taking the words of Jesus seriously

The most persistent question arising from our current schizophrenic ethos among American Christians is this: From one side, “How on earth could 81% of self-professed evangelical Christians vote for and be so loyal to such an immoral person as President Donald Trump who is doing so much to unravel the tapestry of values such as justice, tolerance, mercy, and truth?” From the other side, “How on earth could any self-professing Christian not support Donald Trump who is doing so much to outlaw abortion and is so supportive of God’s Chosen People (Israel)?” Abortion and Israel.

My social media account, like many people’s, was extremely busy during the days immediately prior to the 2016 presidential election, which seems like such a long time ago. The weekend before election day, a very good friend posted a lengthy essay which had been written and posted by a prominent Evangelical Christian living in Israel. That fellow has dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship and stated, “After much prayer and soul-searching, I have reluctantly decided to vote for the Trump-Pence ticket.” He cited a number of perceived shortcomings of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. But the crux of the matter was his reading of the Books of Samuel which, he said, had caused him to conclude that the Lord was leading him to vote for Trump despite Trump’s evident lack of Christian values. He went on to describe how God would use Trump to “defend Israel” in ways that would  hasten the Second Coming of Jesus, claiming that issue trumps any and all deficiencies in Trump, the man. God clearly wanted Trump to be the American president.

My friend re-posted that essay with her own statement of agreement for that viewpoint, adding an additional expression of her and God’s desire to stop abortion at any cost, and her feeling that Donald Trump would work toward that end. She said that after prayerful consideration, she felt the Lord was leading her to vote Trump. I responded by typing: “I would be very careful when claiming a vote for Trump was in response to God’s leading.”

That comment damaged a valuable and precious long-time friendship. My concern and caution were genuine. I have been reading statements by religious people for many years which claim that “the Lord has led me” to vote for (or against) a person or legislation or policy. It seems to me that one should be very careful about attributing a vote for a person, legislation, or policy to Divine guidance without considerable reference to the teachings of Jesus.

Of course I believe in Divine guidance, especially when such guidance can be clearly traced to the teachings and example of Jesus. But if someone claims to be responding to the leading of God Almighty on political matters, I must insist on further evidence that God indeed could be characterized as holding those positions.  Otherwise, such claims are blasphemy. And when religious leaders say to their followers that “God told me that He wants His people to vote thusly,” without attribution to the life and teachings of Jesus…well, I am revulsed.

Millions of religious “voter guides” have been placed in “conservative” churches and on car windshields in church parking lots on the Sundays leading up to election day for at least the past 30 years. The printed voter guides claim to grade every candidate in every election from school board and local government elections to presidential elections. The early renditions were disseminated by the Christian Coalition which grew out of Pat Robertson’s failed campaign for President in 1988 and led to the Religious Right’s domination of Republican Party politics since then.

Those early voter guides were given almost exclusively to white churchgoers who, for the most part, up until then exhibited little interest in electoral politics. The guides graded candidates running for public office on the basis of their positions on several “values” issues deemed by those who created the guides to be close to God’s own heart. The implication was that a “real” Christian would align with the “conservative” position on those issues, which was stated to be God’s desire. It was not surprising that the candidates who scored highest on the scale were Republicans, and those who scored lowest were Democrats.

My son Scott and I read our first copy of the voter guide in 1992 when someone gave us a copy that he had found on his windshield in the church parking lot, which was placed there while he and his family were inside the sanctuary participating in a worship service. The guides were seen as a major contributor to the “stealth campaign” that year which resulted in unexpected election results that confounded political pundits. For the first time, we learned, large numbers of conservative Christians had turned out to vote in virtual lock-step with the opinions found on the voter guides. The number one issue on the guides was abortion, a brand new concern for evangelical Christians in 1992.

Prior to then, as Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College has so expertly demonstrated, abortion was rarely on the radar of fundamentalist Christians. When abortion was considered, many leading spokespersons — including the iconic pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, W.A. Criswell — expressed abortion to be of minor importance to Christians, citing the historic viewpoint of the church that life began as described in the Genesis story of creation. In that telling, God breathed into the nostrils of the newly created human being, causing Adam to “become a living soul.” They viewed the unborn as not fully a soul as yet. Balmer documents that the most important social issue among white conservative Christian leaders prior to the 1980s was their insistence on maintaining racial segregation.

But there it was, number one: abortion. Then came other issues deemed to be important in God’s eyes, including term limits for elected office-holders, a balanced budget amendment, elimination of the “death tax,” support for the death penalty, advocacy of gun ownership, support for the nation of Israel, prayer in public schools, Ten Commandments displayed in the public square, and more.

In subsequent years, different issues have been added to that seminal list to demonstrate how God’s interests continue to evolve with the development of issues of the day. In 2016, the guide, in addition to the prior issues, questioned candidates on their positions on the expansion of oil drilling in the Arctic and off America’s shores, securing the borders against immigrants, opposing Sharia Law, opposition to same-sex marriage, support for the Keystone Pipeline, and other issues important to conservative Republicans.

I have never understood why God would be interested in the estate tax or oil drilling or term limits or a balanced budget amendment. Really? Those are the issues God is worked up about? Actually, I think that when someone claims that God supports or opposes a person, legislation or policy, they are actually reflecting their own opinions rather than God’s own mind. Again, unless one can cite Red Letter words of Jesus, or refer to an action of Jesus as the basis of what they define as Divine guidance, I am unimpressed.

So what are God’s interests in our earthly political choices? What do we know from the words and actions of Jesus about our earthly politics? The so-called death tax, or estate tax, seems to me to be something Jesus would favor, rather than try to abolish. Is it not contrary to the words and actions of Jesus for extremely wealthy families in the .001 percent of the richest Americans to amass and hoard vast riches?

The inequities between haves and have nots in America and throughout the world have never been as pronounced as they are today. A recent Oxfam report stated that only 26 of the world’s wealthiest persons control as much capital as 3.8 billion of the world’s poorest persons. That’s about two dozen people owning more than half the world’s population. That gap continues to expand. In 2017, Oxfam reported that 43 people owned more than 3.8 billion people. In 2016, the number was 61.

I think Jesus would advocate using much of those treasures to alleviate human suffering and disadvantage rather than to hand those treasures over to the very few descendants of the mega rich without any thought of the poorest people. Those heirs seem to have no other accomplishment than being born to wealthy parents.

Did not Jesus have some things to say about “laying up treasures” and the difficulty faced by rich persons attempting to enter heaven, and the instruction to the rich young ruler to sell everything? Is it not a better example of the teachings and actions of Jesus for mega-wealthy families to follow the examples of John Templeton or Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffet who have divested much of their treasure to the public good and limited the amounts handed down to their own children? After all, the estate tax only kicks in after the first $11 million is handed down to one’s brother and sister. Passing enormous wealth to children and heirs only exacerbates the inequalities which exist in American society.

As for abortion, term limits, oil and gas drilling, oppressing Palestinians, war, the balanced budget amendment, core curriculum, and the other matters Religious Right organizations claim God has strong opinions about and instructions for Christians to act upon…let’s be cautious about claiming to speak for God Almighty.

About The Author

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Patrick Anderson is the editor of the quarterly journal, Christian Ethics Today. He is a criminologist and an ordained Baptist minister. Patrick currently serves as the Interim Executive Director of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

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