When politics BECOMES religion

When politics BECOMES religion

Here’s a bold pronouncement:

The fastest growing “religion” in America isn’t Buddhism, Islam, or that age-defying voodoo powder that Tom Brady’s trainer sprinkles in his Gatorade. Not even close. Over the past decade or so, America’s fastest growing religion has been the all-consuming pull of politics.

A recent article in The American Conservative suggests something like this – and it isn’t limited to just the “Right” or “Left.”

Looking back to 2008, Timothy P. Carney argues that one thing many of the chanting, fainting, I-will-never-wash-this-hand-again supporters of Barack Obama had in common with the reddest of “red hats” is that they had abandoned church and transferred their religious fervor to political messiahs.

Politics replaced religion.

Based on research by the Pew Research Center, Carney states that:

The best way to describe Trump’s support in the Republican primaries […] would be: white evangelicals who do not go to church.

They came to Trump seeking what they had lost because they had lost church.

This claim is muddied by the fact that some of these devotees still claimed the label “evangelical,” though they had long since left church. In fact, the subset of Trump voters dubbed “the Preservationists” was the group most likely to say that religion was “very important” to them even while they were least likely to attend religious gatherings.

What meaneth this?

One way of reading the statistic would be to say that for some of these folks, it was not so much a case of politics expressing their faith as it was political fervor becoming their faith. (Read the whole thing here to see if you agree.)

It would be wrong, however, to say that this is just a MAGA phenomenon. My hunch is that something similar could be said of the far Left.

ET TU BERNIE?

It is widely known that this demographic is less likely to attend church regularly, or to claim a religious affiliation. The “Nones” are on the rise, we hear repeatedly. But is “None” really the most accurate religious descriptor for some of the most vocal members of the secular Left?

How many of these marching, chanting, constantly posting anti-Trumpists might also be said to have transferred their “faith” to America’s new national religion?

After all, a quick gander at the leading “news” sites (whether Right or Left) shows a form of ideological purity and boundary-policing that would normally be reserved for the harshest of fundamentalist sects. Heresy is a live category here, as is excommunication and the social media equivalent of burning at the stake.

WHAT IS RELIGION?

The first point to be made in response to my argument is that it would be unfair to accuse all passionate voices (on the Right or Left) of having adopted a new religion.

Theologians like myself should be careful about turning everything into a “religion,” as if my kids’ passion for fruit snacks and animal crackers should be read through the lens of Dionysius and animal sacrifice.

“Some” is the key word above.

Still, I stand by my claim that we sometimes define “faith” and “religion” too narrowly.

In my usage, religion (or “worship”) is the assigning of ultimate, transcendent value to a particular object, person, or idea. Along these lines, even famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens have long referred to Soviet Marxism as a de-facto religion. (Hitchens knew this from experience; as a young Communist, he had gone to live in Castro’s Cuba.)

My contention is that we sometimes fail to define “worship” and “religion” broadly enough. As Nietzsche rightly saw, there are more idols in this world than one thinks.

WHAT TO DO?

But what should Christians do in the face of America’s fastest growing quasi-religion?

An initial move should be to examine our own hearts and habits.  How much time do I spend perusing political news versus reading Scripture?  Would a quick scan of my Facebook posts indicate that I am most passionate about?  How often do words like “Left” and “Right” pepper daily my daily vocabulary?  Do I spend hours a week listening to acerbic talk radio or other forms of highly biased political content?

Then, three quick applications for the church at large:

1. Don’t baptize rival kingdoms.

An initial step would be a refusal to baptize the political dog in the ecclesial manger, regardless of the color of its collar.

In American politics, both sides have had tendency to care selectively about certain sins, while conveniently ignoring others. Both sides have tended to “bundle” issues strangely at certain points (e.g., justice for all and abortion on demand). And both sides have found church leaders willing to “baptize” their moves in exchange for access to power. I’ll forgo the examples.

In the words of evangelical historian, Thomas S. Kidd:

we should never want our church leaders to become partisan campaigners, regardless of the party in question. [This move] disrupts the unity of the church, and invariably turns the church into a servant of temporal power rather than the kingdom of God.

2. Don’t retreat to private faith.

On the other hand, it would be equally disastrous to respond to our hyper-politicized moment with a retreat from social engagement altogether.

“Religion as a private matter.”

~Said no one in the Bible, ever.

A “private” faith is an irrelevant invention of the modern world. Thus Christians ought to care about the issues God cares about.

For me, that includes pressing matters of justice like abortion, racial reconciliation, and many others topics.

At the same time, we must be sure to take our cues from Scripture more than from the talking heads of Cable News, or the self-interested bosses of party politics.

3. Don’t lose interest in the “seed” growing slowly.

My sense is that some Christians have simply grown tired or bored with the difficult and unheralded work of soul-care and The Great Commission.

And strange as it sounds, I get it.

On every news site and every social media platform, we are told repeatedly that political realities are the most important, most interesting, and most cringe-worthy aspect of life. Who isn’t tempted to believe it?

Politics is the laser pointer, and we are the frantic cats that jump to and fro at the whims of “owners” after ad revenue. Politics is the fast-moving, shiny object from which you can hardly look away.

By comparison, the “seed” growing slowly beneath the soil doesn’t seem as exciting. If the Kingdom of God is like leaven mixed with dough (doing its work in secret, without headlines, and without a 12-hour news cycle), then politics is like gunpowder. It turns more heads, makes more noise, and sucks up all the oxygen. But that doesn’t mean it’s where the actions is.

The challenge of Christ’s strange kingdom is to trust that the “seed” growing slowly is what really matters.

The gospel is the treasure buried in the field; it is worth selling everything to have; and it is more fulfilling than our new national religion of political fixation.


 

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Jeff Sessions and the “Whisky bottle Bible”

Jeff Sessions and the “Whisky bottle Bible”

ON THE DANGER OF MISUSING SCRIPTURE IN PUBLIC

In the words of Miss Maudie, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: 

“Sometimes the Bible in hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of [another].” 

And after the statements yesterday by Jeff Sessions and Sarah Sanders, we see why.

In response to the U.S.A.’s cruel and unnecessary practice of now separating even nursing babies from their undocumented mothers on the southern border, Sessions offered this gem of biblical interpretation:

I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.

Likewise, Sanders said:

I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.

She then claimed that any inability to grasp this “biblical truth” was due to rank stupidity: “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess.”

Well, I don’t know if I’m stupid.

But here’s a short sentence: “You’re wrong.”

And I don’t say that as some Lefty shill who opposes all border security [see here]. In fact, my point holds even if you agree with the abhorrent practice of forcing moms and dads to listen to the screams of their young children for no reason other than a kind of psychological torture.

WHAT SCRIPTURE ACTUALLY TEACHES

This post is about the meaning of the passage Sessions cited.

In fact, I happen to teach an entire course on the book from which it comes (Paul’s letter to the Romans), just in case he wants to audit it this fall.

What Romans 13 actually commands is not an obedience to (much less an endorsement of) to all governmental laws.  Rather, its call is that we “be subject” to the ruling authorities by giving “what you owe them.”

If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor (vs. 7).

Yet as Paul’s life shows, what you “owe” Caesar is not carte blanche obedience. That’s idolatry. (Another short sentence.)

In fact, by the implied “Bible-logic” of Sessions and Sanders, Pharaoh’s daughter should have drowned young Moses in the Nile; Israelite exiles should have bowed to the idol of Nebuchadnezzar, and the apostles should have stopped preaching when commanded by the “ruling authorities.”

“Obey the ruling authorities…”

THE “WHISKY BIBLE”

With a nod to “Miss Maudie,” this is precisely the kind of nonsense that results when you start quoting from your “whisky bottle Bible”—i.e., a sacred text that is decontextualized and twisted to affirm a sinful, partisan agenda.

And Romans 13 has a long history of such abuse.

It was used by Hitler and the German Christians; and it was leveraged to justify laws on slavery and segregation.

It bears noting, however, that Paul himself was eventually killed by the government for his annoying refusal to stop proclaiming a greater King named Jesus.

So let me say this in summation of Jeff Sessions’ exegesis: His reading is on par with the claim that “Speed Limit” signs are meant to regulate one’s daily dose of amphetamines.

And it’s not just me who thinks so  – even Franklin Graham, one of the President’s biggest mascots amongst religious leaders, has condemned the policy, calling it “disgraceful” (here).

NOT JUST A TRUMPIST PROBLEM

In truth, however, use of the “whisky Bible” is not unique to one political party—just as the separation of illegal immigrant families seems not to be entirely unique to the current administration, even though the practice has been codified and universalized by it. (Recall the famous picture of undocumented children caged up like dogs during the Obama years.)

All partisans (or rather: all Christians) have a tendency to hijack Scripture to serve our preconceived agendas.

On the Left, this happens (say) when passages on love and inclusion are taken to mean that particular moral absolutes are exchanged for a gospel of warm fuzzies. Or, more likely, when some forget that unborn children don’t deserve to be literally “ripped” from their mothers either.

“Whisky Bibles” come in a variety of flavors. And the tendency is to just play one off against the other. Southern comfort versus, uh…, whatever they drink in California.

Some Christians even swap out their favorite “tipsy” proof-texts depending on who’s in power at the time.

For example, it’s fascinating to see that the same crowd who was just three years ago shouting “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5.29) now cites Romans 13 as a divine endorsement of all governmental policies.

Could any sober person miss the irony?

A CALL TO DEEPER FAITH

One solution to such “drunken” interpretations is for Christians to be more deeply formed by the text we claim to believe. We need more than prooftexts plus a CableNews subscription.

Yet unfortunately, even amongst so-called “evangelicals,” such deep formation by the word of God is actually somewhat rare.

As Alan Jacobs writes (here):

The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them.

The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning.

CONCLUSION

We must do better.

But it will require, in Luther’s words, that our “conscience [be] held captive to the word of God,” rather than the “boozy” whims of ill-informed and partisan prooftexting.

 


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Why the worst people won: a question worth asking

Why the worst people won: a question worth asking

“In a nation of 320 million people, how did we end up with these two?”

That’s the question I’ve heard repeatedly from both my Democratic and Republican friends.

It’s hard to fathom, and almost tragically funny. As if your football team deliberated for months and then used its only draft pick on William Hung from American Idol.

He bangs, you know, and he’s not part of that “Football Establishment.” 

~The Dallas Cowboys

So while many have thoughts on who is worse, I want to ask a different question: Why did the worst people win in the first place?

What is so wrong with our system (and ourselves) that we nominated two options that sound like a frightening game of “Would you rather…?”

DEFINING “WORST”

To be clear, in calling both Trump and Clinton “the worst” I do not mean that they are literally the worst people in the country. I don’t think that.

It is possible that you could find a more unsavory character, say, by

  • Playing “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” at Riker’s Island,
  • Or “Marco Polo” at a Kim and Kanye pool party.

Maybe.

Instead, by “worst,” I simply mean that they are—in my limited judgment—the worst people (in terms of character) set forth by their respective parties in the primaries.

True, Bernie may have been more progressive than Hillary, but he was also more honest. And yes, Ted Cruz may have been voted most annoying by pretty much everyone he’s ever met, but he did not accuse an opponent’s dad of killing Kennedy, or insinuate that a disproportionate number immigrants are rapists and murderers (etc., etc…).

In that regard, the worst people won.

And our question should be “Why?”

THE OBVIOUS ANSWER

The obvious answer is simple: we voted.

Somehow, more people thought these were the best options. And while I respect that, I also think it sits among the worst nominations since Caligula tried to make his horse a consul.

But instead of blaming individuals, perhaps we should examine some broad issues that may be propelling unsavory individuals to new heights.

Because whatever we did, we’ve got to do differently next time.

Five thoughts:

1.BOTH PARTIES HAVE BEEN RADICALIZED

Few can deny that both parties have moved toward the extremes of their respective bases. This is where the energy is. And candidates lurch this way to win their primaries. It’s always been this way. Still, it does seem that the “baseness” of the base has increased in recent years.

When this happens, fortune favors the shrill, anger is confused with wisdom, and none of this bodes well for reasonable candidates.

2.THE MONEY MANDATE ENCOURAGES SOUL SELLING

A second reason we might call “the money mandate.” These days, a successful presidential campaign costs around one billion dollars. And with slippery finance laws (“corporations are people, my friend”) and SuperPACs, it seems that some level of soul selling is almost required to amass the needed capital.

Thus while billionaires like Trump are set, for all others, the money mandate propels candidates who are willing to be bought by special interests, corporate giants, and foreign powers. Thus “the worst” have a distinct advantage.

3.PUBLIC DISCOURSE HAS BEEN REDUCED TO “MEMES” AND MEANNESS 

A recent study showed that in his speeches Donald Trump speaks English at a fifth grade level. That’s not an insult, it’s an algorithm. And it’s far higher than his “Tweet-level.”

For some, this was proof that the other (losing) Republican candidates were simply talking over the heads of voters, while Trump was, in the words of one supporter, “talking to us not like we’re stupid.”

Still, the real problem is not grammar or intelligence.

A deeper issue is that many have bought the myth that “straight talk” is the ability to pair insults with exclamation points. It is not. And the solution will be slow in coming. Somehow, we must teach our kids that decency matters, not just in one’s personal relations, but in campaigns and on social media. We much teach logic, critical thinking, and fact checking. Because only a thoughtful and virtuous electorate will shun thoughtless and unvirtuous candidates.

4.CROWNING ROYAL FAMILIES IS CROWDSOURCED NEPOTISM

Once upon a time, the American colonies threw off the yoke of monarchy, and with this, the idea that being related to a leader qualified you to be one. In royal families, power is gained by “waiting your turn,” but not so in democracies.

Thus it seems odd to claim that one candidate should win, because she “waited” for years.

To be sure, defacto royal families are nothing new in American politics. And few would disqualify an FDR simply because of uncle Teddy. Yet both of these men were trusted, charismatic, and brilliant in their own ways. So it wasn’t merely that they “waited their turn.”

For this reason, both parties could seriously benefit from a crop of young leaders whose names aren’t Bush or Clinton.

5.THE WRINGER RUNS OFF DECENT PEOPLE 

To go through a presidential campaign means submitting one’s self and family to “the wringer” of public scrutiny and character assassination (especially if one is running against Donald Trump). Thus we might ask if the sheer scrutiny of our political process scares off the decent people, while a disproportionate number of egomaniacal narcissists fill the void. 

As Shakespeare put into the mouth of Richard III:

“Conscience is but a word that cowards use” (5.3).

And sadly, it is not difficult to picture one nominee nodding inwardly at this, while the other retweets it. #strongleader #Shackspeer 

CONCLUSION

If this sounds bleak, it’s not meant to be.

There are good people out there, and we must find them both now and in the future.

Yet in the meantime, perhaps we should pause from our debates over who is “the lesser of two evils” and consider how we got here.

Then maybe next time will be different.

Till then, there’s this. 🙂


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God of Immigrants: Three points for Christians to remember

God of Immigrants: Three points for Christians to remember

In some ways, the Bible is a chronicle of immigrants.

This is true from Adam to Abram, Moses to Mary, Jacob to Jesus.

The Scriptures record the sojourns of vulnerable families who set out from their native land in search of safety and provision.

This reality is even enshrined in a “creed” that the Israelites were to recite upon taking possession of the Promised Land.

When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance… Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders… (Deut. 26.1, 5—8).

MY FATHER WAS A WANDERING IMMIGRANT

One reason for the recitation was to remind the people of their “rootless roots.”

They were not always planted in positions of security and dominance.

Their forefather (Jacob) had been a wandering immigrant in search of food and safety. And his own son (Joseph) had been trafficked to a foreign land.

Thus there was a call to treat later foreigners with hospitality.

“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22.21).

“There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.” (Exod. 12.49; Lev. 24.22).

“You shall not strip your vineyards bare…leave them for the poor and the alien” (Lev. 19.9–10; 23.22).

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19.33–34; 24.22).

But what implications might this have for us today?

Spoiler alert: I don’t think it means that borders are meaningless and that all illegal immigration is okay.

THE DEBATE

As we know, immigration (both legal and illegal) remains a controversial subject.

Indeed, words like Trump, Syria, and “Brexit” now bear witness to this. (Incidentally, I have it on good authority that for every pun invented to describe an EU exit—a kitten dies. “Brussels pouts” killed untold thousands.)

But back to the topic.

Immigration issues are complex: national security, economic stability, fairness, race, religion, social services, the rule of law, and many more. And as always, both sides have sometimes oversimplified the conversation. With that in mind, there is no way that a brief blog post can do justice to the topic.

Given that, my goal is merely to set out three broad ideas that the American church must keep in mind amid the controversy.

  1. Commands to show hospitality to immigrants still apply to Christians.

While America is not ancient Israel, the Bible is clear that God wants his people to reach out in love and service to the immigrant and the foreigner. This much is non-negotiable. Jesus even says that to welcome the “stranger” is to welcome him. Thus a lack of love for the other may be a lack of love for Christ (Mt. 25).

  1. Care for immigrants does not mean endorsing all illegal immigration.

In addition to welcoming the foreigner, the Bible also calls Christians to respect the rule of law (e.g., Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2). Thankfully, there are many legal ways to show love for immigrants, even if some are undocumented. Many churches lead citizenship classes, offer low-cost legal services, and host foreign language gatherings (see here).

As The Wesleyan Church states:

Immigration is an issue, but immigrants are people, and Christ’s love compels [us] to act as agents of Spirit-filled outreach and hospitality to all.

  1. Christians should embrace wise reform over (racist) rhetoric.

One thing that everyone admits is that U.S. immigration policy is broken. Change is needed. Yet wise reform is often impeded (on both sides) by rhetoric that is meant to score political points rather than address a complex issue.

In fairness, not all who call for a wall are being overtly racist. And it isn’t fair to say that those wanting to secure the border do so out of bigotry. Love and law need not be antithetical.

Still, there is often a not-so-subtle current of prejudice behind calls to “take back our country.” (Ironically, a phrase not usually uttered by Native Americans.) I know for a fact that my friends of other nationalities hear it this way.

For believers, the right attitude is that “our [true] citizenship is in heaven” (Php. 2) and that we ourselves are resident aliens (1 Pet. 1).

As Paul illustrates, “Christian racism” is a contradiction, an oxy-moron, and a failure to believe the gospel (e.g., Gal. 2.14). And when directed at immigrants, of whatever kind, it is a failure to remember one of the first “creeds” recited by God’s people:

“My father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deut. 26.5).

CONCLUSION

While these three points are too broad to offer specific solutions to many immigration issues, they may help Christians orient their hearts. And as Proverbs teaches, from the heart “flow springs of life” (Prov. 4.23).

First, say their names: A response to “the response” to Orlando

First, say their names: A response to “the response” to Orlando

“I think it’s important that you hear their names.”

Somehow, that was the line that finally broke me in the wake of the Orlando massacre. While others were discussing ISIS, weapons used, and the political implications, a reporter was slowly reading through a list of nearly fifty names, voice faltering, while adding information about each one.

  • Jean Carlos Mendez Perez (aged 35). He is remembered by his sister as a doting uncle, who loved to buy her children ice cream.
  • Brenda Lee Marquez McCool (aged 49). She loved to go dancing with her son. He survived.
  • Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala (aged 33). He worked at a blood donation center. “He’s alive in the lives that he saved,” said a co-worker.

For some of us,  hearing the names reminded us that this is about real people, not just politics.

A RESPONSE TO THE RESPONSE

So while there have been many responses to the shooting, this is not one of them.

It is not a response to what happened because I have no good response to that. It is a response to the response—and especially that on social media.

As Russell Moore notes (here), we used to be able to grieve together as a nation: Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, and 9/11 were examples. We wept with those who wept (Rom. 12.15). And while there was some of that after Orlando, Moore is also right to say that

“the aftermath quickly turned into an excuse for social media wars.”

And as so often with such missive missiles, the minds of all combatants seemed made up so far in advance that the MEMEs had already been written. Indeed, in some cases, the bodies of the slain formed only minor speed bumps to be driven over on the way to making one’s point.

Whatever the debate, each side seemed clear on what this “proved”:

  • Guns: For some gun-lovers, the real problem was that victims themselves were unarmed. More guns in nightclubs; that’s how you fix mass-shootings. While for others, this showed that America’s firearm fixation is literally killing us.
  • Islam: For the new nationalists, this revealed that Trump was right in trying to ban all Muslim immigrants (never mind that the shooter was born here). While for the new atheists, this proved that religion itself is what “poisons everything.”
  • Homosexuality: For a handful of “Christians” (word used loosely), the problem seemed not so much the lives lost, but the ensuing support for the LGBT community. While for ardent secularists, this showed that all fervent “believers” (whatever the stripe) hate gays.

To be clear, I do not think that every point being made was invalid.

I even agree with several proposals on how to begin preventing the kind of shootings that happen in no other civilized country with this kind of stupid frequency.

But that is not what I want to talk about here.

WHAT WE’VE LOST

My observation is this: We seem to have lost the national ability to mourn PEOPLE, before making POLITICAL POINTS. And while some points matter, it is the people who are priceless.

In this case, bodies were still being pulled out Pulse nightclub when the pixeled pronouncements started flying. Donald Trump, for one, “mourned” as he does all things—by Tweeting—“I called it!” he crowed: “Appreciate the congrats for being right.”

You know, just like F.D.R. after Pearl Harbor.

Others were more thoughtful (which isn’t hard). Still, in many cases, as I went online last week, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something wrong with the insta-battles that broke out even before family members had been notified.

It was not always like this. Social media has changed things. And in this regard, for the worse.

FIRST, SAY THEIR NAMES

What then is my suggestion?

Hear this: I am not saying that those passionate about solutions should just stay silent. Not at all.

But I do think that before we venture into polemics, we should first do what a few thoughtful mourners did, and say their names. Weep with those who weep. Reach out to gay friends and family. Grieve with the grieving. Many people did this, and God bless them. (I especially appreciated this from the new Wesleyan General Superintendent Wayne Schmidt [here]; in fact, it was not a statement at all, but a prayer.)

To recount the names and faces of the fallen reminds us that they were real people, with real dreams, parents, siblings, friends, and children. They are not mere dead weight to be leveraged in the catapults that launch our online arguments.

Biblically speaking, the call to love and serve and grieve is not dependent (even one iota!) on whether the victims were gay or straight, liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist.

The imago Dei is the lone prerequisite.

So while we must seek solutions to such reckless acts of hatred, let’s not forget to weep with those who weep.

First, hear their names.  And perhaps that empathy may, in the end, lead us to work together to prevent such acts in the future.

Requiescat in pace.


Edward Sotomayor Jr., Stanley Almodovar III, Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, Juan Ramon Guerrero, Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, Luis S. Vielma, Kimberly Morris, Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, Darryl Roman Burt II, Deonka Deidra Drayton, Alejandro Barrios Martinez, Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, Amanda Alvear, Martin Benitez Torres, Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, Mercedez Marisol Flores, Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, Oscar A Aracena-Montero, Enrique L. Rios, Jr., Miguel Angel Honorato, Javier Jorge-Reyes, Joel Rayon Paniagua, Jason Benjamin Josaphat, Cory James Connell, Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, Luis Daniel Conde, Shane Evan Tomlinson, Juan Chevez-Martinez, Jerald Arthur Wright, Leroy Valentin Fernandez, Tevin Eugene Crosby, Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, Brenda Lee Marquez McCoo, Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, Christopher Andrew Leinonen, Angel L. Candelario-Padro, Frank Hernandez, Paul Terrell Henry, Antonio Davon Brown, Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, and Akyra Monet Murray.

Why choosing “the lesser of two evils” is not always a rule to live by

Why choosing “the lesser of two evils” is not always a rule to live by

Last week, I predicted (here) that an increasing number of “evangelical leaders” would begin endorsing a certain Republican presidential candidate, especially after a scheduled “meet-cute” slated for June.

I also lamented this.

To be honest, I don’t like posting on such topics, primarily because discussing politics on the internet is about as promising as trusting your three-year-old with your stock portfolio (Why do we own four hundred shares of Dora the Explorer, Inc.!?).

Still, I feel enough of an obligation to distance the gospel of Jesus from the gospel of Trump that I’m willing to deal with the inevitable fallout. All things being equal, I’d happily write a similar post on Trump’s likely opponent. But it’s not necessary. The number of evangelicals rushing to join the family Clinton is similar those rushing to join the family Manson. Roughly.

THE CRITIQUE

In regard to all the comments, both positive and critical, the most common critique (by far) ran basically as follows:

Jesus isn’t running, so we must choose “the lesser of two evils.”

Because this point was made by many different people, I thought that it deserved a respectful response.

THE “LOTE” (LESSER OF TWO EVILS) 

Since I agree with the first claim (“Jesus isn’t running”), I’m only going to examine the logic of the second part (“In elections, we must choose between the lesser of two evils”).

And I do mean logic. Given this, I will intentionally avoid all mention of particular candidates: No Trump, Hillary, Bush, Bernie, or Adolf Hitler references allowed. Hallelujah. I’m only examining the premise.

Here’s my thesis:

While choosing the “lesser of two evils” (or: LOTE) may often be warranted, it is not always so.

Thus, it is not an “axiom” to live by.

To clarify, an axiom is a statement regarded as being established or self-evidently true.

The LOTE argument is not an axiom, because it is very far from being self-evident. And for Christians especially, there are instances in which it may be especially problematic.

But let’s start with the obvious.

THE OBVIOUS

The fact is that choosing the better of two imperfect options often makes great sense.

To use a ridiculous example: Let’s say you commit a terrible crime and the judge gives you a choice of punishment: “For the next week, you must either listen to non-stop Nickelback, or watch non-stop episodes of PBS’s Caillou.” (If you have kids [or ears], you know the terror of this verdict.) And in this scenario, you should try to choose the lesser of two evils.

I also agree that a LOTE vote often makes good sense. It has even been my own approach.

It’s not inherently wrong; it’s just not always right. So it’s not an axiom.

Here’s why: The following are three instances in which it may be wise to set aside LOTE logic.

1. WHEN YOU REACH YOUR “GAG THRESHOLD”

Personally, I begin re-thinking the LOTE mentality when the two major options presented to me make me feel physically ill. Like: I-need-to-go-lay-down-now ill. Let’s call this “the gag threshold.” Of course, some things that disgust me may not bother you at all. You may like beef in your seven layer desserts (Friends reference). I do not.

In elections, I can easily vote for someone that I disagree with on a variety of issues, especially if I perceive them to be the slightly better option. But once both major choices cross far beyond my gag threshold, I jump off the LOTE boat like it’s the Titanic.

In such cases, choosing either one feels dirty and complicit, as if one is siding with ideas that are base, inane, or dangerous.

I think most people know this. We just have different gag thresholds. If the general election came down to Vader versus Voldemort, I’m joining the dark side just because one might technically be worse (#GryffindorForever).

The gag threshold is the first sign that one may look beyond the LOTE.

2. WHEN IT’S UNCLEAR WHO’S WORSE

A second problem for the LOTE axiom is the assumption that one always knows the lesser evil. In some cases, I don’t. And in others, I think I do, but I am probably wrong.

As someone asked me recently: “How does it feel to be wrong?”

Answer: “It feels exactly like you’re right.”

As an axiom, the LOTE approach may presume infallible knowledge of the future, and I don’t have that.

3. WHEN THERE ARE MORE THAN JUST TWO OPTIONS

A third and final problem for the LOTE rule is the idea that there are always and only two options in a given election.

In fact, there’s no rule requiring you to vote for either the Republican or the Democratic nominee in order to be a responsible citizen. Vote for whomever you want. Especially if you’ve reached your “gag threshold” (point one), or if it’s not clear (to you at least) which candidate is actually worse (point two).

Now for the likely objections:

“But I want my vote to count!”

Good news: your vote counts for the same amount regardless. You have one vote (Unless you lived in Chicago in 1960).

Now, if what you really mean is “I want my vote to determine the outcome,” then there’s bad news: your vote has probably never counted, and it probably never will.

“But if I don’t vote for A, it might as well be a vote for B.”

Not exactly. This claim has rhetorical force, but it’s logical nonsense. Strictly speaking, no one takes all the votes for Mickey Mouse and adds them to the total for the Republican or Democratic nominee. Choosing “A” is the same as choosing “A”; choosing “C” is not.

Also, one reason for not always following one’s usual party affiliation is to demonstrate that you will not simply rubber stamp whomever they set forth simply because “the other side” might win. If that mentality wins out, then parties are not held accountable.

“But I want to vote for someone who can actually win.”

Why? Since when is “voting for the winner” a core value in democracy? And when did Jesus ever say: “Blessed are the winners”? That sounds like someone else.

Betting on the winner makes great sense at a dog track, but you don’t get points for it in elections. If you’ve reached your gag threshold, or if it’s not clear who’s worse, then what do you gain from (possibly) siding with the winning candidate? What you might lose is credibility if your candidate proves to be a “Vader-mort.”

To paraphrase the great Atticus Finch says in To Kill a Mockingbird,

Sometimes [conviction] is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you … see it through no matter what.

CONCLUSION

In sum, I’m thankful for all the interaction on my prior post.  And I completely agree that there is often nothing wrong with trying to choose the better of two imperfect options.

It may be wise.

But it doesn’t automatically make good sense.

And if a day comes when the two major choices make death by Nickelback or Caillou seem desirable, then one is free to look for other options.

Why I won’t be attending the evangelical “meet-cute” with Donald Trump (even though I wasn’t asked to)

Why I won’t be attending the evangelical “meet-cute” with Donald Trump (even though I wasn’t asked to)

Last week, it was announced that a veritable troop of “evangelical leaders” has been invited to a closed-door meeting with Donald Trump. The reason, according to Tony Perkins, is to “have a conversation that could lead to a better understanding of what Trump has to offer the country.”

Sadly, I will not attend.

Trump Bible

One reason is that I was not invited. That part is understandable. I am not that important. Then again, my absence is probably for the best. Because unlike Perkins, I have seen quite enough of what Mr. Trump “has to offer the country.”

But aside from not being invited, and not needing more info on what Mr. Trump is “offering,” I also have a third reason for not attending:

I know a“meet-cute” when I see one.

And the outcome of this one feels, sadly, predictable.

What, you ask, is a meet-cute?

THE MEET-CUTE

According to Google—a trusted source for university professors like myself—a “meet-cute” is a scene from romantic comedies in which an odd couple (two people who would never normally see eye-to-eye) comes together through a zany encounter, and finds unexpected chemistry.

In this case, picture John Cusack from Serendipity, except older, orange, and with a comb-over that defies Newtonian physics. Burn that image in your mind. Meditate upon it. Selah.

And as for the meet-cute between Trump and evangelicals, the movie trailer writes itself. (Pro tip: Use that special movie trailer voice).

This summer:

They’re so different! He’s a foul-mouthed billionaire, with misogynistic tendencies, xenophobic tirades, and a penchant for conspiracy theories.

She’s a small town good girl who likes Chris Tomlin records, Beth Moore Bible studies, and has long since “kissed dating goodbye.” It should never work!

But then the unexpected happens. And as Paula Abdul told us, opposites attract.

Coming June 21st (since that’s the date of the meeting).

MY PREDICTION

All kidding aside, I can’t say for certain what will happen at this pow wow between Trump and evangelicals. Perhaps it’s just a chance to speak truth to power. Still, I do have an unfortunate prediction.

My guess is that in the weeks that follow, we should expect an increasing number of statements like the following from the “evangelical leaders” in this romantic tragedy:

While we’ve had differences with Mr. Trump in the past, we were very encouraged by our time together. He really listened to us! And we feel confident that our goals align in many areas.

In the end, this election is just too important for evangelicals to sit out. We must defeat Hillary Clinton in November. And that is why I am prepared to pledge my support to Donald J. Trump for Sultan, I mean, PRESIDENT of the United States.

Sincerely, Dr. Faustus.

Or as a clever cartoonist captioned recently, the revised baptismal declaration runs as follows:

“Do you renounce Satan and all his works?”

“I do. But I’ll still support him if he’s the nominee.”

I’m having a bit of fun with this, but the prediction about more evangelicals endorsing Trump (after the meet-cute of course) is serious. And I hope I’m wrong.

IF I WERE ATTENDING

But since I’m not attending, there are a few things that I would like someone to have a “conversation” about. So if you were invited (Russell Moore; were they brave enough to invite you?), feel free to pass this along.

Or just tweet it.

I’m sure @realDonaldTrump will give a thoughtful response, per usual.

Here goes:

Mr. Trump,

You’ve been reported as saying that “Laziness is a trait in blacks.”[1] Did you mean to include Mexicans in that? Or do you see them as hard working “rapists” and “murderers”?

And about your theology: You brag frequently (as only you can) about your Christian faith. Jerry Falwell Jr. even likened you to Jesus! That’s huge Mr. Trump. Jesus is like the Steve Jobs of the evangelical org chart. I know, I know, you prefer Messiahs who didn’t get captured, but still, take it as a compliment.

Anyway, given all that Christian fervor, Mr. Trump, how is it that you claim NEVER to have asked God for forgiveness? Not even once!? That’s impressive. Maybe you are more Christ-like than even Mr. Falwell thinks. (He can ask you for forgiveness later.)

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of the misogyny, the vulgarity, the extramarital affairs, the over-the-top boasting of sexual prowess, the recent and vocal support for things like abortion, Planned Parenthood, and, oh yeah, Hillary Clinton (as late as 2012).

Then there’s the way you repeatedly misspell the word “White” in your campaign slogan (Seriously, “G-R-E-A-T” isn’t even close, but I guess spellcheck wouldn’t catch that). And the way you repeatedly incite supporters to acts of violence in exchange for legal fees. Classy stuff. Very Christian.

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I could go on and on.

But I realize now another reason why I was not invited to the evangelical meet-cute:

I would totally kill the When-Harry-Met-Sally buzz.

CONCLUSION

In closing, I must clarify that this post is not a veiled attempt to support Mr. Trump’s opponent come November. I’m sure that will be the pushback, but it doesn’t fly. Because fears of “the alternative” do not justify complicity with the kind of shameful nonsense detailed above. And endorsements equal complicity.

Likewise, I do not begrudge anyone for attending the meet-cute. I hope they do. (Especially folks like Russell Moore; we need them there.) And I hope they tell Trump, more graciously than I have, why they can’t support him.

But that hope does not change my above prediction.

Whatever happens, one point stands supreme: As Christians, we must remember that the Kingdom of God—and not some partisan loyalty—is our true political affiliation.

Lordship is a political concept after all–and we follow the Lamb. Not the Elephant. Not the Donkey. Certainly not the Donald.

So while many evangelicals may be swayed by the caviar and cocktails (er…, iced tea) at the upcoming meet-cute, I will not be.

And not just because I’m not invited.

Vicit Agnus noster; eum sequamur.

 

 

 

 


[1] Unlike all other quotes in this post, this one alone cannot be corroborated with video evidence (hence the qualifier, “You’ve been reported as saying”). The quote comes from the former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel, John R. O’Donnell, in a Trump biography. When asked about the allegations, Trump did not deny them, saying that “The stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true. The guy’s a f*#king loser.” This acknowledgement came in Trump’s 1999 interview with Playboy. Again, all very classy.