As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton continue to score record levels of dissatisfaction and unfavorability, evangelicals are finding themselves in a peculiar place.
Neither candidate even pretends to mesh with the values-speak and voter’s guides of the Religious Right of ages past. But alas, after months of railing against his defects and deficiencies, many evangelicals are falling in line behind Donald Trump, a man they admit is lacking in virtue and character.
From James Dobson to Franklin Graham to Wayne Grudem, Trump boasts a growing list of evangelical supporters and advisors, each warning against the darker magic of Hillary Clinton or reminding us of the perks of “having a seat” at Trump’s table. “If we don't help the lesser evil prevail over the greater evil,” we’re told, “we become responsible morally for helping the greater evil to prevail.”
Surely there are times when God calls us to be “modern-day Daniels,” serving patiently in the courts of pagan kings who might otherwise do even greater societal harm. God used Joseph to interpret for Pharaoh, Esther to plead with Xerxes, and Nehemiah to advocate a way back home. As Christians, we should be prepared to do likewise.
But each of these feats was possible thanks to mundane faithfulness and obedience, not ethical pretzel-twisting about the hidden greatness of the “lesser evil.” The prophetic witness of Old Testament heroes involved imperfect people confronting imperfect kings, but their actions were driven by something far higher than pragmatic calculations or blind opposition to ideological bogeymen. “Nebuchadnezzar may have tried to torch some religious dissidents, but I can’t imagine being ruled by Hillary Clinton.”
Indeed, without a keen discernment about the source of our witness and an appreciation for the conceits of our own designs, a faithful readiness to say “yes!” to Candidate X can quickly devolve into an obsession with short-term power and control. And it is here that the Moral Majority of yesteryear would do well to remember the Remnant.
In his famous 1936 essay, “Isaiah’s Job,” Albert Jay Nock calls us to resist illusions of power when either the elites or the masses are set on going to rot. “The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen,” Nock writes, voicing the Almighty. “They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.”
Then why is such a task worth pursuing? Isn’t it a clear “waste” of one’s political influence? It’s for the sake of the Remnant, which Nock has the Lord describe:
They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.
When tyrants rise to power, God may indeed open the door for some to speak up and stick around. On that, each needs to pray and discern for himself about exactly how much the spirit can stomach. But tickling the oppressor’s ear in the hope of being tossed some crumbs, this is not.
For there will also come a time when God calls on us to confront our leaders and the door will slam in our faces, when the door is meant to slam in our faces. When obedience looks less like Moses calling up the frogs and flies and more like Moses running to hide in the desert. When “political success” looks less like Joseph winning the favor of Potiphar or jail guards or Pharaoh himself and more like Elijah challenging King Ahab to a firefight on the mountain.
There will come a time when we’re called to say certain things and not support certain people, even if it doesn’t appear to be in the interests of our ideological tribe. There will come a time when spiritual priorities diverge from political platforms, and when dirtying our hands with the “friendlier” authoritarians would inhibit us from, as Nock puts it, “taking care of the Remnant.” At some point, God demands that we resist kneeling before the gold-encrusted casino brand, even knowing full well the “imprudent” pain of the alternative.
Sometimes our job is simply to keep and cultivate the light for those darker days when society has truly gone to the dogs.
Our political witness does not rest on rationalizing a vote for choices we deem immoral. It begins in our personal spheres and local communities, in cultivating justice from the ground up and communicating a vision of rightly ordered human love and relationship. It begins in our churches, through prayer and prophetic witness and the promotion of a true anthropology and cultural imagination. It begins in our schools and businesses and civic institutions, where we have the opportunity to foster an ethic of liberty and life that permeates the culture through wisdom and wonder and creative service. From here, our witness connects to the outer reaches of politics, the cultivation of political candidates, the reformation of political institutions, and the rejection of the fear that pollutes our policies and steers our ideological whims.
For some, the long-game of the Remnant seems an abdication, an excuse, and a distraction from the “real fight.” For some, taking care of the Remnant is a non-strategy, a puritanical pipedream, and a failure from the start.
But the Remnant remains. They need to be encouraged and braced up. There is plenty of work to be done.
Joseph Sunde is a writer and project coordinator for the Acton Institute.