Political Exegesis: On Mulligans and Turning Cheeks

What Tony Perkins gets almost right and Jerry Falwell Jr. gets wrong.
Political Exegesis: On Mulligans and Turning Cheeks
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We at CT are reluctant to enter the political fray on most issues because they rarely touch on core causes or issues for us. But when fellow evangelicals start exegeting and applying Scripture in the public square, we think we have something to add to the conversation. Two recent comments by evangelical leaders deserve comment.

The first comes from the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins in an interview with Politico reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere:

Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

What happened to turning the other cheek? I ask.

“You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins says. “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”

This has received a fair amount of criticism, including from Christians like this:

As I understand Perkins here, there is a limit to Christianity. You can follow it so far, but when it doesn’t work to get power in the situation, you resort to whatever tactics might be necessary.

To be fair to Perkins, however, the call to turn the other cheek is not a universal guideline for Christian behavior. It is a very good guideline in many, many situations, and one Christians should instinctively start with. But it doesn’t take deep imagination to recognize that Jesus does not call us to simply absorb evil in every instance. He certainly didn’t. He called out the Pharisees in the strongest language—“hypocrites,” “blind fools,” “sons of vipers” (Matt. 23)—and he turned over the tables in the Temple and drove out the money changers with a whip (John 2:15).

In the same vein, we rightly tell women they should not simply turn the other cheek when a man sexually assaults them. Similarly, African Americans who are abused by the system should fight for justice. And so on and so forth. Christianity is not a passive faith in the face of evil, but one that encourages and models courage and standing up to evil, along with the virtues of patience and forbearance.

This is one reason being a Christian is so hard at times. It takes a fair amount of wisdom to discern when and how these various virtues come into play in any given situation. I’m making a larger exegetical point here: We Christians should not reflexively default to one set of virtues when we’re trying to craft or critique public policy. So formally Perkins is right to suggest that.

That being said, I don’t happen to agree with Perkins that in this instance the best way to respond to “Obama and his leftists” is to “punch the bully,” which he thinks Trump is doing on behalf of Christians in many instances. I think we usually lose credibility with any ideological “enemy” when we, or another on our behalf, respond like that. We often do better to “kiss the bully,” so to speak, that is, disarm our opponents with unexpected kindness. But as noted, I can think of other situations where punching the bully is actually the best response.

Because Trump is bullying the Left, and because these affairs are old news, Perkins says we should give the president a “mulligan.” Jerry Falwell Jr. chimes in: “All these things [Trump’s affairs] were years ago, and he has apologized.”

In fact, the payoff for one of the alleged affairs was offered a mere 14 months ago; meanwhile, Trump has never apologized for his affairs, only for his lewd remarks in one video. He’s never asked forgiveness as far as I can tell. But even if we charitably assume he has privately apologized to these women and to his wife, Falwell’s exegetical justification for Trump’s adulteries is startling. As he said to Erin Burnett on CNN:

Jesus says that if you lust after a woman in your heart, it’s the same as adultery. You’re just as bad as the person who has … Our faith is based on the idea that we’re all equally bad and we’re all sinners and we all need Christ’s forgiveness.

One does not have to have a doctorate in ethics to see the problem here. Jesus is saying that outward behavior needs to be matched by inward attitudes, that a fully righteous person does more than attend to external behavior. He’s not saying—and no Christian ethicist I know of would say—that lusting is morally the same as adultery, or similarly that anger is the moral equivalent of murder (see Matt. 5:21–22). You only have to ask your spouse whether he or she would consider the two the same. Or if you’re having an especially heated argument with a friend, you don’t haul him off and kill him because, “Well, I’m already angry, might as well murder him; it’s all the same in God’s eyes.”

The absurdity of these examples unveils the shallowness of this way of appropriating Jesus’ teaching. I mean, really, we who pride ourselves on being people of The Book can do better.

The reason we succumb to such poor exegesis at such times is not hard to fathom. We do this sort of thing whenever we are in a tussle with our spouse or church or friend, and we need to justify ourselves or our views. We twist Scripture to make ourselves look virtuous and to condemn our opponent. Enter national politics, and the stakes are even higher. I get the temptation. I’ve succumbed to it myself more than I care to admit. Self-justification—it’s a powerful urge.

But it’s wrong, and when a brother or sister does it, especially in the public square, we should note it.

I’m unclear, however, as to whether we should give people who ought to know better a mulligan.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

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Political Exegesis: On Mulligans and Turning Cheeks