Evangelical Views of the 2016 Election: Refusing to Play the Game, Profaning the Idol of Presidential Politics
I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump this November, but it’s not that both candidates are equally unworthy. According to my analysis, Clinton is worthy of at least consideration. Trump is a non-starter. (You can read more about the differing opinions of each in this series on The Exchange.)
But I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Additionally, I won’t vote for any of the third-party candidates, either. This year, I won’t be playing the game.
My conviction is that not voting can be a responsible way to actively profane the idol that presidential politics have become this campaign season.
Idolatry has been a major theme of recent conversations about evangelical support for Trump. Many of Trump’s evangelical supporters throw their weight behind the candidate in hopes that he will deliver on promises of provision, protection, and power in the face of a supposedly apocalyptic tide of political, cultural, and legal change.
Seeming to take Trump’s campaign slogan - “Make America Great Again!” - at face value, they believe that he’ll restore their fortunes, protect them from foreign powers and domestic threats to religious freedom, and give them influence over key policy issues.
These enticements are so tempting—and many evangelicals are so desperate—that some are willing to abandon consistency, integrity, and truth in their pursuit. In the past two weeks, for example, many evangelical leaders have accepted, condoned, or normalized misogyny, harassment, and sexual assault. This sudden, thorough, and public compromise of long-held values for the sake of provision, protection, and power puts at risk any credibility we might have on sexual ethics.
This temptation has biblical parallels. Provision, protection, and power are precisely the temptations that Satan presented Jesus in the desert. By turning stones to bread to satisfy His hunger, casting Himself from the pinnacle to be saved by angels, and possessing the glory of the kingdoms of this world, Jesus would compromise His mission to subvert the world and restore right order through vulnerability and assurance of things unseen, rather than might and assurance of what is seen.
Perhaps more pointedly, we could say that much support for Trump parallels classic Old Testament examples of idolatry within the political context, when Israel would look to another sovereign for security or protection. As Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit write (emphasis mine):
The notion of idolatry as rebellion arises in the bible out of the conception of God as the exclusive political leader and protector. The covenant between God and his people is modeled on a treaty between a king and a vassal. Such a covenant is inherently political, and it portrays God as a sovereign. Within this political picture idolatry is connected to challenges to God’s exclusivity as sovereign, such as signing protective vassal treaties with foreign parties like Egypt or Assyria, or appointing a king, an act that is viewed by Samuel as a demand to dethrone and replace God.
Such desperation for provision, protection, and power involved betrayal of exclusive reliance upon God, abandonment of singular devotion to Yahweh, in the face of what appeared to be cataclysmic threats. With similar desperation, we can be tempted to invest Trump with salvific significance and, in our willingness to do so, betray our singular devotion to our true provider, protector, and source of power.
Idolatry also explains why many evangelical Trump supporters seem so willing to accept, condone, and normalize even Trump’s most revoltingly exploitative behaviors, the depth of which was revealed even more clearly over the past two weeks. As Jacques Ellul writes, “What is tragic is that once a thing has been transformed into a divinity… we are ready to sacrifice persons to it. All the gods, we know from human history, demand human sacrifice.”
We should not think for a minute that this sacrificial system makes equitable demands on all people. Like Trump’s rhetoric, it comes first for the most vulnerable. For racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, refugees, women vulnerable to sexual assault, the orphan, and the widow.
This demonstrates the deep betrayal and irony of idolizing Trump’s candidacy: If we abandon singular devotion to God and throw our neighbors under the bus too, there is nothing left of true religion that would be worth commending to friends or protecting from foes.
But idolizing Trump is a symptom of a more profound and intractable idolatry—one that invests this moment, this election, with an absolute and apocalyptic significance that relativizes all of our prior commitments. Listening carefully to either side, one might think that this could literally be the election to end all elections, that we must do whatever it takes either to elect Trump or to stop him by electing Clinton.
By trafficking in sinful desperation and demanding submission to this logic of necessity, this way of looking at the election itself takes on an idol-like form.
So both Trump and our most rational response to Trump—voting to ensure that he isn’t elected—have become idols. Martin Luther warned us of exactly this dynamic. In disputes with Andreas Karlstadt and others about Christian responses to images, Luther warned that while we might idolize icons, we were also at risk of idolizing iconoclasm. In our case, while we might idolize Trump, we are also at risk of idolizing electoral power to ensure his demise.
How then should we respond to these idols? Ellul suggests we should desacralize or profane them. We should strip them of salvific pretense and apocalyptic significance through our words and deeds:
This kind of profanation of the divinities of modern people must be done not only in words, not in doctrines and theories, but must also penetrate practice. If we want to profane the divinity of money, for Christians there is a simple means, and the Bible gives us only one, which is to give. You want your money to cease being a god, you have your means: give it. To profane the state, affirm the liberty of the person and your own liberty in actions – actions in the face of the decisions that can make an idol of the state. It might even mean, under certain conditions, refusing to participate in political life. I do not say always, all the time, but under certain conditions; sometimes to be a good, and true, and loyal citizen might mean refusing to play the game that the state offers us.
Refusing to play the game. This means refusing to turn to anyone for provision, protection, or power if it means compromising on other essentials, like trust in God alone or love of neighbor, especially vulnerable neighbors. As far as I can tell, supporting Trump has always demanded this compromise. It does so now more than ever.
But refusing to play the game also means refusing to invest any moment with a significance that relativizes other essential commitments, refusing to invest this election with the apocalyptic stakes that both sides want to claim. That’s what I’ll be doing this election season when I go to the polls and vote in every down-ticket race, but leave the presidential section unmarked.
Refusing to play the game can be an active, responsible non-voting that profanes not just Trump, but the idol of presidential politics as a whole. That said, I recognize that my choice is not self-justifying. It has its costs, and I must bear them, hoping in the justification that God alone provides.