Thursday, November 6, 2008

On the Evangelical Response to the Presidential Election

Important Disclaimer: In the following post, I am NOT offering support or defense of either presidential candidate. This means I am not supporting either candidate's character, worldview, policy preferences, or personal associations. Furthermore, I am NOT criticizing any particular presidential candidate, campaign, person, or group of persons. Any similarities between details I share here and your personal experience is purely coincidental. That is to say, I'm not picking on anyone in particular. If you think I'm talking about you, you're wrong. I have no agenda here. I'm speaking for myself and out of my own observations of American evangelicalism at large.

Also, it is important to note that I write this post from a specific context. Currently, I am the mid-20s spouse of a student minister in a relatively conservative Southern Baptist church in southwestern Ohio. Also, I maintain close friendships with people in Texas and other southern states. So, it is clear to me from the outset that my evaluation of the "evangelical response to the presidential election," is seriously limited in scope. My apologies if any generalizations that follow give offense or oversimplify what is definitely a complex group in the United States.
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Around 10:30 AM on Wednesday morning, I sent the following text message to a few of my Christian friends:

What does it say about the church when her people respond in such an immature and fearful way 2 a new Pres they disagree with? I’m saddened by the state of our people’s hearts. Bitter. Angry. Hopeless. Doesn’t sound a bit like Jesus at all. I’m mourning this day for a different reason. God help us 2 grow 2 become the people of light we’re meant to be.

Now, before anyone gets defensive or misunderstands the intent of my message, let me explain. The morning following the election of Barack Obama as President, I logged on to my email account, Facebook page, and other networking tools, as I usually do. I was surprised to discover a great number of public and private statements by Christian friends and acquaintances, voicing a range of negative responses to the election results.

Here are some examples of what I read and heard:
- "I've declared this a day of mourning."
- "God has abandoned America."
- "This is the end of the sanctity of life in America."
- "I'm going to have to move my family to another country."
- "Christians better prepare for a Muslim regime to take over."
- "Now the terrorists have definitely won."

Despite my desire to understand where my friends and acquaintances are coming from--certainly, anyone can appreciate the real disappointment that is felt when someone you believe is the right and best choice for leadership does not receive the opportunity to lead--I was truly dismayed by the overall tone of the response. Indeed, I saw what I detailed in my text message--bitterness, anger, hopelessness--and then some: despair, fear, and, I believe, an underlying faithlessness.

One of the friends who received my text acknowledged that he thought he knew where I was coming from, but wanted some more explanation. Moreover, he wanted to know what my answer to my own question would be (that is, "What does it say about the church...?"). In essence, he challenged me, not only to explain in detail what I mean by my question, but also to pursue an answer.

And so, I'm responding to his challenge with this post. I hope that the following reflections offers good food for thought for my fellow followers of Christ. Maybe as I share my heart with you, we can be "iron sharpening iron" as we learn to live as Kingdom citizens in the United States of America.

My Concerns about the Evangelical Christian Response
The first thing that concerned me about the evangelical Christian response to Sen. Obama's victory (and even his entire 20-month campaign), is what I observed to be an apparent lack of concern for truth-telling, which went hand-in-hand with an apparent willingness to believe the worst about someone with whom we disagree.

Although I expect simplistic, sloganesque, and misleading responses to complex issues from partisan talking-heads and paid campaign representatives of both sides, I think Christians should aspire to something higher and better in their discussion and evaluation of important national and social issues. The wise words of a former professor, Fred Smith, who commented on a previous post on this blog, says it best: "As [Christians] we are certainly free to disagree over all kinds of questions...but such disagreement should be expressed in terms that are accurate and true, that are fair to both sides, and that are irenic--designed to bring the Body of Christ together around Him, not designed to upset and divide believers."

Here's an example of my disappointment in this matter. I have overheard more than a few Christians excoriate Sen. Obama for subscribing to "socialism," despite the fact that an honest appraisal of his economic perspective reveals that he is clearly not a socialist. He is no more a socialist than the 263 US Representatives who voted to pass the $700 billion "bailout bill," which "redistributed" taxpayer money into private banking institutions.

The truth is, there are a number of true socialist parties in the US, one of which ran a presidential candidate in the 2008 race, and all of which would strongly oppose the supposition that Sen. Obama is a socialist. Despite what may constitute a Christian's genuine disagreement with Sen. Obama's proposed tax plan, and real concern for how it will affect an already damaged economy, a commitment to an "accurate and true" discussion of the issues (which reflects our Savior's embodiment of the Truth) means Christians should not use false labels, slogans, or statements in an attempt to slander and mislead. And, this concern for truth should apply to all of Sen. Obama's policies with which Christians may disagree (i.e., abortion, the Iraq War, etc.), as well as those of Sen. McCain.

Along with this tendency to ignore and/or distort the truth among evangelicals, I have observed, as well, what appears to be a general willingness to participate in and contribute to, a mood of fear. I think it is fair to say that fear has been the prime currency of both major political parties, at least since the atrocities of 9/11. Fear of terrorists. Fear of warmongers. Fear of secret spying. Fear of illegal immigrants. Fear of Iran. Fear of same-sex marriage. Fear of anything-convenient-to-help-you-get-elected.

Sadly, in an election where the presidential candidates of both parties attempted to point us toward change, hope, and a new direction for the country, evangelicals seemed to succumb to the same worldly strategy of the past seven years to accomplish their purpose in opposing the election of Sen. Obama. (Again, note that I am not concerned that they opposed Sen. Obama's election. I'm concerned that they chose to do so using fear as a primary tactic.) Through personal conversations, email exchanges, and simply outrageous email "forwards," over and over again, I have encountered a spirit of fear and, frankly, fear-mongering emanating from my evangelical family.

While I do not deny that the heartfelt concerns of evangelicals (which are my concerns, too!), regarding issues like the sanctity of life, war, marriage, freedom of speech, etc, I cannot support the use of fear as a ploy to coerce people in their civil decision-making. Indeed, it is the New Testament affirmation that, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love" (1 Jn 4:18). If we are to be a people of love, representing a God who is love, then it is entirely inappropriate to manipulate our fellow citizens with fear in order to accomplish what we see as "a greater good." In the Christian faith, the end does not justify the means. Jesus cares about both.

A third concern I have about the evangelical response to the presidential election is the seemingly constant pursuit of a connection between real political concerns to speculative End Times prophetic predictions. Honestly, I lost count of the number of times I have been asked, by email or in-person, whether or not Barack Obama could be the Antichrist. Now, some of my readers may consider this a legitimate question and I do not mean to take away from anyone's right to discern the times in light of Scripture. But, let me explain my frustration with this entire line of thinking.

The expectation of a literal, future person known as "antichrist," is not necessarily the best interpretation of the relevant biblical passages. Although I do not have the time or space to go into the number of ways one can choose to interpret 2 Thess. 2:1-4; 1 John 2:18-23 (see also 1 John 4:3 and 2 John 2:7); and Rev. 13-14, 17 (all of which are used to describe a future "Antichrist" figure), I can say that, historically, the view promoted by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (and many others), is the "baby" in the history of biblical interpretation.

There are a number of legitimate ways to interpret biblical references to "antichrist," and the one promoted by Left Behind (which anticipates a literal, future, world ruler who will set himself up as God and persecute believers in the seven-year "tribulation period") has only recently become popular. Sadly, in many parts of evangelicalism, premillennial dispensationalism (the technical word for the viewpoint) is already unquestioned orthodoxy. I'm not saying that those who subscribe to this viewpoint do so without merit or serious thought, but I think it is unwise to use to this relatively young view of eschatology to form the basis for accusations like those hurled at Sen. Obama.

Also, its important to realize that Christians have been speculating about the identity of the "Antichrist" for hundreds of years. Past candidates have included a litany of Roman Catholic Popes (including the latest, Pope Benedict VII), Peter the Great, Adolf Hitler, JFK, Ayatollah Khomeini, FDR, and, my personal favorite, Prince Charles. Clearly, all of these past predictions have turned out to be false. And, while there is not necessarily a correlation between past false predictions and the likelihood of future correct predictions, we should be humbled, I think, by our not-so-successful predictive past.

All this is to say, even if evangelicals choose adopt a premillennial dispensational view of Scripture, I think it is the better part of wisdom to exercise restraint and humility when it comes to making specific future predictions (a.k.a., speculations). The suggestion that Barack Obama is a legitimate candidate for the Antichrist is one such speculation, with little to no basis in reality (particularly when the argument is based upon tying him to fundamentalist Islam--another example of avoiding truthfulness and giving into fear).

It is one thing to have serious and passionate disagreements with Sen. Obama's worldview and policies, to strongly oppose his election, and seek to convince others to do so, as well. It is quite another thing to accuse him of being "the man of lawlessness...doomed to destruction" (2 Thess. 2:3), "antichrist...who denies the Father and the Son" (1 John 2:22), and "the beast, who...will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction" (Rev. 17:8).

I am not being naive. Every human being, particularly humans entrusted with immense power, like that of the US presidency, is capable of great evil and wrongdoing. But, there is no evidence of such evil yet. I think self-control, humility, and prayerfulness should be the order of the day. As the New Testament exhorts us, "God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline" (2 Tim. 1:7).

Finally, I was deeply disturbed by evangelicals' overall uncharitable response to what is an historic moment in American history, no matter your political affiliation or religious convictions. One of our country's "original sins" was the mass enslavement of an entire race of human beings, for no other reason than their skin color and physical features. The text of the Constitution itself considers black African slaves only three-fifths of a person. This infamous blot on an otherwise ingenious founding document (called the “constitutional compromise”) is an embarrassment to all Americans, let alone Christian Americans who proclaim the equal worth of all before God.

But now, US citizens have elected the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya to be their President. Regardless of one's political leanings, this is an amazing thing and a reason to celebrate. No, the plague of racism in America is not defeated in this historic event. And, yes, there are plenty of reasons for evangelicals to be concerned about the possible future decisions of our new President and his counselors. But, for now, at this moment, evangelicals should be able to celebrate a great step forward in the cause of justice.

My Thoughts on Why Evangelicals Responded this Way
So, I have now detailed my specific concerns about what I observed in the evangelical response to the presidential election. Hopefully, I have been clear and not painted with too broad of a brush. Now, I will attempt to answer my own question from my text message this morning: "What does it say about the church when her people respond in such an immature and fearful way 2 a new Pres they disagree with?" There are a number of possible explanations, but I will offer four things that I believe have played a role in the largely negative evangelical mood surrounding this election.

First, I think the majority of evangelicals unknowingly ascribe to an unbiblical trust in the power of government to uphold Christian values. This trust in government leads to an unnecessary sense of hopelessness when the government doesn't appear to go the way of evangelicalism. I'm not going to weigh into the debate about whether or not the USA was founded as a "Christian nation." But, I am going to suggest that the trust in government to uphold Christian values ultimately stems from a misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God and its relationship to the kingdoms of the world.

Jesus made it very clear that his Kingdom is not of this world. The Gospel of Kingdom is not dependent upon the government to survive. In fact, one could make the argument that it is when the church and the State "get married" that the Gospel's progress is hampered by "civilian affairs" (2 Tim. 2:4). The Spirit of God is moving all over the planet in areas of the world where oppression, injustice, and persecution is the norm. There is no reason to despair simply because a person has been elected President whom evangelicals, in general, did not support. In the words of Martin Luther, "While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer, the gospel runs its course."

Second, I think the evangelical response betrays a general lack of faith in the God who upholds all things by his Word. We know from the Bible that God has established government in order to maintain order and establish justice in societies. But, the Christian's trust must be in God. In the words of 1 Peter 2:17, "Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king." The verbs in this verse are in the right place: fear God, honor the king.

Finally, and ultimately, I think all of this goes back to a lack of real spiritual transformation taking place in the lives of the majority of American evangelical Christians. When true transformation is taking place in our hearts, followers of Jesus are able to be genuinely loving, gracious, and kind to those with whom we disagree, while showing genuine hope and peace about God's future for us. I think the difficult truth is, our hearts have not really been formed into the likeness of Jesus, so when it is time to show those hearts to the world, we tend to fail (and sometimes, miserably).

My Thoughts on What to Do about It
I've shared the reasons why I've been so disappointed with the overall evangelical response to Sen. Obama's campaign and election as President. And, I've shared some reasons why I think this response spontaneously arose from the American evangelical community. So, what shall we do now? I think there are a few important and relatively basic places to start.

1. Each of us must take responsibility for seeking personal spiritual transformation through intentional discipleship. Along with this must be a commitment to hold one another accountable in our local churches for producing the fruit of the Spirit (i.e., love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control)--the sign that we do, indeed, have a good heart in God's Kingdom.

2. We must refocus our attention on the revolution of God that comes from below (in the hearts of people who encounter the Risen Christ), rather than the revolution of the world, which comes from above (in the halls of Congress, the White House, and other "power places").

3. We must must begin to pray with genuine love and fervency for ourselves, our fellow Kingdom citizens, our fellow American citizens, and the new leaders that have been brought to power in the past few days. Our God is good, great, and always surprising. Who knows what God will do among us if we will only ask? This means we can look with hope, watching and waiting, for the future of God, who is making all things new!

With that, I can conclude my reflections and evaluation of the evangelical response to the presidential election. I apologize for the length, but I wanted to be as thorough as possible. What are your thoughts? I encourage thoughtful, irenic comments from my readers and I look forward to the conversation.

15 comments:

UnderMidnight said...

all I have to offer comes from The Who, "Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss...And I get on my knees and pray / We don't get fooled again."

regarding God abandoning the country...anyone who bases such a judgement solely on a politician or election is a moron.
1. because politicians exist purely out of self-interest and have no interest in God.
2. because if all it took was an election to trump the power and presence of God in this country then we'd have all gone down the shitter a long time ago.

In the end we're going to keep raping third-world countries and outsourcing Jobs. We're going to keep ignoring genocide and injustices in the world when intervention is not related to any of our economic interests. And on and on ad nauseum.

Jeff Flowers said...

Em,
Great job on this post. You accepted the challenge with great dignity and thoughtfulness. I applaud you for showing some guts on this. It needs to be published in "Christianity Today" and posted on every christian's blog out there.

I know we don't agree politically. However, we can certainly agree with all of your very insightful points, especially the one's concerning our lack of true spiritual formation. This has truly inspired me to take a look at my own life; word and deed. I pray this will stretch our evangelical peers to examine their hearts as Kingdom people.

Thank you, you did it!

Musica said...

I want to thank you for sharing truth. This election showed me just how divided Christians today are. As Christian-college professor, I was saddened more often than not to see and hear faith-based television and radio programs press fear into the hearts of believers to vote a certain way. If we were to buy into the fear communicated, then we are saying 2 Timothy 1:7 is a lie. I did not agree with everything on either candidate's platform, but I made my own choice in voting for who I thought would be the better candidate for such a time as this.

In listening to talk radio the last two days, I've been appalled to the point of changing the station because of the obsession to hate by some that profess having a strong Bible-based faith. To know that in 2008, there is still a great divide, if you will, in the Christian/Evangelical community is so disheartening, but I have an assurance that God knows exactly what He's doing and why.

Perhaps this election was a lesson to really see the mote in our own eyes.

Andrea's Garden said...

APPLAUSE! This is the first Christian blog concerning the new president elect that I can say spells it all out. Thank you so much for your well thought out response to the outcome of this election. This was truly a christian response.

debbiekaufman said...

Emily: God has certainly called you to preach. I agree with everything you have posted here. This is sorely needed. Not only is this going on in the Christian community but all over America.

I was told that people at places of employment are having verbal fights over the results of this election. Rumors are still running rampant. Fear does that. Fear is usually being afraid of things that do not ever occur. It's the mob mentality that is more dangerous than anything that could happen during the next Presidential administration.

Robert Martin said...

Well done, Emily.

I will confess here that your post convicted me. I am one of those who was disappointed with the results of the election and found myself making predictions of doom and gloom and half-joking about leaving the country.

But that is as much putting my trust in the government as God's "chosen" nation as I have blamed others who hold the opposite political perspective to my own.

Thank you for taking on this challenge.

Gary Snowden said...

Emily,

As always, you write with courage, conviction, and clarity. I want to commend you for being a voice of reason and for your willingness to incur a probable negative reaction to your post, given the ferocity with which some have tried to portray the results of the election as God's judgment upon America.

I would echo Jeff's words--your post ought to be featured in Christianity Today and other leading voices in the evangelical world as it clearly illustrates the danger of looking to government rather than God Himself for the future well-being of our nation.

Thanks for your thought-provoking and insightful post.

Glenda Katsetos said...

Emily, as usual, this is very well written… and... look!! I finally figured out how to post!!!

I pray that this post achieves your objective and doesn’t become divisive itself.

I don’t think that being fearful after any election or major turn of events is lack of faith in God. Lack of faith in people, maybe, and certainly for myself that is the case. From a biblical perspective (and I’m not expert, so correct me if I’m wrong here), it seems that God gets pretty upset when a society has chosen not to follow Him. I have complete and total faith that God can do anything and that God is in control; however, as a parent it doesn’t make me want any less for my children or make me wish for economic or physical hardships for them in their future.. Maybe if I were a perfect Christian, I would be able to offer my children to Him under any circumstances, but my humanness prevails and I can’t help but want them to be and feel safe. Much of the “fear factor” you’re probably feeling is from persons my age I suspect (40’s-50’s) that have been jolted back to a time in their lives that feels very similar to this… The Jimmy Carter Era… I can remember a time when graduating with a college degree did not even mean you would be able to get a job as a dishwasher. I’m not exaggerating, this was the case for relatives of mine, hard-working, intelligent people… I can certainly understand where you’re coming from and in my heart I know that God is in control and that my job, first and foremost, is to make sure that my children love Jesus with all of their hearts. …that is what is important in their future… but sometimes my selfishness and shallowness overtakes me and I worry about them and how hard life may be for them someday. Don’t loose faith in us, Emily, we are all only human…

My biggest disappointment in this election has been the “race” issue being played by Christians and non-Christians alike. I am convicted in my soul that there is ONE true race of people. We all came from the same lineage and were created in His image … we are either Christian or non-Christian, not black or white, yellow or green. I am tired of checking boxes to claim my race. I am tired of “yes WE can” and am still waiting for the claim of “yes HE can”. I could go on and on about why I believe we have gotten to this point in this country regarding racism… that because we have elected a “black’ president doesn’t mean it’s any less of a racist society today than it was during slavery… but I won’t take the time here other than to say that it truly makes me sad and it’s simply one more way (one more BIG way) to divide Christians.

I am not going into where the country came from. For me, it’s more important to focus on where it is going…. What can we do as Christians to reclaim this country? I understand the concept of separation of church and state, but without Christianity as a part of our core values and beliefs in this country, we are still allowing a religion to reign over our society… the religion of Athiesm. It’s that simple. I’m not sure if it’s worse to believe in a false god or no God, but you can fill the equation in with either one of these if Christianity is factored out.

Thank you for your writing, Emily. You always make me look deeper and see things in myself that I know are there, but I just don’t want to admit.

Love you,
Glenda

Bob Cleveland said...

Emily,

I like to think of people .. particularly Christians .. as leaky tanks. When the pressure inside (Spiritual) is higher than that outside (the world), then what's inside leaks out.

OR .. when the pressure outside is greater than the pressure inside, then what's outside leaks in. And pretty soon, what leaked in, leaks out, too.

Methinks we got us a lot of low-pressure Christians.

We either believe what God says, or we don't. All of it. That's a decision of ours, and we DO have to make it.

Cindy said...

Emily- well said. I appreciate your thorough approach and willingness to speak the (unpopular) truth when it's so greatly needed!

Thy Peace said...

God bless you, Sister in Christ.

When one dies to one self within and is filled with The Holy Spirit, then what happens on the outside is of no consequence.

Charlie Mac said...

Emily,
I to had a hard time understanding how good committed Christians could pass around the falsehoods they did before (and since)the election the election.
I also have a hard time understanding why black teen age girls would tell their white teacher that she can no longer tell them to behave in class because they now have a black man as president.
This will be the 13th President of the United States I have lived under. I will honor the position. I will pray for the man who fills it.
charlie Mac

UnderMidnight said...

P.S.
just for fun go to youtube and look up Skinheads for Obama.
haha.

littlebirdsings said...

Emily... this is the first time I have ever read your blog, but as a person from "the other side", someone who reads scripture but may have an un-evangelical perspective on Christ, I was so inspired and comforted by your truly thoughtful post. It was one that displays a well rounded and self-reflective inquiry into faith and truth and community (especially the truth about fear), you spoke to what Bob Cleavland called "low-pressure" Christians... the kind of Christian that gets all the press and therefore spreads misunderstanding. Thank you for confronting such issues so open-hearted-ly.

Steve said...

I think we can all celebrate that the era of slavery in this country is finished, with a desendant of an African elected to the Presidency. It is truly a historic time.

I've wondered how we in the New World ended up with the African slaves; it's not like we searched the world for someone to persecute - we enjoy doing that to each other already! I don't think we picked them out for their physical differences, although that certainly made identifying them easier once they were relocated.

What an odd idea, too, to consider them less than a man in counting them in the Constitution for representational purposes. I wish I could go to John Adams or the other New Englanders, all heroes of freedom, I suppose, and ask where they got such a ratio. Certainly the steely-eyed rotters who owned them would have preferred counting them as whole men and women. (Some serious irony there, no?)

Well, for whatever inspiration Christians may draw from the caprices of government decisions, we can celebrate the closing of one era of history and the opening of a whole new chapter of equality, brotherhood, and inclusion.

I might suggest the biggest fright to Evangelicals arose from the fact that this political figure has always wished to be considered the prime mover of our American disease of slaughtering these innocents, where half the people going into these medical settings are guaranteed to come out dead. Not only has he fulfilled every party imperative to maintain the abortion movement as his party's distictive feature, but Mr. Obama wanted to be the furthest one in front - even championing the annihilation of the few innocents who survived the first premeditated effort to kill them.

P.S.: To promote the redistribution of wealth as blatantly as this candidate did with the plumber in Ohio, the Investigation State, does undeniably mark him as at least a marginal Marxist or Socialist, despite the differences in degree found on the Internet. He was certainly close enough to merit accolades from the American Communist Party.

As prescribed in Scriptures, I am sure we all will be praying that this man leads us well as a leader instituted from Above, for God's own purposes.