This year's election season has provided unusually bright flashpoints of conflict and rhetoric. Every four years, Americans subject themselves to the collective equivalent of the aversion therapy experienced by Malcolm McDowell's character in A Clockwork Orange—our national eyelids pinched open by twenty-four-seven news coverage, online aggregation sites, social media, neighborhood conversations, and even your children's homework assignments.
Info, info everywhere, and not a thought to think.
But I have been surprised by the extent to which this election has divided believers. There is a generational distinction on the conservative side, with many of the battle-worn culture warriors of the eighties and nineties supporting Trump, and many of the young evangelicals voicing opposition to Trump and support for third-party candidates, or opting out altogether. (These are not the same thing functionally, and Evan McMullin might have an unlikely path to the presidency.)
At Monday’s Erasmus lecture, hosted by First Things, Russell Moore delivered an eloquent description of this not-so-peaceful exchange of power from the old guard to the new. The divide is real and impassioned, and it does not look like it will be mended anytime soon.
Here are six things to keep in mind when talking about the election with other Christians:
1.Think about what a vote means. Much of the most heated debate is less about the conduct of the candidates than about the meaning of a vote. Some believe that voting represents an absolute affirmation of a candidate's fitness for the presidency, while others see voting as a decision made relative to the contextual situation. I don't know many, if any, evangelicals who are supporting Trump because they affirm his personal conduct and tone. Likewise, I don't know many evangelical #nevertrumpers who are satisfied with the implications of a Hillary Clinton administration. Because neither choice is attractive—indeed, both are deeply problematic for different reasons—we are forced to revisit what it means to vote in the first place.
2. Ask yourself whether a given issue is a core issue or a secondary one. Christian liberty implies that reasonable and faithful Christians will disagree about issues situated farther away from the core of biblical teaching. The meaning of a vote in the American system of governance would qualify as such a secondary or tertiary issue. As a result, we should allow for a range of opinions, affirming our areas of agreement (e.g., that a vote is a gift to be stewarded) and recognizing Christian liberty in areas of disagreement (How should we weigh the personal conduct of one candidate against that of another? How should we weigh personal conduct against a policy outcomes?).
3. Consider your heart and your sources. When making any ethical decision, including the casting of a vote, you should consider (a) your own personal motives, (b) the range of possible, likely, and definite consequences, and (c) trusted counsel, all in light of the teaching of Scripture. Some people put greater weight on consequences than on personal feelings, while others go with whatever their favorite blogger or columnist says. I would encourage us to search our hearts and our influences prayerfully in light of Scripture, recognizing that we may come to different conclusions on the best way forward.
4. Seek to persuade with empathy. We should always seek to persuade, but not condemn, when it comes to these issues. We should be careful before accusing someone who votes for Trump or Clinton or a third-party candidate of hypocrisy. We may, however, raise questions about which issues should bear the greatest weight in the election. Learn how to articulate your opponent's position in a way that would be acceptable to him or her. If you cannot do that, you are likely refuting a straw-man.
5. Remember how God works. Over the course of biblical history, the divine work of redemption and renewal has occurred through broken individuals and institutions, and sometimes in spite of those broken individuals and institutions. In the Old Testament, the Lord used first Assyria and then Babylon as the instrument of discipline for his people and the nations (Isa 7:1-25; Hab 1:6-7; Dan 1:2). Later, Cyrus is called the “anointed one” for the role he will play in returning Israel to the land of Judah (Isa 45:1). In the New Testament, the Pax Romana provided one key condition for the proclamation of the gospel around the Roman Empire during the time of the Apostles, in spite of the fact that the Roman imperial machine was less than Christian in conduct and policy. Because we believe in divine presence, power, and authority, we know that we should plan our way, making wise, informed decisions about every aspect of life, including voting, but we must also conduct ourselves like those who believe that their God is faithful and true to his promises for his people and his plans to renew the world. He will guide our steps (Prov 16:9). Believers should prepare themselves for the unexpected ways in which the gospel will go forward because of (and in spite of) their worst fears’ being realized in this election.
6. Recognize our changing context. Many Christian writers have noted that there is a change underway in America. They contend that the Christian community has entered a time of diminished influence, becoming a marginal community, or perhaps even beginning a kind of cultural exile. What we see in our candidate selection seems to corroborate a version of that conclusion. This may be the first election in living memory in which there is no candidate whom the majority of evangelicals can get behind. I don't see this development as a sign that evangelicalism as a whole is on the decline (we seem to be holding strong with a decades-long 20-to-25 percent of the population), but I do believe it provides us with the opportunity to revise the way we think about political engagement and ready ourselves for a future of similar electoral choices. What I hope does not happen is a further fragmentation of the evangelical community as a result of its new minority position in American politics. That would be a true tragedy.
This is not to say that we cannot come to impassioned, principled positions about how to vote, particularly when dealing with issues as important as sexual assault, bigotry, racism, responsible foreign policy, religious liberty, and the dignity of human life at every stage in its development.
As Christians, we need to have a public voice in the debate, but we also need to understand that those who disagree with us may not be disagreeing with our core values but rather with the method by which we can accomplish them.
Scott Redd is president and associate professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.