No election in recent memory can hold a candle to this one for sheer spectacle. And that’s not a good thing. In Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the two major parties in American politics have given the American people a choice between the two most singularly unfit and disliked candidates in history. As an American citizen, as a Christian, and as a father, I have been deeply troubled by this situation. But as a leader in a local church, I have also considered what my responsibilities are for sharing my personal thoughts with others.
I have watched as many conservatives have thrown their hat in the ring for Trump. I have watched as Christian leaders have resorted to desperate contortions in an effort to defend the indefensible and I have lamented the fear-based rhetoric they employ to herd the masses into conformity. Assuredly, not all conservative Christian leaders took this path; some were vocal in their opposition from the beginning. But the simple reality is that many were not. Men like Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr, and James Dobson and more all spoke in affirmation of Trump’s candidacy.
I don’t believe they did it in bad faith. Many of these leaders seem to have set out to marry Rachel only to wake up and realize Leah was in the bed. They endorsed what they thought was a conservative candidate for president only to suddenly realize that they were endorsing a misogynistic, race-baiting, narcissistic strongman who has no intention of respecting women, the weak, or basically any other person not named Donald J. Trump.
Recently, they were given another reason to regret their deal with the devil. Some have abandoned ship. It’s as if there weren’t enough warning signs, not enough evidence, and everything before this was just leftist propaganda. What brought this turnabout about? It wasn’t the race-baiting, the clear examples of inciting violence, the blatant disregard for Constitutional authority, the disability-shaming, or any of the countless examples of dishonesty, greed, and corruption. Instead, it was a leaked hot mic taped a decade ago in which Trump not only objectifies women but admits/brags about actions that are, by definition, criminal sexual assault. I guess that was a bridge too far.
Except it wasn’t for many.
Many still feel their hands are tied politically and that they have to support the Republican nominee. There is a sense of resignation in the air as Election Day draws near.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. As far as I can tell, an individual Christian conservative’s support for Donald Trump hinges on one of the following rationales:
- He’s not Hillary
- He’ll appoint conservative justices
- He’ll “Make America Great Again”
Each of these is given at various times and by various persons as a reason to vote for Trump, “no matter what.” Let’s look at them one by one.
He’s Not Hillary
First, an analogy. I hate hot weather. I am not one of these summer-fun and lovin’-it guys. Several reasons: 1) I’m whiter than a bar of Dove soap and burn quicker than gasoline. 2) I’m not currently in possession of a body that benefits from fewer articles of clothing – sub-arctic layers are more suitable to my form. 3) I’m genetically predisposed to struggle with the heat (not scientifically proven, but highly likely in my mind. 4) I just don’t like the heat.
Give me a choice between 100 degrees in Houston, TX and 120 degrees in Phoenix, AZ and I’ll be hard pressed to choose. Sure, they’re different kinds of heat, but they’re both miserable.
If such a choice were presented to me, I’d have several options.
- I could choose 100 degrees in Houston, TX. I’d go and sweat. And sweat. And sweat some more.
- I could choose 120 in Phoenix, AZ. I’d go and sweat and dehydrate and hydrate and sweat and dehydrate.
- I could refuse the artificially limited options presented and move to Jackson, WY with its annual average temperature of 39.7 degrees.
“But, but…that wasn’t one of the options!”
Only if you’re blinded by a map that insists Houston, TX and Phoenix, AZ are the only “viable” cities in the United States of America.
In other words, only if you ignore the literally thousands of other options available.
In the 2016 election, the two major party candidates are different but equally abhorrent. It was inevitable, I guess, that in a two-party system, this would happen eventually. And while there are those Democrats who will vote the party line, regardless of candidate, and Republicans who will do the same, the vast majority of Americans are in a quandary as to what to do.
That is because while voices from both sides are saying “hold your nose and choose one of them,” there is a nagging little thought that keeps creeping in: “is this what it’s supposed to be like? Is this what our government is supposed to look like? Choosing the lesser of two evils?”
That voice is pointing us to the reality that American democracy was never intended to be about choosing the lesser of two evils. It’s only ever been about providing the people with the powerful right to choose representative leaders who do just that: represent their constituents and lead the entire country towards mutual benefit and well-being.
The entrenched two-party system is partially to blame for this situation. But the voters, in turn, are to blame for the two-party system. Any lie, repeated frequently enough, becomes believable. And so, constituents have let themselves be duped into believing what they were told: “Don’t vote third-party, they’ll never win.” Why? “Because not enough people will vote for them.” Why? “Because they’ll never win.”
And they may be right. But, since when was “winning” the only acceptable goal? Since when did Ricky Bobby’s infamous dictum, “if you’re not first, you’re last”, come to define all of the American reality? It’s a false narrative that’s been bought wholesale by a pop-culture public.
What that narrative ignores is the times in American history that which two parties are in power have changed or the two major parties’ platforms have been significantly altered by third-party pressure.
If any election season is the right one to exert third-party pressure, this is it. Stein, Johnson, Castle, and McMullin are all there, all gaining in the polls, and waiting to be voted for. They may not win, but voting for the one whose views most nearly align with yours could get their platform enough attention to significantly shape future lawmaking, party platforms, and even new parties.
Donald J. Trump isn’t Hillary Clinton. But they’re not the only options we’ve been given. They may be the only ones with a statistically significant chance of winning the 2016 election, but the inevitable conservative reorganization to come needs to be influenced by third-party votes. We must avoid betting the farm on a lame duck in 2016 and start looking at 2020 and beyond.
Supreme Court Justice appointments
This is the Trump card (pun fully intended). This end, for many Christian leaders, justifies any means. (Here, here, and here, along with many others).
But pinning all our hopes on this single star is foolish, at best, and deadly at worst.
First, it is foolish because of a seldom-mentioned historical reality: there are no guarantees with justice nominations, whether they are appointed by Democrats or Republicans. In his resignation statement, motivated by Trump’s latest debacle, Brett Farley, who was the Director of Communications for the Oklahoma Republican Party, said this:
“Never before has our party so willingly turned a deaf ear to history and practical political reality until now. Even in our best days, Presidents Reagan and Bush, solidly conservative Republicans, managed to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who gave the deciding votes in some of the most egregious decisions in the Court’s history.”
There’s absolutely no guarantee that conservative appointed judges will make decisions that conservatives like. And that’s a good thing. The balance of power inherent in the Constitution means that the executive shouldn’t control the judicial or the legislative. I know, I know, there’s been a significant blurring of the lines in the last fifty years, but the bones are still there.
Farley points out the second problem with voting for Donald Trump because of justices:
“Yet these same colleagues argue that we can trust a man who has broken promises to customers, business partners, wives and God himself to uphold his tentative pledge to nominate conservative justices.”
When conservatives say that we should vote for Donald Trump because of the justices he will appoint, it’s often presented as fait accompli. It’s a done deal, right?
Ask Donald Trump’s first two wives about “until death do us part”. Ask the contractors and employees he has stiffed about “fair compensation for finished work”. Ask any Trump University alumni about “learning the secrets of personal success”.
Here’s a man who has demonstrated absolutely no integrity, no follow-through, no ability to keep his mouth from writing checks that his character can’t cash, and yet we can trust him on this one?
There’s a third problem with letting justice appointments be the guiding rationale for a Trump vote and that’s the single-issue voter trap.
Conservative Christians have let themselves be painted into this corner before. I know that this will not be a popular opinion, but when we made abortion the only pro-life position we cared about, we lost everything. For example, prior to that moral majority decision, you could be a pro-life, conservative Christian and be a Democrat. You could be a pro-life, conservative Christian and be a Republican. Why? Because there was variety in the parties. Abortion was part of the Democratic platform but it wasn’t the main pillar. Then, in a fit of righteous indignation, the Moral Majority declared that the only issue that mattered was abortion. All of a sudden, pro-life Democrats were demonized for their party identification rather than their personal views and voting record. The Republicans gladly took up the mantle of the pro-life cause, but to what end? There’s been no significant change, no real effort made to reverse Roe vs. Wade, but Republican candidates could count on the pro-life vote just by tossing a few sound bites into their speeches and platform. Frankly, they duped us.
Had we not let that single issue define our voting patterns, we may still have had viable, pro-life Democrat candidates, we may have had continued influence on both parties’ platforms, we may not have ignited the rabid hatred of those who disagree with us.
But we’ll never know because we let a single issue define us. And when a single issue defines you, you’ll excuse anything in the person who promises to represent you on it. And so, whoever controls that issue, controls you.
Donald Trump recognizes this. For all his faults, he’s not stupid. He knows that if he can pay lip service to the single issue that matters to us, in this case, conservative justices, he’s got us. Early in his campaign, he bragged that he could walk out in downtown New York, shoot someone in cold blood in broad daylight, and still not lose the conservative vote. And I’m beginning to think he’s right. That says a great deal about Donald Trump, but it says more about conservative Christians.
We’ve been down the single issue vote path before. Maybe it’s time we wised up. On the basis of history and character, we’ve got to wise up. It’d be great to have conservative justices, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think that voting for Trump will magically ensure them.
He’ll “make America great again”
While the Supreme Court justices are the flag most conservative Christians fly for Trump, I suspect that there’s a much more prevalent if a much less quiet reason for the support of many. Much of the current rhetoric from the right, calling for support of the Republican nominee ultimately stems, I suspect, from a resonance with Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” There’s a hunger amongst conservative Christians for the power and influence we used to have. We, who hold the gospel, are held captive by a catchphrase that promises to fulfill our secret lust for lost prominence.
It’s a mirage.
Contrary to the huffing and puffing heard in many pulpits and places, there is no golden age of American greatness. There is no glorious American heyday that we can “return” to if only we could get the “sodomites” and “slaughterhouse doctors” back into the back alleys. The Great America that many want to return to is a myth, conjured out of the rose-tinted memories of a communal, conservative, white, wish-dream.
Lecrae, a Christian rapper, recently shared the following lines that sum up the problem of conservative Christians condemning our current culture in order to bring about a return to a glorious past.
They tellin’ us make “America Great Again”
I’m like hol’ up, when was America great again?
Was it when they took us from our native land?
Or maybe it was when they took the natives’ land?
Harsh? Maybe. True? Definitely.
So, America was great when we were at the forefront of industry, when we were leaders in manufacturing? Oh, you mean when bosses exploited their laborers in extravagant and ghastly ways for pauper’s wages? When a few magnates controlled the lives of their thousands of employees down to where they lived, where they shopped, where they worshiped, and how they were buried?
Or, America was great when we were a Christian nation? Oh, like when we used the Bible to defend kidnapping, buying, selling, raping, and beating human beings for economic gain? Or were you thinking of later when we made sure the children of those human beings, while technically free from chains, nonetheless understood their place and couldn’t drink from a white man’s drinking fountain?
Maybe America was great when we first started? Oh, by “we” you must mean white, European settlers who brought civilization to the savages? All “we” asked in return was their land, their health, their way of life, and their silence, that’s a fair deal, right?
Christians in America need to recognize this fact before they will ever sway from supporting Donald Trump: there is no Great American past to restore.
There are plenty of admirable qualities, there are lots of good ideas, but at no point in our history as a nation could we be called categorically “great”. We can’t make America great again in any comprehensive sense. “Again” is defeated by the non-existence of “before”.
What conservative Christians fail to recognize, is that we cannot tie the gospel too tightly to partisan politics and a narrow understanding of history. When we do so, we inevitably set the stage for the gospel being thrown out in the revolution that inevitably comes. Conservative Christians have spent so much time soaking the baby of the gospel in the bathwater of Republican politics and the American dream that even we’re confused as to where one starts and the other stops. In fact, at times, it seems like we’ve come to value the bathwater more. So no matter how much we protest, it’s at least partially on us when both get thrown out.
Rather than seeking to return to some kind of American glory day by any means possible, maybe we should recognize that the future, not the past, is where hope lies. We shouldn’t sell out our hope in Christ for cheap and temporary political “gains”.
On November 8th…
The conservative Christian has four options: vote for Trump, vote for Hillary, vote third-party, or don’t vote.
So what do we do?
First, I’d suggest taking the fourth option off the table. Not voting as a protest makes about as much sense as preparing for retirement by investing all your money in Chuckie Cheese tokens. It may seem personally satisfying, but it doesn’t count in the real world.
So we’re left with voting for Trump, Hillary, or third-party. And it’s here that the rubber meets the road. It’s important. Don’t just rely on my word, on evening news soundbites, on the echo chamber of your Facebook and Twitter feeds: educate yourself! Each citizen needs to carefully examine each candidate’s character, their platform, and their history, including third-party candidates. If you’re not sure character matters in leadership and you’re a conservative Christian, read this resolution (it’s only a few years old). Take a quiz like this one to help determine where you stand on the issues relative to the candidates. Read as many articles, blogs, and candidate websites as possible to evaluate each candidate’s background and track record.
Finally, in an election year as crazy as this one, let me say that my intent is in no way to condemn anyone’s vote. If you choose to vote for Trump, I will assume you made what you honestly believed to be the best choice, even though I believe he is unfit for leadership. If you vote for Hillary, I will assume the same even though I believe the same about her as I do Trump. But for myself, I cannot do either. So I will vote for Evan McMullin and pray that vote demonstrates a commitment to a different vision for the future of American politics, one that can shape not just 2016, but beyond. A commitment to true representative leadership, a commitment to character and values, and a commitment to hope.
3 thoughts on “The 2016 Election, Trump, and Conservative Christians”
Brandon, I am proud to see you as a pastor write on Christianity and politics. Keep it up brother! “We are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” (2 Cor. 2:17)
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