A door has been opened to an important discussion in the American Evangelical Church. It’s a conversation that’s been somewhat muted, as many tried to avoid the appearance of speaking against their more outspoken fellow church members. Now, however, the discussion has necessarily begun in earnest and I believe the outcome of that discussion will have long-lasting impact on the world’s view of the Evangelical Church and the Church’s ability to influence culture for generations to come.
This discussion was spurred by the recent editorial in Christianity Today (known as CT) penned by magazine Editor-in-Chief Mark Galli. While focused on the removal of President Trump from office, the editorial raises an even bigger question for discussion: Is there room in the Evangelical Church to question President Trump’s policies and behavior? Or does our faith require boisterous and unwavering support of President Trump, the Republican Party, and political conservatism?
Some feel validated and heard by the editorial; others, however, don’t seem as appreciative of the conversation and have responded with withering criticism of Galli and the magazine.
A group of evangelical leaders (self-entitled “200 Pro-Trump Evangelicals”) wrote an open letter to Christianity Today’s CEO, Tim Dalrymple. The letter declared Galli had mischaracterized evangelical supporters of the president as “far-right evangelicals” when those supporters, the letter proclaims, are actually “Bible-believing Christians and patriotic Americans who are simply grateful that our President has sought our advice.” The leaders claimed they were victims, comparing themselves to Jesus for being “pretentiously accused of having too much grace…” The letter also carried financial threats for CT through the withdrawal of advertisement and cancellation of subscriptions (CT says it lost some 2,000 subscribers after the editorial was released, but gained nearly 5,000 new subscribers in the same time period.)
Some of these leaders are people I personally know, love and respect, even as I disagree with most of what’s in their letter.
Other prominent Christian leaders have joined the fray. Franklin Graham went to great lengths to discredit Galli and called the magazine, founded by his father, Billy, “liberal leaning” and claimed the CT staff disregarded his father’s advice to “remain focused on scripture.” I recently shared my difficulty in trusting Franklin Graham’s voice as an impartial observer in an NPE Blog and NPE Podcast. Another evangelical teacher, named Mario Murillo, often writes blogs claiming a Democrat cannot be a Christian. Murillo calls those who agree with Galli’s column “socialists” and outrageously claimed such people support a form of government similar to Nazi concentration camps.
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Dennis Prager shared perhaps the most detailed criticism of the CT editorial. Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and prominent apologist for conservative, evangelical political thought. His “Response to the CT Editorial” is not only a critique of the article, but, in my opinion, is an exhaustive description of why the Evangelical Church has partnered with conservative politics for nearly 50 years. I take a deep dive into Prager’s bullet-pointed arguments in another column. In summary, though, Prager takes exception to Galli’s claim that evangelical support of Trump is “political” while Prager says the support is completely based upon “moral issues.” Paired with the response of the “200 leaders,” Murillo and Graham, one can make the case these CT critics believe “moral issues” actually means “God-ordained” ones.
This is ultimately the problem I see in today’s evangelical political thought. Many evangelicals have come to believe that supporting right-wing, conservative political policy (and policy makers) is a requirement for all “Bible-believing” Christians. In other words, the unflagging support of President Trump is God-commanded and, thus, those in disagreement are not only lacking “common sense,” as Prager claims in his column, but are lacking sound theology, as well. With such a belief, the evangelical church is placing a political/religious litmus test on its people – and we should truly “reason together” (Isaiah 1) in order to assess if this belief system is in alignment with God’s heart or is actually a man-made construct.
MY RESPONSE TO THESE RESPONSES
I’m convinced the religious/political belief system of the Evangelical Church is out of alignment with the message of the Bible. The long-term evangelical partnership with this mindset has caused an evangelical blindness to our own actions. Jesus spoke of a similar blindness of the first century religious leaders, the curse of Isaiah 6, and he warned his followers to be wary of this “leaven of the Pharisees.” I see this blindness in Prager’s description of the evangelical political belief system and, in particular, believe there are three major mistakes in Prager’s reasoning: (1) The conflation of civic issues with godly ones, (2) The idea that a good economy equals a happy God, and (3) The belief that laws banning abortion and other behavior defined by Christians as “unbiblical” are God’s top priority and, thus, outstrip any other concerns of God-followers. You can see a more detailed discussion of my concerns about Prager’s list in a future blog, but I’ll summarize these mistakes here:
1 Conflating civic issues with godly ones – Prager says support of the President’s policy towards Iran, of moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and significantly raising the U.S. military budget are moral (read that “godly”) issues.
The Pharisees believed taxation by the Roman government was an issue that concerned God as much as it did them. They considered it a “moral issue” to the degree that any Jew serving as a collector of Roman taxes was considered not only corrupt but a traitor to their nation and their religion.
In Matthew 22, we see these religious men attempting to force Jesus to take a side in the discussion of taxes. Jesus refused to make a civic issue (“give to Cesar what is Cesar’s…”) into a moral one (“give to God what is God’s…”) There are multiple examples where Jesus refused to get distracted by civic issues (“so as not to offend…”) and refused to partner with the political mindset of his people (“if forced to go a mile, go two…”) as he demonstrated that the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven was the priority far above any partisan battle and would take care of the legalistic issues of culture. History did prove him to be correct.
As Jesus was the perfect representation of God, we can assume God doesn’t see policy issues – like Iranian agreements, the location of embassies and the size of America’s military – as issues of the Kingdom. Prager is simply wrong. God-loving Christians can vigorously debate policy without being immoral in their relationship to God. Being unable to see the difference? That is an “Isaiah 6” blindness to God’s full message in a season.
2 A good economy means God is pleased with a leader and a people – Prager points to low unemployment numbers for Americans and, more specifically, African Americans as moral issues that give Christians reason and urging to support the President, even if displeased with his behavior. This follows the never-ending narrative I hear from Christians who say “I don’t like the President’s tweets, but the economy is good and Wall Street is at record highs…”
There are a multitude of biblical references to leaders who oversaw times of great prosperity yet didn’t lead in alignment with God’s commands. Leaders in the Bible were ultimately judged on their alignment with God’s priorities and if their government brought justice and shalom for the governed.
A good economy didn’t excuse David’s taking of Bathsheba from her husband. Economic plenty didn’t save Ahab and Jezebel from ignominious death. Hezekiah’s reveling in his wealth was a sin for which his children would pay dearly. While the Bible commands its followers to obey, honor and pray for their leaders, it never once says a good economy gives cover for corrupt or immoral behavior. In fact, it says quite the opposite – for a country’s leaders and its people.
In Amos 4, the writer uses the term “fat cows” for those who do well financially but are impervious to the needs of the poor and marginalized. This theme is repeated hundreds of times in scripture. Prager is correct that African American unemployment is at an all-time low, but fails to mention that African American unemployment, and Hispanic unemployment, as well, are still significantly higher percentages than unemployment among whites. Is the economic inequality in America a moral issue in God’s eyes? I believe it is. Yet, these are issues to which the evangelicals seem not only blind, but often are obstinately opposed to considering. As a black pastor friend of mine once said “I wish my white brothers and sisters cared as much about the issues of my people as they do about abortion and gay marriage.”
And, while the president is never slow in insulting people or organizations he sees as opposition to him, he seems very hesitant to speak against the growing issue of white racial separatism or even to address the growing fear and marginalization felt by Americans of color. Thus the evangelical support for the president’s economic policy seems less about morality around racial issues and more a political talking point.
In the U.S., the presidency is a “bully pulpit” to shape moral conversation and to set the moral tone for the American people. A good economy is never an excuse for a leader’s failure to handle this responsibility well.
3 God’s top priority is the passing of laws to ban abortion and other unbiblical behavior, all other issues are secondary. While Prager calls out the CT writer, Galli, for being incorrect about the other issues, he questions Galli’s theology over the issue of abortion and the appointment of Supreme Court justices, an issue that usurps all others for Evangelical Christians.
There’s no question in my mind that the termination of a pregnancy is not God’s best plan, but is there room for discussion of how God desires we legislate this issue?
Abortion has become the primary election issue of “Bible-believing” Christians. In fact, it’s the the lynchpin of Evangelical political thought – the most divisive item on our docket, about which we’re willing to use terms like ‘baby-killer’ for pro-choice officials. That being the case, it seems vital we make sure the Bible is absolutely clear this issue is also God’s top priority.
Oddly enough, the Bible is loudly silent on abortion.
When it comes to the killing of babies, the Bible says God commanded it in battle (i.e. 1 Samuel 15 and Numbers 31); rules an accused adulteress drink ‘bitter water’ and, if her fetus dies, the accusation is proven true (Numbers 5) and has an arguable comparison of the life of a baby in the womb versus the life of the mother (Exodus 21). There’s also commands to destroy countries that sacrificed live, newborn babies to the idol God of Molech; commands in line with Old Testament instructions to destroy countries with other forms of idol worship. Nowhere in the Bible, however, is the ending of a pregnancy described as “murder.”
"I believe God has a plan for eliminating the need for abortion but our legislative efforts are getting in the way."
There are poetic passages in Psalms and Jeremiah that indicate God “knew us in the womb,” yet, there are also passages saying God knew us before he created the earth (from which some Christians glean a theology against contraceptives or even avoiding sexual activity). The Bible states that neither Adam nor Ezekial’s army in the Valley of the Dry Bones were alive, even fully formed, until the breath of God entered their lungs – which echoes a Hebrew tradition that life begins at the first breath.
Most noteworthy in our political discussion, however, is the fact that Jesus never mentions abortion – not once – even though the Roman infanticide practice of “exposure” was prevalent in the culture around him. Some argue theology can’t be determined from the silence of Jesus, but it seems odd, if God cares about this issue more than any other, that it’s never a topic of his incarnate representation on earth.
Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for abortion or saying anyone should be for it – in fact, every poll taken finds that most people, even the most vigorous defenders of “pro-choice” policy, believe we should find ways to lower the number of abortions in America. What I am saying is Christians need to be responsible and examine the roots of abortion as a political issue and ask if the roots of our beliefs on abortion are biblically based? Or have they become a political battle couched in biblical language.
To that end, I encourage every Christian to study the roots of abortion as a keystone issue of evangelical political activism. In the late 70’s, a conservative political operative named Paul Weyrich led the decision to use abortion as an issue to activate evangelicals to political action. We may find the roots of the political abortion battle are not completely pure – and I’m convinced the fruit of that 50 year battle is not good. It hasn’t served the Kingdom of Heaven well. I submit that for consideration and have linked a couple of resources here.
Ultimately, I believe God has a plan for eliminating the need for abortion but our legislative efforts are getting in the way.
The advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven – and the peace, shalom and self-value it will bring – will be a far more powerful and long-lasting solution to the issue than the battle for political power. Like the first century Christians, who ended the Roman practice of infanticide by exposure, I believe ministering to and serving a frightened woman in the midst of a life-altering decision is a more world-changing effort than asking the Supreme Court to make her a criminal.
At the very least, that mother surely would see evangelicals as the last resource to which she can turn for help. Can that truly be God’s plan for the Church? I believe our politics around issues like abortion, gay marriage, etc. have done more to drive people from the Church than anything else we’ve done. New laws proposed in Alabama and Missouri to severely restrict abortion have resulted in more Americans being in favor of abortion than ever before. Are we “drawing all men (people) unto Jesus” with our abortion battles? Or sending them away?
It’s clear to me that Christians are not required by God to cast votes and choose their politics simply on the issue of abortion.
THE BLINDNESS TO OUR HYPOCRISY
Why do I speak out about Evangelical partisanship? Because our ability to share God’s message with the world is severely impacted by the hypocrisy of our politics.
“Private actions can have very public consequences.” This statement was made by Franklin Graham in 1998 regarding the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Graham went on to say, if Bill Clinton couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth to his wife, he couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth to his country. Yet, in 2019, Franklin Graham said of President Trump, “We elected a Commander-in-Chief, not a pastor…” We now know then-candidate Trump personally lied to Graham in 2016 about his own extra-marital affair and his ordering hush money to be paid for her silence. Does Graham believe President Trump can be trusted to tell the country the truth?
Prager himself makes the outrageous claim that adultery is a sin only “spouses and God” can judge, therefore President Trump can’t be held accountable. Apparently we have “too much grace” when the faltering elected official happens to be Republican. Galli’s article stated CT would be extremely hypocritical in how it spoke of President Clinton if it didn’t equally speak truth of our current president. I pray we would find the mercy of God to be drawn away from this ‘leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”
The idea that it’s ‘biblical” to support a president and fail to hold him accountable because “he has sought our advice” simply can’t be supported by the life Jesus demonstrated in the Bible. Jesus didn’t pursue Roman governors in order to influence them or join the Sadducees in supporting King Herod who, although corrupt and sinful, did good things to protect the Jewish State and religion. Jesus never condoned the bad behavior of leaders because of their economic or political good deeds – he didn’t do it then, and I don’t believe he’d endorse his followers doing so today.
The message of the Bible isn’t one of political expediency. Jesus never sought to change laws, he never endorsed efforts to overthrow governments, yet, he absolutely changed the world.
Jesus changed the world by sitting with the Samaritan woman, the tax collector and the adulteress rather than trying to get next to the religious and politically powerful. Were he on earth today, Jesus would sit with the homosexual, the Muslim, the abortion rights advocate and the illegal immigrant and, sadly, as back then, the hard-hearted blindness of the Church would likely make us very angry at him for doing so. I believe God is ready for heavenly goodness to pour out on “all flesh” (to everyone) but it will only happen as those of us who follow the Bible will humble ourselves, lay down the weapons of our political agenda and seek God’s way. THEN God will hear from heaven and will heal our land (2 Chronicles 7:14).
The Bible couldn’t be more clear that the Way of Jesus has never been a powerful religious/political government takeover, it was always humility, service and dying to our own designs for the good of others. That’s the “moral issue” that should drive the American Evangelical Church – don’t you think?