The 2016 Presidential election left lots of people on lots of sides (not just two!) bruised and, sad to say, many friendships torn, some perhaps beyond repair but by the grace of God. For both religious political conservatives and religious political liberals—whether evangelicals or mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics or Mormons or Jews—the two leading candidates left more than a little to be desired. This was one of those times when policy and character didn’t line up very well for either major party, and lots of voters were left holding our noses when we stepped into the voting booth.
Various writers on all sides have expressed their observations about the election. Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore‘s lengthy essay in January’s edition of First Things, “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?” is one such exercise that deserves careful reading by a wide swath of religious people who care deeply about politics but want to keep it in its place—firmly beneath God.
Convinced that “Ross Douthat is quite right that America—left and right—needs a strong religious conservative movement,” Moore looks at some of the wounds, the most serious of them self-inflicted, the religious right suffered during the 2016 election, and thoughtfully recommends some ways to heal them. The worst of those wounds probably are those to the religious right’s, and especially conservative evangelicals’, credibility as witnesses for “moral formation and family values.”
Writing shortly before the election and so not knowing its outcome, Moore said:
For some, the trauma of 2016 will be healed easily. I understand the sort of Evangelical or Catholic who, looking at these choices, believes that he or she must choose the lesser of two evils, acknowledging the moral catastrophe at play with both of the two major candidates, and who hopes and prays for the best with a less than ideal president. This, unfortunately, has not been the approach of some of the old-guard religious right’s political activist wing.
The crisis before us now is not that many among the national religious right’s political establishment have endorsed a candidate but that they also ignored or downplayed some of the most morally troublesome questions of personal character, and, for instance, issues of torture and war crimes, an embrace of an “alt-right” movement of white identity ethno-nationalism and anti-Semitism, along with serious matters of sexual degradation towards women. Some—mostly Evangelical—political leaders have waved away misogyny and sexually predatory language as “locker-room talk” or “macho” behavior. Some have suggested that their candidate has never claimed to be “a choirboy”—thereby defining deviancy down to such a degree that respect for women, protection of the vulnerable, and a defense of sexual morality are recast as naive and unrealistic. One said that his support for his candidate was never about shared values anyway. Others suggested that we need a strongman (implying a strongman unencumbered by too many moral convictions) in order to fight the system and save Christians from a hostile culture. Some prominent Christian political activists said that those who could not in good conscience stand with either of the major party candidates last year were guilty of “moral preening” and of putting our consciences before the country, sometimes even putting the words “conscience” and “witness” in scare quotes, a rhetorical gesture worthy of an Obama administration solicitor general.
The same things troubled me during the campaign and continue to trouble me now. It’s one thing to argue, as I often did, for choosing the lesser of two evils. (Neither Jesus, the maximally and perfectly good, nor Satan, the maximally and perfectly evil, was on anyone’s ballot.) It’s another to redefine good and evil, as I believe many supporters of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton did, so as to portray one of them as good, or far better than he or she really is.
The election is, of course, over, and for better or worse Donald J. Trump has become the 45th President of the United States. He needs and, if God’s instructions (1 Timothy 2:1–4) are any indicator, deserves our prayers, regardless how much we agree or disagree with him on any given policies, and regardless what we think of his moral character.
But the far more important matter, for the Church and the world, is the health of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Lord said that the gates of hell could not prevail against His Church, so I have no fears that the Church universal will wither and die. But its health in a given location, in a given denominational or theological tradition, is never guaranteed—which is why the Apostles found it necessary to confront and correct error so frequently in their epistles.
That’s why I hope many people will read Moore’s essay in its entirety (It’s long!) and think deeply about the issues he raises. Yes, it’s important what we think about various law and policy options facing Americans—on the traditional foci of the religious right of abortion, marriage, homosexuality, and religious liberty, and on the traditional foci of the religious left of poverty, civil rights, environment, and immigration, and on what ought to be a major focus for both sides, the meaning and implementation of justice and liberty. But it’s far more important that we be faithful to the whole of Biblical teaching not just on these and other matters of social morality but also on personal morality, and that we be faithful to the Biblical gospel that sinners like ourselves can be reconciled to the holy God by—and only by—grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Moore rightly points out the threat to our evangelical integrity that some on the religious right posed during the election—and will probably continue to pose now that it’s over:
Jerry Falwell Sr. called for both President Clinton and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to step down from political office because their marital infidelities disqualified them from office and “lowered the moral bar for political officeholders in America.” We were told that we should not put practical considerations—as important as they may be—above objective moral, transcendent standards. “I don’t vote my pocketbook,” we were taught to say, “I vote my values.” Yet many public spokesmen for the religious right now tell Evangelicals—including Evangelical women who have spent their lives teaching Evangelical girls and young women to resist the sexualization of their identity and worth in a hook-up culture, and Evangelical men who learned at Promise Keepers rallies that racial reconciliation is a moral imperative—to “grow up,” to stop being “panty-waists.” They even label those who will not go along with the normalization of vice as “closet liberals.” The people who warned us to avoid moral relativism now tell us that we should compare our choices not to an objective standard but to the alternative, as if an election transcends moral principle.
It is equally true, and Moore could have strengthened his case and reduced the defensiveness of some whom he (graciously without naming them) criticizes, by explicitly saying that the religious left tempts evangelicals to compromise their witness on its own list of priorities.
Moore is right on target, though, when he goes on to say:
The question of moral credibility is real, but a loss of moral credibility is not the most traumatic wound of 2016. Some Christian leaders and publications pronounce a self-described unrepentant man a “baby Christian” or as representing “Christian values and family values.” With this, we have left far behind quibbles about which candidate is the lesser of two evils …. This is instead a first-order question of theology—overheard by the world of our mission field—a question of the very definition of the Gospel itself.
In the twentieth century, a fundamentalist leader defined a “compromising Evangelical” as “a fundamentalist who says to a liberal, ‘I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll call me a scholar.'” It seems now that we have some Evangelicals who are willing to say to politicians, “I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll just call me.”
While recognizing that some on the religious left did likewise with Hillary Clinton, and without passing judgment on whether Donald Trump is regenerate, it’s easy to agree with Moore that plenty on the evangelical right (and likewise on the left) were willing to lower the bar of what might be required for reception into church membership to frightening depths.
“The damage is not merely political,” Moore writes. “What’s most at stake here is the integrity of our gospel witness and our moral credibility.” Absolutely true—for right and left (and center) alike. It’s a risk that every believer takes when participating in politics, one of the proverbial definitions of which is “the art of compromise.”
This is one reason why I’m excited to announce here for the first time publicly that the Cornwall Alliance’s parent organization, The James Partnership, is preparing to release a series of 23 video lectures I’ve done on the Ten Commandments that will treat each one in terms of the traditional “three uses of the law“: to keep sinful desires in check; to convict of sin and so motivate to seek salvation in Christ; and to guide us in life. Watch for future announcements.
Don’t be satisfied with reading this blog post. Read the whole of Moore’s article, think about it deeply, and pray for yourself and your brothers and sisters on all points along the political spectrum. Pray for fidelity to the Scriptures, and for the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.