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.