No matter the outcome of today’s special election in Alabama for a coveted US Senate seat, there is already one loser: Christian faith. When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.
The race between Republican candidate Roy Moore and Democratic candidate Doug Jones has only put an exclamation point on a problem that has been festering for a year and a half—ever since a core of strident conservative Christians began to cheer for Donald Trump without qualification and a chorus of other believers decried that support as immoral. The Christian leaders who have excused, ignored, or justified his unscrupulous behavior and his indecent rhetoric have only given credence to their critics who accuse them of hypocrisy. Meanwhile the easy willingness of moderate and progressive Christians to cast aspersions on their conservative brothers and sisters has made many wonder about our claim that Jesus Christ can bring diverse people together as no other can.
The Hypocrisy on the Left
From moderate and liberal brothers and sisters, conservatives have received swift and decisive condemnation. They call these conservatives idolaters for seeking after political power. They call them homophobes for wanting Christian bakers to legally follow their conscience. They call them racists and Islamophobes for wanting secure borders. These moderates and liberal evangelicals are so disturbed by the political beliefs of their brothers and sisters that many say they don’t even want to be associated with them anymore; they seem to view these brothers and sisters in Christ as tax collectors and sinners.
In general, we have witnessed few Christians among these critics taking the time and effort to understand the views of their conservative fellow believers or to delve into the social and political realities they might be coming from. Some secular analysts, who frankly acknowledge being on the Left, have been doing this admirably. UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right strives to understand Tea Party advocates in Louisiana, most of whom are evangelical Christians. And law professor Joan Williams’s White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America unpacks the class dimensions of much of our political divide. And then there is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, which demonstrates the moral ground of advocates left and right. None of these writers could be mistaken for a conservative, but they each at least attempt to be charitable and fair-minded in trying to understand the views of those with whom they disagree. If only some leading evangelical progressive or moderate would do the same.
This is not to excuse some statements by conservative leaders that cannot be interpreted in any other way than as a slur against gays, Muslims, Mexicans, and others. Some conservatives are fearful beyond reason. Some conservatives clearly worship political power as much as they do Jesus Christ. But too often, we mistake the inarticulate groanings of certain foolish conservative leaders for the actual beliefs and behavior of the mass of evangelicals who vote for Donald Trump or Roy Moore.
When you actually talk to such supporters face to face, you often find more nuanced and reasoned political views, grounded in moral principles, combined with a ready willingness to condemn the immorality and verbal carelessness of these two men. These conservatives are of a view one can appreciate philosophically: Sometimes in a nation’s life, one must for prudential reasons cast one’s lot with a morally unsavory candidate. Sometimes it really is a choice between the lesser of two evils, and sometimes three. We can respect that while continuing to disagree with some of their prudential choices, as they disagree with ours.
Our concern here is with a cabal of noisy conservatives, whom the press has apparently (and unjustly) appointed as spokesmen for all conservatives. This group pretends that the choice for someone like Moore represents unalloyed godliness and refuses to unmistakably criticize immorality in other leaders they admire. To justify or ignore the moral failings of a politician because he champions your favored policies—well, that is to step onto the path of self-deception and hypocrisy, which according to Jesus, leads to no less place than hell (Matt. 23:15).
Of course, this charge of hypocrisy cuts both ways. It has applied equally well to progressive and moderate Christians, who have in the past turned a blind eye to the moral failings and moral bankruptcy of liberal candidates they support and who have decided, at best, to whisper truth to power lest they delegitimize their candidate or office holder. Clearly, there are moments on the Left in which partisans are too weak to resist the temptation to entrust themselves to the power politics of the moment instead of “to him who judges justly,” to whom “the nations are like a drop in a bucket … regarded as dust on the scales,” who “brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing” (Isa. 40:15, 23).
Hypocrisy on the Right
As suggested above, some of the critiques by the Left and center (matched by a fair amount of critiques by leading conservatives, by the way), are hard to argue with. Hypocrisy is again the most salient charge.
As recently as 2011, PRRI found that only 30 percent of white evangelicals believed “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” But by late 2016, when Donald Trump was running for president, that number had risen sharply to 72 percent—the biggest shift of any US religious group.
The reason for the flip is not hard to discern. David Brody, a correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, has noted the desperation and urgency felt throughout much of conservative Christianity. “The way evangelicals see the world, the culture is not only slipping away—it’s slipping away in all caps, with four exclamation points after that. It’s going to you-know-what in a handbasket.” The logic is then inexorable: “Where does that leave evangelicals? It leaves them with a choice. Do they sacrifice a little bit of that ethical guideline they’ve used in the past in exchange for what they believe is saving the culture?”
Apparently yes. This is precisely why, when serious and substantial allegations of sexual abuse of minors were made against Roy Moore, many doubled down on their support for him. Within days of this news story in The Washington Post, polls indicated that not only would 57 percent of evangelicals continue to support him, another 37 percent said they were now more likely to vote for him.
As some have pointed out, many conservative Christians simply don’t believe the many news accounts and chalk it up to a secular, liberal, Democratic conspiracy against Moore. Others acknowledge that while the charges may be true, they are minor in nature or happened so long ago they don’t matter today. Some are simply Machiavellian, saying they are not electing Mother Teresa but a man who can look out for the interests of conservative Christians.
What is going on here? Among other things, there is this: Many conservatives feel marginalized by the culture and remember the days when a Judeo-Christian morality didn’t need explaining or defending. They know that a people without a vision of sound moral grounding will perish. They don’t want to perish, and to give them credit, they don’t want this nation to perish. They really do believe that this is a matter of life and death. To them, our choices are simple and stark: devilry or godliness.
They are right, of course, about moral decline in America. Yes, there are all sorts of qualifications and nuances to make, and our culture, in fact, champions many biblical values (the recent #MeToo campaign and the fight against racism are but two examples). But there is no question that from a biblical perspective, our nation has lost its moorings. Nearly everyone does what is right in his own eyes, which results in moral, psychological, and social suffering unheard of in our history. The gap between rich and poor, the number of abortions and fatherless children, the steady rise of drug addiction, the increasing sympathy with euthanasia—these are but a few indicators that something is deeply wrong.
The problem with many Christian conservatives is this: They believe they can help the country become godly again by electing people whose godliness is seriously questioned by the very people they want to influence.
They have forgotten that old evangelical idea (and, before that, a Jewish idea) of putting a “hedge around the law.” That refers to behavior that is not wrong in itself but is practiced so as to not give even a hint of wrongdoing. It is not immoral to drink alcohol as such, but many Christians refuse to do so because they recognize that drinking alcohol may impair their judgment about matters that in fact are moral. When it comes to choosing leaders and shaping our life together, we’ve rightly followed this biblical teaching: “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22, KJV).
This attitude has sometimes nurtured legalism and self-righteousness, to be sure, but it has also helped us to lead lives that are often respected by unbelievers, even when they don’t agree with our choices. We have taken seriously these words of the apostle Peter: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Pet. 2:12).
When a public Christian is accused of some immorality, the honorable and moral thing to do has been to take a leave of absence until the matter of settled. This is precisely what Moore, who sees himself as a godly and moral candidate, has refused to do.
But what if this is merely a political ploy to remove a candidate from running for office, and what if it’s all a lie in the end? What if our godly candidate is merely being persecuted and harassed (by “the powerful Obama-Clinton Machine,” as Moore put it), and this is further evidence we’re not in just a political battle but a spiritual one (as Moore has repeatedly claimed)?
Well, how does the Bible say we fight spiritual battles when, for instance, people “falsely say all kinds of evil against you” (Matt. 5:11)?
By turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39).
By forgiving 7 times 70 (Matt. 18:22, KJV).
By doing good to our enemies (Matt. 5:43–48).
If we’re really anxious to help the nation become more godly, we have to act godly even when we think we are unfairly judged, even when the stakes are at their highest:
But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2:20–23)
Some have argued along these lines: We have the best chance in decades of reversing Roe v. Wade, protecting the religious liberty of the church, and reversing unjust and immoral laws! Let’s say for the sake of argument that such a political agenda could be enacted in the next few years by the means chosen—electing and supporting officials whose behavior is widely viewed as immoral. Will our political enemies be convinced of the righteousness of our moral agenda? Or will they think we are hypocrites who are using political power to force our wills on others? Will they more deeply respect us, or will they more deeply resent us and disbelieve our faith?
When combative conservative Christians refuse to suffer patiently in the public square, retaliate when insults are hurled at them, and do not refrain from the appearance of evil, they sabotage not only their political cause but the cause they care about the most: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Resisting the Temptations of Political Life
What events of the last year and a half have shown once again is that when Christians immerse themselves in politics as Christians, for what they determine are Christian causes, touting their version of biblical morality in the public square—they will sooner or later (and often sooner) begin to compromise the very principles they champion and do so to such a degree that it blemishes the very faith they are most anxious to promote. And one of the biggest blemishes—for it is an open refutation of Jesus’ prayer that we be one—is when we start divorcing one another over politics. Jesus said it is our unity in him that will, more than anything, help the world see “that you [Father] have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). No wonder few believe much of anything we say anymore.
The way forward is unclear. For to love one’s neighbor in a democratic society means that Christians must participate in the public square to seek the common good. We cannot forsake our political duty, and that duty will lead believers in different directions. It’s just that when we do engage in politics, we so often end up doing and saying things that make us sound and act like we don’t care about the very values we champion. Perhaps the first step is for Christians Left and Right, when they stand up to champion a cause, to stop saying “Thus says the Lord” and “Lord, I thank you that you have not made me like these other Christians,” but frame their politics with, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.