We are approaching a presidential election that represents a culmination of the most politically and philosophically divisive campaign season that I have ever experienced.
Throughout the last several months, strongly held convictions and deeply felt emotions have put a strain on many families and friendships, on many pastors and congregations, and on many hearts and lives. After Tuesday, no matter how the election turns out, there will be excitement and a sense of victory among some, and deep frustration—perhaps even anguish—among others. And, as citizens of this great nation, we will all bear our share of emotional scars, irrespective of for whom we cast our vote.
I know that most of the people reading these paragraphs hold plenty of strong opinions about the election, and that anything like consensus is elusive at best. Further, I understand that you most likely encounter a diversity of political viewpoints in your network of relationships that sometimes causes your head to spin and your heart to hurt.
The last four years have illuminated a divide in our culture—and even in our faith communities—that, while perhaps long present, has never been so starkly and painfully delineated. The church, which is the faith community in which I both live out my vocation and nurture my spiritual formation, currently accommodates a divergence of perspectives related to the Presidency of Donald Trump that can sometimes lead to what feels like either severe ecclesiastical schizophrenia or a bad case of spiritual whiplash.
An articulate Christian defense of Trump’s Presidency can be found in the writing of Eric Metaxas, who included these words in his op-ed article for the Wall Street Journal (January 7, 2020):
If slavery was rightly considered wicked—and both a moral and political issue—how can this macabre practice [abortion] be anything else? How can Christians pretend this isn’t the principal moral issue of our time, as slavery was in 1860? Can’t these issues of historic significance outweigh whatever the president’s moral failings might be?…The pejorative du jour is to call evangelicals ‘transactional,’ as though buying a loaf of bread and not simply praying for one were somehow faithless. But what is sneeringly called ‘transactional’ is representational government, in which patriotic citizens vote, deputizing others to act on their behalf for the good of the country. Isn’t it conceivable that faithful Christians think Mr. Trump is the best choice?…Christians are staggered to see good souls who stand by millennia-old religious convictions portrayed as deplorable bigots. Democrats—and many Republicans, too—simply look away, seemingly resigned to a culturally Marxist future in which they too may at any minute be rent asunder by woke mobs. Given this new reality, is it any wonder Mr. Trump’s bellicosity often draws cheers? Or that the appointment of originalist judges has become so urgent that some people are willing to countenance a chief executive who tweets like a WWE figure?
In stark contrast to Metaxas’ conceptualization of Trump as Christianity’s “best choice” and a necessary response to an American culture that is bounding headlong toward a “Marxist future,” John Pavlovitz, another articulate Christian voice, recently published a provocative blog post entitled “No, I Won’t Agree to Disagree About This President. You’re Just Wrong” (October 18, 2020). In his post, Pavlovitz gives expression to a moral anguish that he believes is worth dividing over:
At this point, with the past four years as a resume, your alignment with this president means that we are fundamentally disconnected on what is morally acceptable—and I’ve simply seen too much to explain that away or rationalize your intentions or give you the benefit of the doubt any longer. I know what your reaffirmation of him is telling me about your disregard for the lives of people of color, about your opinion of women, about your attitude toward Science, about the faith you so loudly profess, and about your elemental disrespect for bedrock truth. I now can see how pliable your morality is, the kinds of compromises you’re willing to make, the ever-descending bottom you’re following into, in order to feel victorious in a war you don’t even know why you’re fighting…This isn’t just a schism on one issue or a single piece of legislation, as those things would be manageable. This isn’t a matter of politics or preference. This is a pervasive, sprawling, saturating separation about the way we see the world and what we value and how we want to move through this life. Agreeing to disagree with you in these matters, would mean silencing myself and more importantly, betraying the people who bear the burdens of your political affiliations—and this is not something I’m willing to do…Your devaluing of black lives is not an opinion. Your acceptance of falsehoods is not an opinion. Your defiance of facts in a pandemic is not an opinion. Your hostility toward immigrants is not an opinion. These are fundamental heart issues.
The divergence of theological thought reflected by these two Christian writers is as compelling as it is unsettling. These are contrasting worldviews that, while not mutually exclusive, bring to light differing moral priorities and disparate ideas about what matters most to Jesus. Would the starkness of the disparity be different if there were a greater number of pro-life Democrats? Or more Republicans concerned about racism, the climate, and access to healthcare? Perhaps. As it stands, however, faithful followers of Jesus, along with many other faith communities, find themselves every bit as divided as the culture that surrounds them, if not more so.
I do not offer solutions in these paragraphs. In fact, I am not at all convinced that a solution exists. The cultural and ecclesiastical divide is not a problem to be solved as much as it is a formative tension to navigate—a moral strain that, if stewarded with both an attentiveness to what is at stake and a stubborn refusal to demonize, has the potential to make us into a more compassionate nation and a more virtuous church.
Of course, it will always be easier to make enemies of one another, protecting our preferred categories and clarifying the battle lines. Moral strains and formative tensions, after all, are excruciatingly difficult. Weaponizing our priorities in order to excoriate those who do not freight them as we do is a perpetual temptation, and an enticing one at that.
But I am hoping that there is another way. I am hoping that Biden supporters might force themselves over the next several weeks and months to listen patiently to the hearts of those Americans who will cast their vote for Trump, not because they are racists or misogynists, but perhaps because of their conviction that a nation’s governing ethos is at stake and their belief that abortion is a monumental moral crisis that outweighs all other concerns and upon which the integrity of America hinges. Likewise, I am hoping that Trump supporters will compel themselves to appreciate the priorities of those who will vote for Biden, not because they gravitate toward socialism or an indifference to the unborn, but because they have come to the conclusion that both the character and actions of the current President are toxic to our nation’s vitality, corrosive to our national integrity, and ruinous to our noblest aspirations.
My vision for this “other way” is based upon neither a desire for moral equivalence (since not all positions can be equally right) nor a contentment with shallow civility (since the issues at hand are far too important to be swept under the carpet of an anemic geniality). Rather, my vision finds its impetus in the two-fold conviction that the betterment of our nation depends on the navigation of our moral tension and not its militarization, and that our grandest future is far more comprehensive than what can be generated by any one party’s platform. To put it simply, for the sake of moral accountability and philosophical holism, we need one another, even if we do not want to. Such a recognition of the need for the “other” is woven into the very fabric of the American dream. In fact, this very principle often leads to the righting of agonizing wrongs during those periods when the American dream becomes nightmarish for many.
All of this inspires me to offer the following hopes—not because I think I know any more than you do, but simply because my heart will not allow me to be silent:
First, if you are someone who prays and believes in the power of prayer, then I hope that you will be intentional about praying your way into a deep and durable preparedness as we head into the election. More specifically, I hope that you will pray with urgency
- for peace and integrity in our nation, before, during, and after the election
- for your personal strength to become an active agent of the peace for which you are praying
- for the hearts and spirits of the people in your network of relationships—both the people with whom you agree and those whose viewpoints you oppose
- for President Trump, former Vice President Biden, Vice President Pence, and Senator Harris and their families
- and for your own heart, that it might not succumb to despair, cynicism, or resentment.
Second, if you are someone who embraces the Bible as a source of spiritual revelation or guidance, then I hope that you will experience a healthy engagement with Biblical truth so that you might keep the election in perspective and help those around you to do the same. For example, in recent weeks, I have found great encouragement in Isaiah 40—a wonderfully evocative section of Scripture in which the prophet speaks urgent and powerful words of comfort, hope, and assurance to God’s people. Verses 22 and 23 of Isaiah 40 have resonated for me with particular clarity: “It is the Lord who sits above the circle of the earth…who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” I hear in these words a compelling reminder of the fact that a presidential election, while tremendously important, will not diminish the sovereignty of the One we worship, nor will it impede God’s authority over “the circle of the earth.” The prophet concludes by reminding us that “The Lord is the everlasting God” who renews the strength of the faint so that “they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:28-31). I am hoping that you will nurture your own spirit in this kind of Biblical truth, so that you might resist the temptation to kneel at the wrong altar in the days following the election.
Third, I hope that you will think about how to create safe spaces of prayer and healing silence for the people in your family, neighborhood, social network, and faith community during the next several weeks—even virtually. My sense is that people need such safe spaces more than ever, whether they realize it or not. The current noise in our culture is loud, complex, and relentless. Help the people in your corner of the world to find their way into quiet spaces of prayer in which the Holy Spirit can begin to heal wounds, restore hope, and illuminate the many convictions that unite us.
Fourth, I hope that you will practice good and attentive stewardship over all of your communication, spoken and written, remembering that you are addressing a political spectrum of which no single portion can lay claim to the entirety of either the Gospel or the moral high ground. Hold your personal convictions, but do not weaponize them. Preach the Gospel, but do not reduce the pulpit to an instrument through which to vent your personal spleen. Advocate for justice, but recognize that there are differing perspectives in your community concerning what the fullness of justice looks like and which portions of justice warrant the highest prioritization. Speak into social media, but speak graciously and carefully, so that you do not become “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” There will be plenty of voices crying out following the election. In the midst of that outcry, work hard to ensure that your voice is helpful rather than hurtful.
Fifth, if you are a leader in the church, I hope that you will make certain that your congregational worship on the weekend of Saturday and Sunday, November 7 and 8, is rich with fervent hope, energized prayer, and the proclamation of a Savior who cannot be claimed by any political party or confined to any party’s platform. Your congregation will need that kind of worship. Help them to experience it.
Finally, if you are Christian, I hope that you will commit yourself afresh to the bold, creative, and tenacious love that Jesus himself describes in his Sermon on the Mount—a love extended even toward our “enemies” and those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-48). This kind of love, of course, has nothing to do with how much we agree with a person or even the amount of affection we hold for her or him. Rather, the love to which Jesus calls us is deeply rooted in the often countercultural work of respecting the personhood of those with whom we are ideologically conflicted, showing compassion to those who are on the other end of a variety of spectrums, and blessing our philosophical opponents with our refusal to assume the worst about them. Practically speaking, such love produces authentic concern for the heartbroken (instead of gloating) if our preferred candidate is elected and authentic graciousness (instead of vitriol) if our preferred candidate is not elected. Jesus seemed to believe that this kind of love reflects the very character of God and that its embodiment among his followers illuminates both the nature of God’s reign and the heart of God’s vision for what the world can be at its very best. I am hoping in prayer that the people called Church are known primarily for their love, both throughout this week and beyond this week.
On October 6, 1774, John Wesley wrote these important words in his journal:
I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.
May we find in these words a call to both civic responsibility and continued graciousness. May we also embrace the wisdom of Wesley’s counsel to resist the sharpening of our spirits against those whose political perspectives (and votes) differ from ours.
If you have read this far, please be assured that I am with you in this hard and important journey, praying in a spirit of deep gratitude for the honor of walking alongside you. If you feel that I have not gone far enough in what I have written, or if you find in my words what sounds far too much like a support for unholy compromises, I certainly receive that criticism. Likewise, if you feel that I have gone too far, or that I have strayed dangerously beyond the boundaries of that for which I am trained, you may very well be right.
At the heart of the post, though, is nothing more (and nothing less) than my personal and unrelenting belief that our nation and its faith communities have a deeper and more expansive greatness in their future. Getting there, however, will require courageous navigation and an unwavering commitment to choosing hope over fear, cooperation over partisanship, and, perhaps most importantly, integrity over demagoguery.