Thursday, December 14, 2017

Evangelical Credibility and Strategic Alliances with the Morally Compromised

My evangelical friends who voted for Donald Trump last year tended to offer the same explanation: both Trump and Clinton were morally odious characters, but Trump had promised to make pro-life Supreme Court appointments while Clinton was sure not to.

And so, a strategic alliance was forged.

Of course, some evangelicals whitewashed Trump's character in defiance of what strikes me as overwhelming evidence that the man is fundamentally out of touch with anything in the vicinity of Christian values. I suspect that on some level they knew the truth but had a hard time feeling good about voting for him for purely strategic reasons. But most of the evangelicals I know who voted for Trump saw him as the lesser of two evils--meaning they saw him as an evil, but as one they could work with.

They had a deal with him. The entitled trust fund billionaire from New York City who has never been a principled advocate for life (or for choice, since he has no core principles at all) gets to wear the title of president in exchange for enacting legislation and judicial appointments that promote evangelical concerns.

Their vote was about political realism. Sometimes you have to make deals with the devil. Of course, deals with the devil tend to have costs--but if you're making a deal with the devil to serve God's agenda, won't God shield you from those costs?

Apparently not. At least not all of them. And thinking about the costs of making such deals is important.

Fast-forward a year. Roy Moore, who has long posed as a conservative evangelical fighter for bringing God into the public square, is coasting towards becoming the new Senator from Alabama. And then the news breaks: a credible report, well-vetted, by a woman who says that when she was fourteen and Moore was in his thirties, he engaged in sexual acts with her (short of intercourse). More corroborating stories pour in, some more credible than others. It's reported that when Moore was in his thirties he was so active in pursuing teen girls in the Gadsden Mall that he developed a reputation, and security at the mall was on guard when he was there.

There is a brand of belligerent finger-pointing Christianity--a culture-warrior kind of Christianity that attacks those who are Other, that wears Christianity like a visible cloak of righteousness rather than a humble vocation--that is particularly attractive to those who have deep moral flaws but who lack the moral courage to confront and confess with sincere humility. Instead, they try to find righteousness in an ideology of division: there is the in-group, and there's the out-group, and being part of the in-group is what makes you good despite the evils you know are lurking in your soul.

Sometimes, the most vigorous agents of this us-them brand of Christianity are really fighting to justify themselves through the easy righteousness of belonging to the right group (instead of engaging in the deeply frightening task of confronting their sins honestly, feeling sincere remorse and penitence, and making a humble effort to open themselves up to grace).

If you want my analysis of Moore, that's it. But whether this is right or not, it's clear that Moore's Christian warrior persona was masking something dark--and in the weeks before the election, that darkness was exposed.

But Moore was a pro-life Republican, and his opponent in the Senate race, Doug Jones, was a pro-choice Democrat. Whatever Moore's moral flaws, there was again the deal to think about: If Moore loses, then the Republican majority in the Senate shrinks and it becomes harder for Republicans to push through legislation that favors evangelical concerns. Worse, the Senate becomes two Senators shy of a Democratic majority with the power to block judicial nominations.

And so, evangelicals in Alabama were confronted with another deal-with-the-devil scenario. Again, some tried to whitewash: "Adult men dating teens isn't so bad" (!!!) or "It's just a plot of the liberal media to discredit a good Christian man" (etc.). But many evangelicals knew that the allegations against Moore were credible. Not all of the ones that came out in the wake of the original charges perhaps, but enough to form a reinforcing set of reports that were heavily vetted by stringent journalistic standards.

Some of my evangelical friends who voted for Trump based on the strategic-alliance-with-the-lesser-evil argument were hesitant to do the same in the case of Moore, because they were worried about the costs. Others were less worried.

So, here's the question: should evangelicals be worried about the costs of making deals and strategic alliances with morally compromised politicians?

One of the main costs is to credibility. At stake is whether evangelicals will be seen as a credible voice of Christian values in the public sphere.

Today I read a George Will essay, "Trump's Moore Endorsement Sunk the Presidency to Unplumbed Depths," and one paragraph in particular stood out for me. It was a paragraph about Will's take on American evangelicals.

Keep in mind that Will has long been a standard-bearer of conservatism in American public life. While his essays often mask logical leaps with brilliant rhetorical flourishes (and while he loves the art of the creative insult), he has been an eloquent defender of conservative political values for decades. He is not a fan of the Democratic Party, of the Clintons, of the progressive political agenda that evangelicals oppose. So it matters what Will thinks of evangelicals in way that it doesn't matter what, say, Bill Maher thinks of them. It speaks to whether evangelical credibility in public discourse is eroding.

Here's what George Will says:
Moore has been useful as a scythe slicing through some tall stalks of pretentiousness: The self-described “values voters” and “evangelicals” of pious vanity who have embraced Trump and his Alabama echo have some repenting to do before trying to reclaim their role as arbiters of Republican, and American, righteousness. We have, alas, not heard the last from them, but henceforth the first reaction to their “witness” should be resounding guffaws.    
Resounding guffaws. I am a Christian. I do not label myself as an evangelical (although I belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), because even though I embrace the term in its original meaning it has come to be associated with a kind of Christianity that isn't mine. Nevertheless, it pains me a little to hear George Will, a conservative staple, speak of evangelicals as a proper target of derision. I know that for many, evangelicals are the public face of American Christianity. They stand in for Christianity as a whole, such that derision directed towards them spills over onto Christianity more broadly.

The Christian faith is too beautiful, too important, to become the object of mockery. And to the extent that it becomes such an object, it loses far more than it can gain through short-term political alliances.

At its best, Christianity transcends partisan politics, nurturing a kind of human community that is not about the ugliness of political campaigns and us-vs-them conflict but aspires towards a beloved community that seeks fellowship across all such divisions. The the extent that evangelicals have become mired in partisan politics, tying their fate to one political party, they have lost touch with something essential. The same is true, of course, for progressive Christianity, which often weds itself too closely to the political successes and failures of the democrats.

But the problems become even deeper when Christians of any stripe are unwilling to be honest about the deep flaws of "their" candidate. When credible accusations against "their" political candidate are dismissed or whitewashed or trivialized in favor of political expediency, Christianity becomes a political movement infected by the partisanship and ugliness of politics, rather than a different kind of movement.

A movement defined by values at odds with the divisiveness of politics.

A movement that replaces the tribalism of human life with the understanding of all humanity and all creation as beloved children of the same God of love.

A movement that follows Christ, who refused to play partisan politics, who rejected in-groups and out-groups, who sought a different path than the path of political power--choosing instead to die for the sake of those who rejected and despised him.

Only when we reclaim Christianity as a non-political movement can we reclaim the moral authority to transform humanity's partisan impulses rather than be transformed by them. And this is hard to do. I am preaching as much to myself here as I am to anyone else.

As Christian voters we may be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils--and we will often disagree about which is which. Sometimes both evils presented seem sufficiently grave we may be obligated to "throw away our vote" on a third party candidate or a write-in; sometimes one evil is so grave compared to the other that we should choose the lesser evil. Again, we will disagree about when we face which kind of dilemma. 

But we should avoid, I think, political alliances and deals with what we take to be the lesser evil. Instead, we must retain the independence and groundedness in moral principle to speak against whatever evils remain in our political life. As soon as we choose the lesser evil, we must stand against the evil that resides in what we have chosen--and this is not something we can do if we make deals with the evil we have chosen, and so have been co-opted by the system of partisan politics.

(It goes without saying here that the "evil" should not be identified with a person, who is a creation of God, beloved and precious, but the wicked character that corrupts, the sinful agendas that can do so much harm, etc.)

We live in the world, and so we must engage with politics. But we need to find a way to engage while rising enough above it so that we can critique and transform it. And we must always think about the credibility and moral authority that is essential for that task.