Choosing the Agenda of the Lamb
Whenever we speak about evangelicals and politics, a historic image that often comes to mind is the culture wars emanating from the Moral Majority of the 1980s—an association of influential conservative fundamentalists and evangelicals who played an indispensable role in politically mobilizing the American evangelical community. At the time, I was a teenager, and many of Christianity Today’s current readers were not even born.
Many see the Moral Majority as the political awakening of evangelicals, but it was not the beginning of evangelicals’ political involvement. Rather, it was the latest iteration in a two-millennia-old relationship with the public square. We have always been guided by Scripture to engage with the political culture—whether in rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17) or by the examples of the Apostle Paul using his Roman citizenship to escape Jerusalem or Esther entering a complex relationship with the Persian king.
Both the Old and New Testaments are intensely political and deal with the gray areas of life. The moral pronouncements of Scripture are generally clear for one’s personal life, but when that moral life intersects with broken, worldly systems, there are hard ethical choices to be made.
Two moral catalysts hang heavy over the era that began with the Moral Majority.
The first was a revisionist view of our First Amendment-guaranteed freedom of religion, which resulted in the removal of prayer from public schools. The second was the Supreme Court decision in 1973, Roe v. Wade, that legalized abortion in all its forms and at all times. The first threatened the dismantling of our First Amendment and the second threatened the dismantling of our constitutional right to life.
Evangelicals are accused of only supporting politicians who supersede constitutional limits and legislate belief, or of refusing to support politicians who do not align with their values even if they support other policies they find valuable. Our best political engagement avoids fixating on political personalities and stays focused on policies with a sometimes shifting group of alliances to advance them.
Within political philosophy, this concept has been labeled “co-belligerency,”and its popularity was inspired by the late theologian Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer defined a co-belligerent as “a person who may not have any sufficient basis for taking the right position but takes the right position on a single issue. And I can join with him without any danger as long as I realize that he is not an ally and all we’re talking about is a single issue.”
Co-belligerency means you are not morally compromising if you work together on an area of mutual agreement with someone with whom you have grave disagreements in other areas of policy or in their personal lives. Co-belligerency was the biblical practice of people such as Joseph, Esther, Daniel, Nehemiah, and Paul. With co-belligerency, moral issues take preeminence.
Was the Apostle Paul complicit with the evil of Rome’s vicious occupying forces when he appealed to Roman justice in Acts 16? Or was Jesus complicit with the sin of tax collectors (government agents) when he chose to spend time in their presence over joining the religious scholars in the ritual study of Scripture? Nehemiah would have been accused of being a court evangelical for standing at the right hand of the king, but instead he followed longstanding Jewish teachings on the reverence afforded to all imperial leaders. Nehemiah became the king’s cupbearer, making him privy to confidential and private information that likely involved execution of innocent people, war crimes, and other sinful activities. Yet it was God’s plan for Nehemiah to live in the uneasy gap between heaven and earth where politicians try their hand at ruling God’s world.
Evangelicals make a mistake when they view the public square through a fundamentalist theological lens, whether that fundamentalism be conservative or liberal. Fundamentalists refuse to accept the inevitable tension that arises whenever faith meets the public square.
Over the past two decades, I have worked with the administrations of presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump to advocate for the reform of our immigration and criminal justice systems. Had I been unwilling to work with those different than me—including those with different values than I have as a theologically conservative, Hispanic evangelical—I would have never succeeded in my work to make comprehensive immigration reform a central tenet of both political parties in the United States.
More than once—and on the same afternoon—I have received phone calls from the West Wing and the Speaker of the House when the two sides were at an impasse. Why? Because I was willing to engage with everyone. My faith requires it.
What if the righteous religious leaders of the civil rights era had refused to engage with John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson, presidents whose moral compromise was not only well known but took place within the walls of the White House? We evangelicals must never be subservient to the donkey or the elephant. We must embrace Billy Graham’s message of righteousness and Martin Luther King Jr.’s mission of justice. Ours is a vertical and horizontal faith, which stands for what’s true and stands in the gap for what’s right.
We must also be wise as serpents, recognizing when we’re being hoodwinked by partisans into their charades. But as gentle doves, we must also accept that compromise can be ethical in pursuit of a righteous cause. This means taking a seat at the table, if you have it, and never leaving your mantel at the door.
In 2017, over dinner at the White House on the eve of the National Day of Prayer, Bishop Harry Jackson, the Rev. Johnnie Moore, and I began a consequential and passionate discussion with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump about the shortcomings of our criminal justice system. That conversation eventually led to Trump signing the most comprehensive criminal justice–reform legislation in 30 years.
I have similarly sat in meetings on other issues leading to expansive pro-life policies unprecedented in our nation, the most robust commitment to religious freedom we have ever seen in a presidential administration, and the virtual remaking of our federal judiciary in alignment with our founding, constitutional principles. I have seen the economic effect of record-low unemployment numbers in our Hispanic and African American communities, and I have watched as immigrants from Cuba, Venezuela, and Central American nations ravaged by cartels and traffickers have rejoiced over actions taken by our government.
Have there been policies I haven’t liked? Of course. Yet when I have expressed my dissatisfaction either publicly, or privately, I have never found a lack of opportunity to continue engaging. We must remember that the vast majority of our brothers and sisters around the world do not have the privilege of living in countries where they can elect anyone close to aligning with their values. Six in 10 evangelicals live in the global south, many in countries where they are minorities with absolutely no choice but to work with others who hold completely different beliefs and moral convictions.
When election season comes around, they are not thinking about whether a candidate is a “real” Christian or not; they are asking themselves who will afford them the opportunity to “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2).
As for me, I will engage with whomever is in power for the good of our community. As evangelicals, we must never be married to the agenda of the donkey or the elephant. We must be married exclusively to the agenda of the Lamb, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
Samuel Rodriguez is the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and chairman of The Congress of Christian Leaders.
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Choosing the Agenda of the Lamb