Sunday, November 6, 2016

One Evangelical Christian's Decision

For the past several weeks, I have been debating whether or not to share my views here about this year's US presidential election. I had been leaning toward keeping quiet. At seminary I was taught that a pastor must serve and care for the whole congregation, not merely a partisan few, which would likely be the case if one came out publicly with one's political views and decisions. Inevitably such partisan sharing from the pulpit or in a Bible class would alienate a portion of one's flock. Moreover, a pastor is called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and not to get mixed up in partisan politics. The pastor who would enter that fray could end up confusing the gospel with earthly justice or even equating the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world. (One notes, by the way, that the public positions on social issues that have been set forth by my former church body, the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, nevertheless coincide to a large extent with the platform of the Republican Party. I once heard a pre-election sermon in an LCMS congregation that seemed to assert that a vote for Ronald Reagan was a vote for God's kingdom, though the Gipper's name was never mentioned by the preacher.) Not surprising, in light of the risks, most pastors avoid giving public advice on elections. I suspect that is true for many professors, too. At the end of the term, when students fill out their course evaluations, profs can get dinged for being "too political" or "too biased." (Last spring when I again taught my course on "Christians in Nazi Germany," a few students complained that I was "clearly anti-Trump" in my responses to student questions about the similarities between statements made by him and ones that the German national-socialist leader made during his 1932 stump speeches, despite my best efforts at explaining why Mr. Trump's views do not easily fit with basic elements in classic fascism.)

Nevertheless, keeping quiet has its own risks. Such silence may suggest that Christian faith has no import for political life, that faith is "private" and not at all related to social and political life. Such silence may also contribute to the acceptance of bad behavior and to the election of individuals who are unfit for office. The fact of the matter is, Christians have a political responsibility to seek peace and justice in the world. When one follows Jesus, one does not follow with only one aspect of one's life. Christian discipleship includes the totality of one's life, hence, also the social and political realm. In fulfilling their political responsibility, Christians cannot allow themselves to be impeded by those who would limit religious faith to a supposedly private realm ("the inner life") and thus exclude social and political problems from consideration. According to Christian teaching, God seeks to preserve and serve the world through his word (centered in the gospel) and through faithful individuals who are active in love.While the church's primary task is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ for the sake of eliciting faith in Christ, those who hear and receive this message in faith are then sent out into the world to participate actively in civic life. Those who are saved by grace through faith in Christ are called to seek the good of the neighbor, to work for justice, to find ways to peace, and to speak up for and act on behalf of those who are weak, vulnerable, on the fringe of society, those deprived of secular justice (i.e., equality before the law, fair economic opportunity) and civil freedom. (Cf. Helmut Gollwitzer, The Rich Christian and Poor Lazarus, trans. David Cairns [New York: MacMillan, 1970], 27.) We are to vote accordingly. (Cf. Art Simon's 2006 online article, "Thoughts for Pastors Regarding the Election," which can be read here.)

So, as Lutheran Christians like to underscore, God works in the world in two different ways: through the gospel and through the law. Stated differently, God works through faith and through love and social justice. Martin Luther described this two-fold way of God in the world as God's "right hand" and God's "left hand." God's "right hand" works through the Holy Spirit who calls us to faith in Jesus through the power of the gospel and the sacraments. The Spirit places us in a relationship with God that we ourselves could never create or sustain. That divine "right hand" focuses entirely on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, for life, and for salvation. The short hand word for this "right hand" way of God's working in the world is "gospel."

God's "left hand" works through creation and the "orderings" within it (e.g., marriage, family, government, justice system, economic life, schools, the institutional church, and so on) that allow human beings to flourish, to pursue justice, to strengthen human community, and to preserve the planet. All of the ways in which our various family and social relationships are regulated and supported are functions of God's "left hand." The short hand word for this "left hand" way of God's working in the world is "law."

While political responsibility cannot lead to the politicizing of the church, since such a confusion of gospel and law corrupts both political life and the church (and undermines the church's primary task of purely preaching the gospel), Christians must participate in helping to shape and change social and political life for the good. Yes, Christians will disagree among themselves and with their fellow citizens about the nature of that "good," about what it is, and about how best to achieve it. Still, the individual Christian must follow his or her conscience in the light of both law and gospel. He or she lives by faith in Christ and by reasoning about what will bring about the greater good in one's community and world. In other words, Christian faith is active in politics, it seeks to make wise decisions, and, at the end of the day, it takes a stand. And, of course, for the Christian, in addition to faithful "thinking" and "discerning," there is faithful praying. Faith seeks the guidance of God's Spirit in all realms of one's life, including the voting booth.

Although a slim majority of my fellow Hoosiers--many of them evangelical Christians like me--may end up giving Mr. Trump our state's electoral votes, here are the reasons why I won't be voting for him on Tuesday:

(1) Mr. Trump lacks the experience, temperament, and character to be president;
(2) He lacks the judgment and wisdom to be commander-in-chief;
(3) More specifically with respect to points #1 and #2 above, he cannot be trusted to control the country's nuclear arsenal;
(4) His rhetoric is racist, bigoted, white-nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women, anti-LBGTQ;
(5) He promises to lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans, while his trade protectionism will likely harm the poorest (his tax and spending plan, if actually implemented, would be a financial disaster);
(6) He denies global warming and will do nothing to try to curb this global issue;
(7) He has praised foreign autocrats;
(8) He has ruined several of his companies/hotels and likely paid no federal taxes for nearly two decades (although we don't know this for sure, since he's not released his tax returns).

I'm not a big fan of Hillary Clinton, but I will be voting for her. Unlike Mr. Trump:
(1) Mrs. Clinton has the experience, temperament, and character to be president (despite the serious error she made in setting up a private email server, an error which she has acknowledged and learned from);
(2) She has the judgment and wisdom to be commander-in-chief (despite her actions/inactions with respect to Libya, another matter that has taught her some important lessons);
(3) She can be trusted with the country's nuclear deterrent;
(4) Her rhetoric is inclusive, embracing the country's marginalized and most vulnerable (I do wish, however, that she would return to her mid-1990s position on abortion law, which was not one of unconditional affirmation);
(5) She's a principled, center-left pragmatist (who will likely work across party lines more effectively than many other politicians);
(6) She will continue and improve many of Mr. Obama's policies (e.g., regarding health care, the environment, labor policy);
(7) She favors paid parental leave and wants to expand early-childhood education.

Of course, if Mrs. Clinton is elected, it will be better for her (and the country, frankly), if she has a Senate to work with that is controlled by her own party, even if only by a one- or two-vote margin. Indiana may play a role here, if Mr. Bayh is elected, since his election would help to secure that majority. If, however, the GOP retains control of both the House and the Senate, then it will be very difficult for Mrs. Clinton to govern. Then again, maybe she will surprise her critics by "being better suited to cope with the awful, broken state of Washington politics" than they will admit (The Economist [Nov. 3, 2016], 7).


  1. thank you for your analysis. Since it so closely reflects my views, I removed your name and Indiana reference and re-posted parts of your analysis on my Facebook page, citing it only as from "a Lutheran theologian who I respect". I hope that was OK.

    1. For some reason, my name did not show up under my comment. My name is Rev. Paul David Doellinger of Oregon.