Back in the days of Ronald Reagan, when I was a liberal and (by my own current estimation) a heathen, I was convinced that he was the anti-Christ. After all, he had six letters in each of his names. He was dismantling FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. He was causing the deaths of innocent children by cutting their mothers’ food stamps. He was building an arsenal that would destroy the earth.
I campaigned for Jimmy Carter at age 12 and later at 16, then responded to his defeat by Ronald Reagan with a vengeance. It’s hard to lose quietly.
I marched in peace rallies, attempted to unionize a workplace, began a chapter of Young Democrats on my campus, went door to door for the New York Public Interest Research Group, and chaired the Mondale/Ferraro presidential campaign at my undergraduate college. I was passionate about civil rights, organizing educational sessions on integration and race relations for my college peers, and soon made matters personal, joining black interest organizations and being sure, for political purposes, to share my next apartment with an African-American friend.
It was during one of these political exercises that I unexpectedly became a Christian. I attended a traditionally black church because one of the preachers there sounded like Martin Luther King Jr. That day, the pastor preached on sin and salvation. I left the church softer—gleeful even—but my political worldview felt unmoved.
I was surprised, then, to see how rapidly some of my political convictions changed as time went on. Some beliefs changed slowly, grating against my will. Still others didn’t change at all.
What did change was my attitude. I’d battled most authorities I knew throughout my life. Parents, teachers, principals, presidents. I tried hard to hang onto pieces of my former identity, arguing with decreasing volume that Jesus was the ultimate rebel, defying the rulers and customs of his day. Then along came St. Paul one morning during devotion, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2)
I'd always been so vocal, so sure I was right. I knew now that I'd been wrong on at least a few things. I wondered how many more would be added to the list. Abandoning the role of soldier in battle, I felt stuck in the middle, politically, on the sidelines and inactive. I asked God for wisdom on every issue, digging into His Word, and the more I studied, the quieter I got. Then, one day, I just went silent.
I got married. Then I had five children.
I wanted them to develop godly, well-informed, unbiased perspectives, not the programmed beliefs I was now being forced to reexamine, which even conservative-leaning Christian schools seemed unable to avoid. So I opted for home schooling. I traded my radical rallying for “causes” for the opportunity to raise my children.
Suddenly, I found myself in the midst of one of the most conservative subcultures in the country, and I didn’t fit in. I’d always been a debater; now, when political issues came up in conversation, I listened. Sometimes I agreed. When I didn’t, I asked questions, and then stopped. I didn’t believe my former manner of debate would win anyone anyway; after all, Jesus usually met his fiercest opposition with questions.
Then Barack Obama ran for president of the United States. My memories of past campaigns once again became crisp. The thought of sitting on the sidelines of the electoral battle brought me to tears. I remembered campaigning for Jesse Jackson in 1988, knowing he could not win, but still determined to be part of bringing racial equity to the United States.
But in 2008, 20 years later, with this man, it could really happen. I got on the campaign mailing list, followed his speeches, and taught the children about the historical meaning of his possible win. I prayed daily with the children for his safety. I thanked God for the fact that his viable candidacy meant our country really had changed.
But I stopped short of joining the rallies, knocking on doors, or making phone calls. I couldn’t forget that there were real issues that made my full support impossible, and where he seemed clearly to go against God’s Word. I prayed that God would make clear to him what was required of a Christian in public life.
I’d like to think I’m not alone in my evangelical Christian subculture. Surely we can all pray for our leaders, even those we don’t support. My email inbox suggests differently. Many will know what I’m talking about: the dreaded email forwards informing you about the latest frightening revelation about the president, from dishonesty to criminal behavior. A few had legitimate backup, but most were outlandish.
If only we’d had the Internet in the 1980s! A simple click on “forward,” and we could have done irrevocable damage to a political reputation, replacing weeks of concerted effort and planning. Petition drives, mailings, and rallies wouldn’t have been necessary.
The real issue for Christian political conduct runs deeper than all of this. St. Paul is adamant when he says, in Titus 3:1-2, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy to all people.”
Paul’s admonition came at a time when the Israelites were struggling with whether their call to the kingdom of God negated their obligation to the state authorities, who were at odds with them politically and religiously. He leaves no doubt about the role Christians should play when it comes to respecting their leaders.
What does Paul’s counsel mean for us? Vote. Have faith when you lose. Challenge ideas, but be respectful. Do not slander. Do your homework before hitting “send.”
This is not to say we shouldn’t do everything possible to promote godly leaders. John the Baptist called Herod to account for his adultery and lost his head for it. Jesus called the spiritual authorities of the day “vipers,” and was marched to the cross for it, for our salvation. We are called to stand against evil without fear of what it may cost us.
Christians today believe they are doing that—involving themselves in a worthy, even holy, cause. But there is good cause for caution. II Timothy 2:23-26 says, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant, controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”
That some of the most prominent political voices on our airwaves are guilty of the offenses Timothy describes is widely acknowledged. When judging the worth of a political message, we’d do well to remember Jesus’ admonition, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). Are these political commentators doing to others as they would have others do to them (Matthew 7:12)?
Are they following Jesus’ admonition to love their enemies (Luke 6:27)? Profession to agree with scriptural principles does not negate one’s spreading “foolish, ignorant controversies” and encouraging others to do the same. Matthew 12:36-37 cautions us, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
That should frighten all of us. What are we saying? What are we forwarding? After being careful to salt the earth and support Godly leadership, what is our call? Is it to blindly follow messages we have not investigated? Is it to reiterate the slanderous accusations on the airways and Internet?
The stories of Christians, led by pastors, praying for the president’s death, has only had the consequence of more and more disdain for the church. It is disturbing to read secular opinions of Christians. Their assessments use adjectives such as “psychopaths,” “nitwits,” “pathetic,” and “so-called Christians.” Jesus endured some of those taunts, but without cause.
When Ronald Reagan died, I watched the funeral on television. I cried with the rest of the nation, but not just because we had lost a great president. I was grieved over my participation in a campaign to undermine his leadership and character. Even though I disagreed with some of his policies, I knew there was a right way and a wrong way to go about disagreeing as a Christian.
Donna Trimm Calk holds a Master's degree in Social Work from Columbia University and spent five years working with inner city children hospitalized for HIV and Cancer treatment.