Over the last month, I have done over a dozen press interviews on the Hispanic evangelical vote and election 2020. I imagine that much of the interest is because Latino evangelicals are at the nexus of two major voting constituencies in America. There are close to 60 million Latinos living in the United States and they overwhelmingly vote Democrat. Evangelicals, who are about 25% of the US population, vote overwhelmingly Republican. Latino Evangelicals, members of both communities, are the quintessential swing voters. As the pastor of The Gathering Place, a Latino-led multi-ethnic congregation, I am, like many others, experiencing first-hand the delicate and monumental task of shepherding a political diverse congregation in polarized times. Florida is a historically significant swing state and Hispanic evangelical swing voters may be determinative, so the political commercials and campaign outreaches to our community are considerable. Indubitably, I get the question, “Pastor, how should I vote as an evangelical?” I never tell people who to vote for or how to vote but I do lay out Gospel principals for public engagement. Pastors are shepherds not autocrats.
My initial response is to remind our entire church family that evangelical is NOT a political category. Evangelicalism ought not be defined by partisan ideology but by theological concomitants. David Bebbington’s quadrilateral of conversionism, biblicism, activism and crucicentrism has always been a helpful framework for me. In addition, I point many of our congregants to the useful standard of evangelical identification that NAE/LifeWay Research has developed. That many parishioners, pundits, and politicians have defined evangelicalism in political terms is fundamentally a problem of catechism and discipleship. Sadly, in markedly polarized times this failure of discipleship leads to a crisis that threatens to divide congregations.
Oftentimes, leading congregations during election seasons yield two powerful temptation: disengagement or incivility. One temptation leads to complicit silence the other to a cacophonous and dehumanizing public discourse. For me, neither disengagement nor incivility are Gospel options. Centrism and apathy are not Christian virtues. To the twin temptations of isolation and dehumanizing rhetoric, the Gospel calls us to the virtues of courage, truth, and love. As a pastor of a politically diverse congregation I need to be careful to engage political and policy matters with conviction, honesty, and charity.
Christian citizens’ primary allegiance is to the Gospel not a political ideology. This does not mean Christians cannot serve in political parties only that they do not owe them primary allegiance. The Gospel does not fit neatly within any political party. We are all, to some degree, politically homeless. Nevertheless, our commitment to the authority of Scripture and the Gospel requires us to speak out on things that impact our shared life as citizens. The prophets remind us that fear of disagreement or criticism are not valid reasons for Christian disengagement from public life. In a hyper-polarized moment taking a Gospel-position, on any issue, can place us on the receiving end of passionate, unrelenting, and sometimes cruel criticism. Not wanting to be the brunt of this back and forth some pastors opt out of Christian public engagement. As a Christ-follower, I am called to speak out about our Gospel-centered commitments to the sanctity of life, religious freedom, racial justice and reconciliation, loving the immigrant, justice in our criminal justice systems. However, I must be ever-mindful that these commitments are first and foremost formed by the Gospel and not partisan ideology. Of course, well-meaning people may differ on which policies best achieve these Gospel ends. Our discipleship informs ethics and principles but does not frequently lay out specific policy recommendations. I cannot control if my Gospel commitments are interpreted through political or partisan lenses. I can only control how I speak. I should speak with respect and civility rooted in Scripture. The risk of engagement is always being misinterpreted or labeled. Still, for me, silence is not a viable option, particularly, as many policies have direct life or death impacts on the communities I serve. Faith takes risks.
Still, courage is not rudeness. Courage is the capacity to speak the Gospel into the public space with conviction while respecting the dignity and humanity of people who disagree with us. Whenever we do not integrate courage with civility we further contribute to the polarization and strife we seek to heal. Conversely, civility is not cowardice whenever we do not speak out for Gospel values in the political landscape, we leave a vacuum that may lead to unjust laws and practices. Our present moment calls us to highlight a renewed spiritual formation for the public sphere. This spiritual formation is rooted in what Christian ethicist Richard Mouw calls “convicted civility.” The deterioration of public discourse has caused many pastors leading deeply divided congregations to reexamine how we disciple Christian citizens. I have shared in our congregation that we should not question people’s commitment to Christ based on their partisan identification. Salvation is by grace alone and not dependent on the voting preferences.
My pastoral response to elections has always be the same. I remind our congregation that Christian citizens engage with courage and love. Neither party has a monopoly on the Gospel. Christians are resident strangers; we are in the world but not of this world. Our kingdom citizenship places us in the position of engaging politics while resisting being coopted. Perhaps the best we can do is constantly remind our congregations of their dual citizenship. Our dual citizenship calls us to a Christian responsibility that reflects both deep conviction and genuine civility.