The old adage that England and America are two nations divided by a common language contains much truth. As an English immigrant, I find America oddly familiar because of the shared language and pop culture, yet alien because these similarities mask deeper, often intangible, differences. And never do I feel this more than at election time. Not only does the American system encourage the big personality—“Every four years we Americans elect the new messiah,” was how one American friend wryly put it to me—but the role of religion in politics is far more significant and ostentatious here than it is in Britain.
Even as a Christian in the U.K., I felt that the moment a politician used the language of religious commitment—as Tony Blair was wont to do—I was being played for a fool. Religion was a private thing. We did not talk about it at the dinner table and we did not expect our politicians to blather on about it in public. To do so simply sounded phony and manipulative. Indeed politics, at least in its partisan form, was similar. I rarely knew how friends voted because I had been taught that it was none of my business. I certainly never heard a preacher tell me how to vote. And I liked it that way. Still do.
Of course, Americans might look at the U.K. and justifiably point out that all this has left Britain with a deeply secular culture and a weak, ineffective church. That is a fair point and applies not just to Britain but to much of the rest of Europe, too. I shall return to this below.
America is a strange experience for the Englishman abroad. Everyone seems to feel the need to tell everyone else how they should vote. And religion is politically more important in the U.S. than it is back home. Here, the religious vote is deemed so significant that even those as obviously cynical about Christianity as the two current candidates for president feel the need to draw on the totemic power of religious symbols or commitment. Trump’s posing with a Bible outside an Episcopal church and Biden’s profession of devout Catholicism are both, in different ways, implausible and manipulative.
Trump’s playing to the evangelical base has exposed the pragmatism of at least some evangelical leaders. Those who denounced Bill Clinton because of his loose sexual mores but who now throw their weight behind Trump have exposed themselves to accusations of hypocritical pragmatism. The “court evangelicals,” as their critics have dubbed them, lack moral credibility precisely because of their previous moralism. Which about-face has also had the unfortunate effect of allowing the evangelical left to indulge in its favorite pastime of thanking the Lord that it is not like other men—especially those on the Trumpist evangelical right. Yet there is some hope: While the statistics on enthusiastic evangelical support for Trump (as opposed to the conflicted kind with which many of us might sympathize) are depressing, a recent survey indicates that the relationship between evangelicalism and orthodox Christianity is scarcely straightforward. Evangelical support for Trump is not necessarily Christian support for Trump.
Joe Biden presents a different problem. Back in 2016, I asked why the Catholic bishops allowed him to make a mockery of their faith. Politicians like Biden trotted out the “I’m a devout Catholic” line while doing everything they could to mock the Catholic faith by their actions. Well, they are still doing it. Biden is an embarrassment to Catholics, standing against virtually every official Catholic position on personhood, life, and marriage. That nobody with any authority in the Catholic Church seems willing to address this issue remains a scandal. When the church is mocked by those who claim to be a part of her, then Christ is mocked. Even if the bishops have no concern for Biden’s soul or the reputation of their church, can they not show some for the public name and reputation of Christ?
In light of this, I would like to make a radical suggestion: In future, could American politicians please keep religion out of their platforms and propaganda? I ask this not for their sakes, nor for the sake of the nation, but for the sake of the church, her people, and her leadership. When politicians make phony or manipulative religious claims, they expose the corruption of an American Christianity—whether that of the evangelical masses or of the Catholic ecclesiastical elites—that does not seem to take its professed faith seriously. To excoriate the loose sexual mores of one man as disqualifying him from office but to ignore or excuse those of another is not consistent Christianity. To defend the helpless unborn on paper but give a spiritual home to one who will defend the right to murder the unborn is not Christianity.
Such a move by politicians might help Christians realize that politics is a dirty, pragmatic business, and that any vote cast for either party should involve sadness at the compromises that have to be made. It might also help Christianity extricate itself from the sleaze of our polarized political culture. And it would certainly remove the temptation for Christians to act in a manner that exposes Christian inconsistency to the watching world.
This brings me back to the issue of secular Europe. Will my suggestion not simply accelerate the secularization of American politics and culture? Perhaps. But there is also another possibility. Maybe we are there already. Maybe European secularism is simply more honest in the idioms it employs. It has abandoned the language of Christianity as it has repudiated the teachings of Christianity. What you see is truly what you get. In America, is it possible that religion itself has become part of the idiom of the secular mindset? After all, an evangelicalism that finds voting for Trump (or Biden) to be a moral imperative for all, and a Catholic hierarchy that allows Biden to oppose with impunity so many of its cherished teachings, would not seem to be particularly pungent in their Christian distinctiveness. Is such “Christianity” merely secularism in a religious key?
Now there’s a truly disturbing thought.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. His forthcoming book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, is due to be published in November.
Photos (left, right) by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Images cropped.
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