics at certain points (the most obvious being its opposition to abortion), and the church has aligned itself with such a party, we struggle to see that perhaps the Democratic position on certain issues actually sees God’s truth more clearly in particular areas.
Another example that was brought home to me recently is that of justice. We desire justice for the unborn, and rightly so. But because the idea of systemic racism and the need for policing reform seem to be “left-wing” issues, much of the church staunchly refuses to acknowledge these problems. And if they do acknowledge them, they feel no need to address them, frustrating our African-American brothers and sisters who are crying out for justice and solidarity. We see in red and blue when we need to see Scripture’s call for sanctity of life and justice at all life-stages, for all peoples, in all situations.
4. We need to become an apologetic for transcendence.
The church ought to be an apologetic, a living defense, for transcendence. If the church is truly a distinct kingdom unlike any other, should it really so completely identify with an American political party? And do we truly start from Scripture to get to our political positions? Or are we starting from the American Enlightenment ideals of freedom and a fallible, man-made Constitution and then using Scripture to justify the position we’ve already arrived at beforehand? Jonathan Merritt is right when he points out that:
Evangelicalism has languished under partisan political captivity since at least the 1980s, leading to an exodus of young people and less partisan Christians who seek a faith that is more than a handmaiden to Republican politics.
There is a political captivity to the American church that dulls the otherworldly luster of transcendence that it ought to have.
For the Gospel is neither “conservative” or “liberal”; it ought to and it does transcend both. It tears down the idols of both progressive and traditional cultures, the individual vs. the family, license vs. moralism, and turns hearts to the true and living God who is unlike any other, blazing with holiness and overflowing with grace. In a nation increasingly wearied by partisanship and a contentious government, how refreshing, how attractive it might be to see communities, to see churches that cannot be neatly categorized into political allegiances. Instead these churches speak of justice, mercy, and love in a way that is neither Democrat nor Republican, nor even a synthesis of the two. Rather, God’s justice, mercy, and love are spoken about and seen lived out in such a way where people marvel that justice could be so just, and mercy so merciful, and love so loving, and that there could be a personal God who is all of it and who vividly makes it to us known through his Son.
Until the American church is reminded that we are exiles, remembers that we are citizens, and removes its politicized blinders, it will not become an apologetic for transcendence nor will it move to a more accurate and Biblical expression of what it means to be the city of God in the city of man in this day and age. May a Trump vs. Hillary election (if it comes to pass) be used by God to unmoor the American church from its political allegiances so that it might better live out its identity as a distinct city—a city on a hill.