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Evangelicals and Lust for Political Power – Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils

Needless to say, I have received many critical responses to my blog post of October 10, in which I warned that evangelicals should not publicly support Donald Trump due to his consistent track record of misogyny, racism, divisiveness, and demagoguery. Although I received much more support than criticism, I believe the critics deserve a response. Many of them are genuinely distressed. They are being bombarded with the argument – implicit or explicit, rational or emotionally manipulative – that as Christians they must vote for Trump.

To be sure, I was very careful not to say that a person should not vote for Trump, and most readers understood that. A vote for a presidential candidate is highly complex. There are so many issues at stake, so many factors that should inform a thoughtful Christian’s decision, that we can be sure intelligent Christians will disagree here. Each will follow his or her own conscience. And we need to be careful not to judge one another. I have thoughtful Christian friends who are voting for Trump, others who are voting for Clinton, and others who will vote for someone else entirely.

At the same time, many of my critics seem to think that to criticize evangelicals for publicly supporting Donald Trump requires me to criticize Hillary Clinton too – as if the mark of a good moral theologian is to spread moral criticism in as balanced and politically fair a way as possible. Why do they assume this? Is it because they think evangelicals who don’t support Trump must be enamored with Clinton and the Democratic party? I for myself, am well aware of the Democratic party’s flaws and of the flaws of its nominee as well. Yet somehow I’m not worried that most evangelicals have too rosy a view of Clinton. I certainly don’t think they need a warning from me on that count.

The real reason, I think, that many of these critics want to see me criticize Clinton at least as much as Trump is that they actually think there is only one faithful way a Christian can think about this election. There is one primary issue at stake – who will receive the power to make appointments to the Supreme Court, with their consequent significance for matters such as abortion and religious liberty. Beyond this simple calculation of power, in this view, every other issue pales in significance. Since only two candidates have a realistic chance at attaining power, then all votes for other candidates are wasted. We must choose between the lesser of two evils.

Image result for Trump and Clinton

Note how much the power calculus drives Franklin Graham’s Facebook argument in defense of Trump (Graham’s post has received nearly 200,000 Facebook shares):

A lot of people are slamming evangelicals for supposedly giving Donald J. Trump a pass. That’s simply not true. No one is giving him a pass. I’m certainly not, and I’ve not met an evangelical yet who condones his language or inexcusable behavior from over a decade ago. However, he has apologized to his wife, his family, and to the American people for this. He has taken full responsibility. This election isn’t about Donald Trump’s behavior from 11 years ago or Hillary Clinton’s recent missing emails, lies, and false statements. This election is about the Supreme Court and the justices that the next president will nominate. Evangelicals are going to have to decide which candidate they trust to nominate men and women to the court who will defend the constitution and support religious freedoms. My prayer is that Christians will not be deceived by the liberal media about what is at stake for future generations.

Note how Graham’s argument goes. First of all, he naively treats Trump’s boasting about sexual assault as a merely moral problem, as if it did not reflect the character and track record he will take with him into the executive office (and as if it will not really affect women in this country). In Graham’s view, Trump said bad things and Trump should apologize for the bad things he said. Once he has done that, we should all forgive and forget.

Second, to Graham neither Trump’s behavior, nor, for that matter, Clinton’s track record of behavior, are relevant issues in the current presidential election. This election is about one thing: power. What is at stake? Power. Who do we trust to use the presidential power to choose judges in a way that serves our objectives? Who do we trust will use power to preserve our religious liberty? To keep us safe so that we don’t have to suffer? Nothing else matters.

Is this sentiment anything other than a lust for power? Is this Christian political engagement?

In fact, it’s an astonishingly thin and naive argument coming from such a prominent evangelical leader. It reveals how little he has learned from his father Billy Graham, who was so manipulated and embarrassed by Richard Nixon. And it reveals just how enslaved many evangelicals remain to the ideology of the Religious Right.

According to Graham’s logic, it does not matter how toxic and divisive is Trump’s effect on America’s political and moral culture. It does not matter that his demagoguery is wrecking the Republican party before our very eyes (because of Trump the Democrats may win both houses of Congress in addition to the White House). It does not matter that vocal support for Trump has so blackened the image of right-wing white evangelicalism that it has shattered its potential effectiveness for Christlike gospel witness. It does not matter that Trump’s rhetoric is tearing the moral, social, and political fabric of our country to shreds. As deplorable as all of this is (and I take Graham and other evangelicals at their word that they think this is deplorable), when a simple calculation of power is at stake, we must make that grab for power. So the logic runs.

It is this sort of logic that requires people like me to warn evangelicals about Trump in a way that we don’t have to warn them about Clinton. We are not in danger of exchanging our gospel witness for lust for power when it comes to Clinton. But we are in grave danger of doing just that when it comes to Trump. Christianity Today recently put it quite well:

[T]here is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.

Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.

Again, the point here is not that you should not vote for Trump. I am not so much concerned with who Christians are voting for as I am with how they are arguing – and thinking – about this election.

As Christians we are called to witness to the lordship of Christ in everything that we do. And as Paul makes quite clear in Philippians 2, that does not mean seizing power and lording it over our neighbors, whatever the cost; it means humbling ourselves, taking up the form of a servant, and seeking justice and peace in accord with love. It doesn’t mean doing whatever it takes politically to make sure that we won’t suffer in the future. It means suffering at the hands of power as the very way in which Christ has called us to serve.

What does this mean in terms of voting? For one, it means that we need to be wary of all “lesser of two evils” calculation. The logic of the lesser of two evils argument assumes that power is our primary objective. Yet for Christians, faithful witness to Christ’s lordship is the ultimate concern. Sometimes fidelity to Christ means that we choose the path of less power, the path of greater suffering, because that is the path that love for our neighbors demands, and because that is the path that Christ himself took. You can indeed vote in good conscience for a candidate who has no realistic chance of winning. Perhaps that precisely what Christlike citizenship demands.

Second, lets at least be honest with ourselves. If you vote for Trump you are voting for Trump. If you vote for Clinton you are voting for Clinton. You are supporting that candidate, with all that he or she stands for, in light of who that candidate’s track record shows him or her to be, for the office of president. You may not personally like it, but that’s what a vote means. That’s how it is legally registered. Enough with all of the rationalization that says – I’m not voting for Clinton, I’m just voting against Trump, or vice versa. If you can’t look your neighbor in the eye as a Christian and defend your positive vote as an act of love, then you probably can’t defend your conscience before God either.

Finally, pace Graham (has he learned nothing from the last forty years?), political power is not the primary thing at stake for Christians in this election. At stake is the simple question of whether or not we will love and serve our neighbors faithfully, as befits those who claim to be followers of Christ.

But even so. Even if power was the primary concern, there are many thoughtful Christians – especially Latinos, African Americans, and women, but many white evangelical men like me too – who somehow doubt that identifying ourselves with Donald Trump and dogmatically, even stubbornly, supporting him for the highest office in the land (and the world) genuinely advances any of the causes we really care about (life, human dignity, the rule of law, prosperity, religious liberty), let alone the kingdom of God. And to paraphrase Paul, I think that we too have the Spirit of God.

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Do Men Necessarily Lust? Christianity Today’s Response to Jessica Rey

Jessica Rey’s “Evolution of the Swimsuit” video has been making its rounds on the Internet over the past couple weeks. It is an interesting video, worth watching if you have the time and are a woman, a husband, a father of daughters, or otherwise interested in the subject. I’m loath to write more on the modesty issue at this point (see here and here), but a piece of data Rey summarized – and the way she used it – caught my attention. Towards the end of the video, describing a neurological study of the male brain (the participants were Princeton University students), Rey states the following:

Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tools, such as screw drivers and hammers, lit up. Some men showed zero brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

Rey’s argument was that since science shows that men respond to a woman in a bikini by viewing her as an object, women should not wear bikinis. The point, she argued, is not that the female body is problematic, but that a woman should dress in a way that graces her body with dignity and honor.

The latter point is, of course, true. And what follows is not a defense of the bikini, let alone a suggestion that women should wear bikinis. That question is a distraction from the real issues.

Two things bothered me about Rey’s presentation. First, I worry about the assumption that a woman’s dignity somehow depends on how she is viewed by a sexually charged male college student. Somehow I doubt that your average Princeton male would view women any less differently if they all suddenly started wearing one-piece swimsuits to the beach. As Christianity Today blogger Caryn Rivadeneira puts it,

Those who are “worried” about the male reaction to the female form need to remember that men will still find women in conservative, one-piece, adorable Jessica Rey swimsuits sexy, while not every woman in a bikini will be a turn-on. There’s no hard-and-fast-rule for how we guard our beach bods from the male gaze. And I’m not sure there should be.

As I’ve said before, one person will always find a “more modest” approach than the next. There’s a whole spectrum of opinions and positions out there, and imagining that we can find a place from which to be dogmatic merely introduces the ugly specter of legalism. This promotes just the sort of self-righteous moralism that inevitably obscures the gospel and alienates the kind of outsiders to whom we should be most sympathetic and who most desperately need our love and respect as they are.

More importantly, however, I found highly problematic Rey’s assumption that men are mere machines, unable to control the response of their brains to scantily clad women. Just as a woman is not a mere object, so a man is not a mere machine. The response of the brain to a particular image is not innate, but shaped by a person’s culture, context, and character. In an excellent set of responses to Rey’s video on Christianity Today’s her.meneutics blog, Sharon Hodde Miller writes of the study Rey cites,

These findings are significant, but they also beg an important question: Why do men perceive women’s bodies this way? Scientific findings show that the brain is essentially plastic. It can be shaped and formed and changed by our environments. This means that not all neurological responses are hardwired. Some are conditioned.

In the case of women’s bodies, it’s very possible that men have been conditioned by culture to have a Pavlovian response. Just as dogs grew conditioned to be stimulated by the ring of a bell, our culture has trained men to respond in certain ways to the sight of a female body. This conditioning becomes most apparent in comparison with non-Western cultures, where modesty standards differ….

Undoubtedly, Rey brought attention to important data. When men associate the female body with objects, not just theoretically but neurologically, we can be sure that our culture is sick. However, additional neurological research points to a societal dysfunction that runs far deeper than bikinis. When men associate the imago dei in women with an inanimate tool, then a more comprehensive restoration is in order, one that promotes theological correction, cultural healing, and renewed vision. To this end, we need to dig a bit deeper.

This is exactly right. I worry very much that in our obsession with what other people wear and what other people do, many Christians are entirely missing the fact that a gospel-centered, Christ-centered life is rooted in the virtues of the heart. Out of the heart come lust and sexual immorality, Jesus taught us, and it is the heart that must be changed.

Rey’s study certainly shows us that Christians should be counter-cultural. But the appropriate way to be counter-cultural is not to insist on a set of abstract, outward rules and regulations to which Christians conform, making them “different” from the world in a variety of arbitrary ways (let alone to shift men’s burdens to women, enforcing arbitrary restrictions on their dress that inevitably communicate their denigration rather than affirmation). The appropriate way to be counter-cultural is to conform, as a body of believers, to a new humanity (Jesus), characterized by new virtues (such as love, patience, self-control). Our starting point cannot be that since males lust after women as a matter of scientific fact, women must buck up and cover up or they are guilty of “causing” their male counterparts to sin. Our starting point, rather, must be that all human beings are created bodily in the image of God, and that in place of the temptation to lust after and use one another as objects, we need to learn to delight in and respect one another as embodied persons.

That’s why the New Testament does not give us a dress code, no matter how hard some conservatives try to find one in its pages. You’d be better off searching the rabbinic code of the Pharisees. The New Testament, in contrast, calls us not to attract attention to outward appearance with all sorts of adornment and apparel, but to focus on doing the sort of good works that reflect the virtues to which we are called (i.e., modesty) (1 Timothy 2:9-10). That’s why Paul, rather than commanding people to cover up and avoid interaction, writes,

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5)

What’s at stake in all of this is the gospel. Pluralism and secularization, with all the sins that come attached to them, are hitting the church like a tsunami right now. Conservative Christians are clinging to the instincts and intuitions they know best, seeking to justify them from Scripture, yet without necessarily letting Scripture shape their attitudes and practices. The danger of a new wave of inward-looking legalism is very real.

The only solution is to remember that the whole point of the Christian life is to conform to the image of Jesus, putting on the virtues of this new man and turning in service and self-sacrifice to our neighbors. Our actions and practices should prompt others to ask us for a reason for the hope that is within us. But when the world sees our fearful, defensive churches, will they see Pharisees, or will they see the Savior who was associated with prostitutes and sinners?

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