Evangelical convictions for sale

This should be my last post on this tragic election cycle. I am definitely ready to focus on other subjects! But a report has been released that I find profoundly disappointing and disturbing, though not that surprising. People were asked whether an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life. This survey was conducted in June of 2011 and again last month. Here are some of the results:

73851As you can see the biggest change—by far—was in the responses of white evangelical Christians. In 2011, only 30% of white evangelicals agreed that an elected official could commit an immoral act in private but still behave ethically and faithfully fulfill their duties. In 2016, that percentage flip-flopped by 42%, going from 30% to 72% in five years. We went from being the demographic with the fewest yes answers to this question to the one with the most (even more than Democrats, who were at 61% yes answers).

As you might have guessed, the media are widely reporting that the moral character of political candidates is no longer an issue for white evangelical voters. And one would be hard pressed to fault them for observing this. What caused such a dramatic change in evangelical convictions this year? Donald Trump.

In 1998, it was revealed that Bill Clinton had been conducting an adulterous affair (amid widespread allegations of many more). Conservative evangelicals were virtually unanimous in their condemnations of these actions. A common refrain at the time was: “If he’ll cheat on his wife, he’ll cheat on the country.” In September of 1998, prominent evangelical leader James Dobson wrote a letter publicly expressing his concern for our nation. Here are some excerpts:

“As it turns out, character DOES matter. . . . How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don’t respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. . . .

“I just don’t understand it. Why aren’t parents more concerned about what their children are hearing about the President’s behavior? Are moms and dads not embarrassed by what is occurring? At any given time, 40 percent of the nation’s children list the President of the United States as the person they most admire.  What are they learning from Mr. Clinton? What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men? . . .

“I am left to conclude from these opinions that our greatest problem is not in the Oval Office. It is with the people of this land! We have lost our ability to discern the difference between right and wrong. . . . We are facing a profound moral crisis — not only because one man has disgraced us — but because our people no longer recognize the nature of evil. And when a nation reaches that state of depravity — judgment is a certainty.”

James Dobson
September, 1998

Stirring words, aren’t they? Many of Bill Clinton’s defenders tried to downplay his moral problems by insisting we are “electing not clergy but political leaders.” Dobson quoted them in his letter, and made very clear he didn’t buy this defense. Now compare Dobson’s strong moral stance then to what he says about Donald Trump now:

“I don’t vote for candidates . . . Policy is what matters. . . .

“His rhetoric has been inexcusable, and I don’t defend it. . . . There are obviously characteristics of Trump that I wish I could change. However, I believe he is the best candidate available, period. . . .

“I’m not under any illusions that he is an outstanding moral example . . . It’s a cliché but true: We are electing a commander-in-chief, not a theologian-in-chief.”

James Dobson
September, 2016

Since the tape was revealed—with Donald Trump grotesquely boasting of sexually assaulting women—Dobson has affirmed his endorsement of Trump. But is he the only one who’s relinquished their previous standards?

Pat Robertson condemned Bill Clinton as being “debauched, debased and defamed,” said that resignation would be too easy for him and that, “We need to prove to the American people that our elected officials have the courage and the love of country to do what is right for America [referring to impeaching Clinton].” And what does he say of Donald Trump? Three days ago Robertson told Trump, “You inspire us all.”

Ralph Reed and Gary Bauer both led the charge against Bill Clinton because of his lack of character. Both are now publicly supporting Donald Trump. They, and many other evangelical leaders, made strong statements opposing Bill Clinton because of his lack of moral character. So it’s fairly easy to compile a list contrasting many of these evangelical leaders’ opposition to Bill Clinton because of his character with their current support of Donald Trump despite his character, often using the very same arguments used by Bill Clinton’s defenders. (The press has already published a few such comparisons, and you can be assured more are on the way.)

Of course, a great many evangelical leaders are refusing to change their views:

“If I were to support, much less endorse, Donald Trump for president, I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton.”

Al Mohler
June, 2016

But, in their support of Trump, many others have gone from saying ‘yes, poor character disqualifies a person from elected office’ to saying ‘no, it does not.’ Ed Stetzer clearly diagnoses this problem:

“That’s the definition of selling out.”


28250-fullBut, why?

Many evangelical Christians see this current race as a “must-win” election . . . and that’s a problem. Because—as those who have placed our faith and trust in the hope of the world, Jesus Christ—there is no must-win election. The only must-win battle has already been won. Victory is assured. Christ will enact the victory when he returns. And let’s remember just what this victory entails. This victory isn’t merely about going to heaven or hell; no, this victory is the answer to everything wrong with our society now. Christ’s victory is the answer to injustice and corruption and immorality and fear. It’s the only real answer, the only real victory. That’s why it’s good news.

Does this mean we shouldn’t try to make things better in this life? Of course not. We’re to be salt and light. We should seek to make positive change wherever we have opportunity. But we must never expect that we are the ones who will make everything right. And we shouldn’t presume that God intends to win the victory now through us. We are to faithfully shine the light in the darkness, but we are not the ones who conquer the darkness. That is neither our responsibility nor our role.

God has placed us behind enemy lines. We are in the world. And don’t forget the United States is not a part of the kingdom of God; it’s a part of the world. There will be times when we’ll have a positive influence for good in our nation, and that’s a cause for rejoicing. But we shouldn’t be surprised or disheartened if the darkness is sometimes resurgent. It’s not our job to defeat the darkness, but to shine the light within it.

Could God put a stop to abortion immediately?

Could God put a stop to abortion immediately? Of course he could. Just as he could immediately stop all injustice, all corruption, all pain and suffering. Why doesn’t he? The extremely short answer is that he has a plan. His plan leads to victory over all evil. But at this time he allows the world the freedom to destroy themselves. This can be almost unbearably ugly and heartbreaking. So we do what we can to influence our society for good, but we realize these micro-victories are fleeting and easily undone. We know our victory will not be won now. Even in our sorrow for our society and for those who are horribly mistreated, we are not distraught or despairing. We don’t act out of frenzied desperation. Because our hope is not a temporary, heavily-contested victory now. Our hope is not in the latest “must-win” election. No, our hope is in God, in his plan, and in his victory.

We don’t have to win now.

But we do have to be faithful now, to remain who we are, to remain salt and light . . . to remain true to our convictions.

We must never sacrifice our convictions.

Not for anyone.

Why I must speak out: A challenge to evangelical supporters of Donald Trump

This is a very different kind of post for me. As a pastor, I’m committed to lovingly shepherd everyone in our congregation, regardless of whether they’re Republican, Democrat or something else. When addressing political issues, pastors strive for a difficult but important balance. It’s not my job to tell you which party you should be part of or how you should vote on specific propositions. But I do teach, without compromise, biblical principles such as the sanctity of life and God’s design for marriage and sexuality. I don’t suggest what someone’s talking points should be in a political discussion, but I do address the kind of tone and attitude that should characterize our interaction with others. I try to keep my public ministry free from any hint of my own partisan views, and I’m reticent to share my personal feelings on candidates except in very private conversations. But I do discuss general standards of character and morality that we should expect from any candidate we support.

By now, we’re all aware of the Donald Trump phenomenon. It’s hard to escape the constant barrage of news stories and articles about his candidacy for the Republican nomination. Many conservative Republicans are concerned that Trump has only recently shown an interest in conservative Republican viewpoints and may not maintain these positions after being nominated or elected. Some have suggested that conservative pundits and shock-journalists created the opportunity for Trump by continually feeding into the paranoia of their listeners and their distrust of anyone currently in office. Others have written about how a system-insider (who admits to a history of contributing large amounts of money to politicians and then seeking special treatment from them) is suddenly running as an outsider who is supposed to oppose the very system he’s been part of for years.

These are all intriguing subjects for reflection and discussion (particularly for evangelicals who are conservative Republicans), but what I find shocking and disheartening are the self-professed evangelical Christians who are somehow supporting this man. Normally I wouldn’t publicly express a viewpoint on any one candidate. But there comes a time when we must speak out. Not enough pastors protested as Christians ignored the extreme views and questionable character of another wannabe leader in history, and instead watched as Adolf Hitler assumed power. (Yes, ordinary Germans supported Hitler in spite of his extreme views because they thought he would make them strong and great again.)

Now we face our own election. It’s worth noting that, according to the latest poll, only a tiny fraction of evangelical pastors support Donald Trump. Why? Because this man openly and unapologetically displays the most blatantly unchristian behavior and character of any candidate in recent history. He does this while claiming to be a Christian. And his followers eat it up and call for more! As followers of Christ, we must not be part of this.

“But we’re electing a president, not a pastor!”
This has become a familiar response to anyone expressing concern about Trump’s character. And there is a point here. We shouldn’t expect a presidential candidate to have flawless theology or to interject their faith into every debate answer. But are we saying that character doesn’t matter? Should we not be concerned about the morality or behavior of someone who wants to be President of the United States of America?! Since they’re not going to be a pastor, they can act anyway they want . . . and it’s okay?

Many people decry the immorality of sports celebrities because of the influence they have on our youth. “They should be role models,” we say. Well, what about the most powerful leader in our government, the public face of our nation? The person who represents us to the world and to our own people? What about the man who could be the most influential individual in our society (and to our children), potentially for the next eight years? Are we actually saying that the character of a presidential candidate is irrelevant? Is this the person you want your children to emulate?

Is Donald Trump a Christian? Does it matter?
Evangelical Christians disagree on whether we should vote only for candidates who are Christians. (It’s interesting that most Americans show an interest in the personal beliefs of their candidates.) The question of Trump’s faith becomes relevant to all of us because: (1) he repeatedly identifies himself as a Christian, and (2) many of his supporters encourage others to support him because he’s “one of us.” But is he?

We can’t judge another person’s heart, of course. But, if someone claims to be a brother or sister in Christ, not only can we evaluate their behavior and character, we have a responsibility to do so (1 Corinthians 5). We are being negligent if we ignore what is blatantly ungodly and pretend that a person is still a fellow believer in good standing. Especially when someone is prominent and their claim to faith is a public one, we will be held accountable if we remain silent.

So what’s the problem with Donald Trump’s Christianity? Trump has talked about his faith on a number of occasions. But he consistently shows a disturbing lack of understanding concerning the most basic of Christian beliefs. I haven’t seen any evidence that he understands, in even a very rudimentary way, any of the core truths of the gospel of Christ. He has called himself a “tremendous Christian” (a red flag right there), but he says he doesn’t ask for forgiveness because he doesn’t feel he needs it. He has publicly ridiculed the very personal conversion stories of other candidates, blithely dismissing one by saying “it doesn’t work that way.” He has boasted about gross sin in his life (such as multiple affairs with married women), without any hint of remorse or repentance. And he consistently displays the most shockingly unchristian behavior (more on this below).

Now I can already hear the protests: “Who are you to judge?” “Doesn’t God forgive?” “Where’s the grace?” Yes, God forgives—but the Bible tells us we must acknowledge our sin and our need of forgiveness. We must also repent and seek (through God’s empowering) to turn away from our sins and go a different way. To accept someone’s claim of being a Christian while ignoring (or laughing at) their blatantly unchristian behavior and character—and their complete mischaracterization of the Christian faith—is neither loving nor showing grace. It’s being grossly irresponsible as the people of God. And, yes, as I explained above, we do have a responsibility to judge the behavior of fellow Christians, particularly those who are prominently declaring their Christianity for personal benefit. We need to either stop endorsing Trump as a true Christian, or treat him like a brother and confront his sin.

So what’s so bad about his character?
Here is some of what I think is so extreme and egregious that I have to speak up:

— Donald Trump has the temperament of a playground bully, taunting and ridiculing his opponents in the most childish, demeaning, personally insulting ways (even calling a whole state “stupid”). It’s not a stretch to imagine him saying, ‘What’s the matter, Jeb? Are you gonna cry? Yeah, go cry to your mommy!’ 

— He has advocated the slaughter of innocent people simply because they are related to terrorists. Regardless of your views on the priority of national security or a strong defense, this is murder.

— He shows great hostility to anyone who opposes him, even to the point of desiring violence. He longs for the days when those who heckled him would be “carried out on a stretcher,” and he says of a protester, “I’d like to punch him in the face!”

— He unapologetically uses grossly vulgar and offensive language. He refers to women he doesn’t like as “pigs” and other crude terms, and uses vulgarities (that I won’t print here) to belittle others.

— He makes the most outlandish statements and accusations, and then accuses others of lying about him when they try to hold him accountable. He either conveniently forgets or refuses to acknowledge his previous positions on a number of key issues. (I know other politicians have been inconsistent at times, but with Trump this is almost an art form, and it is continual.)

— He slanders his opponents whenever they become a threat to him. Yes, other politicians mischaracterize each other’s positions, but with Trump these attacks are personal and egregious. I’ve never seen anything so over-the-top as we’ve witnessed from Donald Trump, such as comparing Ben Carson to a child molester, mocking John McCain for being a prisoner of war or blaming George W Bush for 9/11.

— As I mentioned above, he brags of things that are either highly questionable or outright sinful, from repeatedly manipulating the bankruptcy laws for his benefit (with no regard shown for the people who are deeply hurt in the process) to having multiple affairs with married women (again with no regard shown for the people who are deeply hurt in the process).

— He seems to have recently transformed himself somehow into a conservative Republican after being a liberal Democrat for most of his life, even defending partial-birth abortion for years. Anyone—Republican or Democrat—should be wary of a candidate who changes their convictions as easily as they change their tie.

— Trump is inarguably arrogant, boastful, petty, argumentative and vindictive. What so many of us are seeing as unseemly, disturbing and childish in the GOP race, he seems to relish.

But I’m angry! or But he’ll keep us strong! or But he’ll make us great again!
As followers of Christ, we cannot use our vote as a form of venting or throwing a tantrum. Sure we may be concerned and upset about what’s happening in our country and the world, but if we claim to have faith and trust in God we must not be motivated by our fear or anger. And how do Republicans know Trump will stick to what he’s saying now when he held the opposite views for so long? Some in our increasingly uncivil, vulgar, reality-TV culture are now clamoring for their own uncivil, vulgar, reality-TV presidential candidate. But as Christians we have a higher standard. When America has been at it’s best, we’ve been great because we sought first to be good. If we sacrifice our good-ness for some desire to be great, we will end up being neither.

We cannot jettison our convictions in order to join some mob wanting to crown a candidate just because he talks tough and will say anything at any given moment. This isn’t godly wisdom. We are Christians first, and Americans second. The US will one day end; the kingdom of God is eternal. We must not sacrifice our kingdom principles for what we think will make us strong now. We must not sell our birthright for what is fleeting and illusory.

Don’t forget that Jesus commended those who are meek and the peacemakers. He described himself as being gentle and humble, and called us to be like him. (And never confuse meekness with weakness, or bluster with real strength.) We can support this man who displays the temperament of a boastful, loudmouthed bully who will stoop to anything to win, or we can follow the Prince of Peace. I don’t see any way to do both.

 

Note: I understand that people are passionate about these issues, but any comments that are hostile, insulting or vulgar will be deleted. (And spelling a vulgarity with ***s doesn’t make it less vulgar.) This isn’t about trying to diminish Trump’s standing to benefit “my candidate.” It’s not about ‘don’t support this guy, but support that guy.’ It’s about the cognitive dissonance required for an evangelical Christian to support a man like Donald Trump. Whether you agree or disagree, please keep any comments on that topic.